The Duccio Maesta Altarpiece Nativity is the subject of day 4 of our tour of Nativity art.
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6
In the last article we examined a work by Giotto, who was a contemporary of today’s artist, Duccio. Giotto represented Florence, Duccio was the rock star of Siena. Both men were familiar with each other’s art, as well as with the sculptures of Nicola Pisano. Being age-mates, it’s inevitable that comparisons are made.
There is an inherent bias to place a higher value on works that are progressive, that move into a new era. This bias in Western art is partially due to the influence Darwin has had upon our thinking. Without recognizing the influence that evolution has had on our worldview, we may not realize how much more we value something just because it was new for its time. This can lead us to undervalue artwork of great beauty and significance because it is more ‘typical’ of the period it was produced in.
Duccio has suffered from this bias. As we examine his work you will recognize that he has not moved fully into a pre-renaissance style. His work fits more clearly into the Byzantine and Late Gothic styles with their more lyrical lines and austere beauty. He recognizes the new spirit invading Italy with it’s heightened awareness of humanity, but his assimilation of those qualities is more subtle and less marked than Giotto’s.
Let’s examine the nativity scene from the Duccio Maesta, and then I will explain a bit more of the history of the piece, which is both fascinating and very sad.
First we notice that the Duccio Maesta nativity panel is flanked by two prophets, Ezekiel and Isaiah. They hold scrolls in their hands on which are written the prophecies that foretold the coming of the Messiah. It’s interesting to me that in many of these older paintings artists added written words into the pictures to make their meanings clear to the viewer.
You will note several similarities between the Duccio Maesta Nativity and the sculpture that we examined by Nicola Pisano. In particular, we notice that more than one story is being told in one painting. This was a convention frequently used at the time. The infant Jesus is in the manger, and is, at the same time, being given a bath. We also see the Shepherds receiving word from the angels about Christ birth, while they also seem to be at the stable.
The star that appeared the night of Jesus birth is hovering at the front of the stable, and if you look closely you can see the light radiating down from the star.
When we looked at Nicola Pisano’s sculpture we discussed the midwives that appear in extra-Biblical writings. Duccio has chosen to include them as well. Some have commented that the basin that Christ is being bathed in looks like a communion cup. This is highly probable, Artists frequently connected symbols found in the nativity with symbols of Christ’s death. I also find that the bathing reminds me of baptism.
Many of the distinctives between various churches and denominations depends on how the rites of baptism and communion are interpreted and put into practice. For Duccio the practice of the Catholic church would be the one he is trying to represent in the painting. In communion the believer is given wine and bread that are the blood and body of Christ. When we consume communion we take into ourselves and remember the sacrificial death of Jesus to save us. In baptism, we are lowered into Christ death and raised with Him into new life.
Both communion and baptism are important entry points into the community of believers. When one is an outsider, taking communion is forbidden. In infant baptism, practiced by the Catholic church, this was your entry into God’s family and an introductory and necessary step in salvation. And so, here we have Christ, giving up heaven to come to earth so that we can be saved, and in this picture fully entering into the community of those He’s come to save.
Another fascinating detail of the Duccio Maesta Nativity is the stable itself. Take a close look. You can see that the structure is both a stable and a cave. In the Western church a stable is generally the accepted way to portray the scene of the nativity. For the Eastern church the nativity is pictured inside of a cave. We are probably more familiar with the motif of the stable, because that is what we see when we purchase nativity scenes for our homes.
However, in Biblical times caves were often used as stables as they provided a natural shelter and offered more protection for animals. In Bethlehem if you go to the Church of the Nativity you will see what is traditionally held to be the cave of the birthplace of Christ. In 327 Constantine first established a church at the spot had long been held to be Christ birthplace. The church had been there since, under a variety of controlling bodies during it’s long history, and today is being restored and jointly administrated by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Syriac Orthodox churches. All four maintain monastic communities on the site. The grotto, where Christ is believed to have been born can be accessed by both the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches above. The grotto was a pilgrimage site in Duccio’s day, and today is a protected World Heritage Site.
The significance of a cave is that it also is a reminder of Christ’s death, the sepulcher that his body would be entombed in. There is the constant reminder that this infant was born to die. In the scene we have both a manger and a cave. This oddity is explained in one of two ways. Some think that Duccio couldn’t decide if he should paint the stable or cave so he did both. Others argue this was an intentional doctrinal statement; the baby’s birth in the stable is surrounded by what would become his tomb. Either way, it is a thought worthy of contemplation.
A close look at the the faces of the angels and Mary will show a definite similarity. This is due to the use of the patterns used by various artist workshops. you can read more about that in the Giotto article. However, even with the similarity I find it charming that so many of the angels seem to be actively curious about what is going on down in the manger. This story wasn’t only significant and unique to men, but to all of the heavenly host. The angels served God, the lengths to which He went to save his creation must have created quite a stir.
As is often the case, the animals in nativity paintings are often the most realistic part of the scene. That is true for this work as well.
Also note the colors. What set the artists of Siena apart was their use of color. The colors are sumptuous and intense. Often color is the first tip off that we are looking at a Sienese artist. You will note that the colors have a different intensity than the colors that Giotto was able to create. In a fresco, with the paint being absorbed by the wall it is not possible to attain the colors that Duccio does.
The colors were also more vibrant because tempera paint (pigments suspended in egg yolk) was darker and in this case used on a much smaller surface. Each of Giotto’s paintings were about 78 inches high and 72 inches wide. By contrast the Duccio Maesta Nativity is about 18 inches square, as it is just one of over 70 paintings in the large Duccio Maesta altarpiece. There is a far more detail and delicacy to Duccio’s work. Working in tempera an artist must work quickly, and be sure of his strokes. The medium dries very quickly.
Altarpieces, as this painting is from, were painted onto prepared wooden panels. It is quite a process and if you follow this link you can get an idea of the weeks it took to prepare the surface before painting could begin.
As you can see, a great deal of the painting has been covered in gold leaf, yes, real gold. This was obviously an expensive touch. Some of the wealthy who commissioned works like this were guilty of conspicuous consumption. They would ask an artist to cover the entire work with gold and then paint on that…even though much of the gold wouldn’t show.
For modern viewers, the gold is a nice touch, but it doesn’t have the same ethereal effect that it would have when viewed before the use of electric lights. The reflective nature of the gold, seen by candlelight would have been other-worldly. And the reflection from the gold would have added to the light in the room.
Now, you may be thinking, but Kelly, the painting is quite small, how much light could it reflect.
Here we get to the sad part of our story. This nativity was part of a much larger work. The entire Duccio Maesta altarpiece was 188 sq ft. The nativity is just a very small detail.
Duccio was commissioned to create an altarpiece for the Siena Cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who was the patron saint of Siena. Duccio and his workshop spent 3 years working on the altarpiece. When it was completed a celebration, unlike any other I have heard of for a piece of art, took place. The altarpiece was paraded by all of the important leaders of the city and then in a grand procession through the streets of Siena was brought to the Cathedral where it would be installed and hang for the next few centuries.
The altarpiece was painted on both sides with over 70 individual paintings. The side that would face the congregation featured the largest work, The Madonna enthroned in Majesty. That is the origin of the title of the work ‘Maesta’, meaning majesty. The panels at the top included scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, scenes at the bottom told of Christ birth. On the back of the altarpiece were scenes from the life and death of Christ. Interesting that only the priests would have seen the back of the altarpiece.
In the 1500’s the style of art had changed and the altarpiece was removed, sawn apart, and displayed in a side chapel so that both the front and back was on display. Then, when money was needed more parts were separated and sold. That is how two of the scenes have ended up in the United States National Gallery of Art. The Nativity is in Washington D.C. as is the calling of Andrew and Peter.
Over time, some of the paintings have been lost and we don’t know what they were of, or what became of them. The illustrations I’ve included are our best guess of what the work would have looked like in 1311 when it was first hung in Sienna Cathedral.
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons for quality images in the public domain making art is more accessible.