Duccio di Buoninsegna and Workshop, Maestà
Digital reconstruction by EXCEL project
Some unscrupulous person or persons later decided it was a good idea to sell some of the panels, and one of the great treasures of Sienese history was lost. As medievalists and art historians have revived Duccio's reputation, many of the dispersed panels, but not all, ended up museum collections. While this means that people around the world can see parts of the Maestà -- two panels are in the National Gallery of Art back in Washington, where I visit them regularly -- we can only imagine its former glory. What is clear is that the upper panels were raised up for viewing by a base, called a predella, about 18 inches high, that was itself covered with panels. Duccio may have invented the idea of the predella, and in any case, the Maestà is the oldest altarpiece known to have had one. The altarpiece Duccio made for a chapel in the Palazzo Pubblico, now lost, also stood on a predella.
The large panel showing the Virgin and Child enthroned with angels, saints, and apostles dominated the front side. This public face of the Maestà was also surrounded by panels on the predella showing the stories of Christ's conception and childhood, alternating with Old Testament prophets. Above the main panel was a row of apostles and the sequence telling the story of the end of the Virgin's life, pointing heavenward to her assumption and coronation. The back panels of the Maestà, more often viewed by priests, show the ministry of Jesus, his passion and death, and the resurrection of Christ and the events that followed it. An octagonal building that appears in a couple panels, usually as the Temple in Jerusalem, is thought to be the baptistery of Siena, a building that no longer exists, located at the entrance to the piazza to the side of the Duomo.
Christ and the Samaritan Woman (detail of the Maestà, back of the predella)
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Disciples meet Christ on the road to Emmaus (detail of the Maestà, top right of main back panel)
Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena
It is possible that Dante had the panels of the Maestà in mind as he thought of some of these sacred scenes that turn up in the Commedia. For example, when Virgil and Dante meet the poet Statius (Purgatorio 21), Dante cites the stories of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman (John 4) and the disciples meeting, but not recognizing, the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). Both scenes are depicted memorably among the back panels of the Maestà. The panels of the Maestà still in Siena are kept in a museum next to the Duomo, the Museo dell'Opera della Metropolitana. Its collection consists mostly of artwork formerly in the Duomo, like the original statues of the ornate façade and the stained glass rose window designed by Duccio for the west wall. You can also climb the stairs to walk out on the facciatone, the large wall remaining from the city's failed attempt to enlarge the Duomo. The view of Siena and the surrounding countryside is worth the effort.