Little Bits of History

June 9

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 9, 2017

1311: The Maestà, or Maestà of Duccio is installed. The tempera and gold on wood painting was commissioned by the city of Siena (in what is today Italy) in 1308. Duccio di Buoninsegna was a local artist and is considered today to be one of the founders of Western art. Where he learned his craft is unknown but his first documented commission came when he was 23 in 1278, when he was hired to create twelve wooden panels. He was active from 1268 to 1311 but few of his works survive. This work is one of thirteen remaining and exactly half of the oeuvre to be precisely dated. His other dated work, Rucellai Madonna, was for the chapel at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. He died in 1318 or 1319 after having changed the face, literally, of painting.

Maestà with Twenty Angels and Nineteen Saints measures 84 inches by 156 inches or 7 feet by 13 feet. The piece was commissioned as an altarpiece for the cathedral of Siena and could be seen from both sides, making the work twice as arduous. The many pieces of wood were assembled and bonded together before work began. On the front side was an enthroned Madonna and Child with saints and angels surrounding the pair. On the other side, in 43 small scenes, were two pictorial stories, one was the Life of the Virgin and the other was the Life of Christ. Across the base of the work was an inscription which translated said: Holy Mother of God, be thou the cause of peace for Siena and life to Duccio because he painted thee thus.

As the name implies, there were nineteen specific saints included in the work. Major saints were close to the Madonna and Child while Siena’s patron saints were in the foreground. The painting remained at the cathedral until 1711 when it was dismantled and set up at two altars. The piece was sawn apart with some of the works damaged in the process. When it was taken apart, some of the pieces were sold elsewhere and lost over time. In 1956, a partial restoration was done. Some of the pieces are now among collections at several museums. The main remaining portion is at the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena.

The shift in style was not immediate and took nearly a generation to see remarkable movement. However Duccio was at the forefront of a shift of representational Byzantine art towards a more direct presentation of reality in Renaissance works. He used egg tempura paints with gold leaf touches and was a master of the delicate touch. While he kept the Byzantine gold backgrounds in his works, he strayed away from the sharp lines and used more shading to make his paintings more lifelike and three dimensional. He included details which make his people seem warmer and more lifelike. He also included a more complex organization of space, putting his people into architectural spaces and interacting with one another.

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. – Pablo Picasso

Simplicity is natures first step, and the last of art. – Philip James Bailey

Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures. – Henry Ward Beecher

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. – Scott Adams


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