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Ionarts in Siena: Duccio's Maestà

Duccio di Buoninsegna and Workshop, Maestà
Digital reconstruction by EXCEL project
One of the best parts of the Dante seminar, for which I am here in Siena, is that while reading the Commedia we are making connections with the art and history of Dante's time. One of the most obvious is Duccio's masterpiece, the Maestà, an enormous altarpiece commissioned in 1308 by the Duomo of Siena for its main altar. The Maestà took three years to design and paint, and it is thought to be the work of at least six artists, led by their master, Duccio di Buoninsegna. All six of them probably worked on at least part of each individual panel. Almost 700 years ago, in the summer of 1311, it was carried triumphantly in several pieces from Duccio's workshop to the Duomo and assembled on the cathedral's main altar. Unfortunately, we are not exactly sure how the Maestà looked, because it fell victim to changing artistic tastes in the later life of Siena (see one possible reconstruction). In 1506, the Maestà was removed from the high altar in the reform-minded years leading up to the Council of Trent. It was first placed on a side wall, which meant that only one side of it was visible. The frame was taken apart and the panels separated, so that both sides could be seen on the wall.

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.

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