Artsy is as Artsy does

Duccio’s Maestá: Influences on the Settings on the Back Predella Central Triplet
June 10, 2010, 8:24 pm
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Lauren here! As an art history major, I am required to take 3 credits (about 6 classes) of art history from a variety of time periods. This past semester, I had the joy of learning all about Early Italian Renaissance in ARHS 223. What follows is a major research paper that I wrote for the class about a well known altarpiece by the artist Duccio. Remember, being artsy is also about learning and exploring new avenues, and I hope you all learn something from this essay!

Duccio’s Maestá: Influences on the Settings on the Back Predella Central Triplet
Duccio’s famed Maestá, as one of the first recorded altarpieces to contain a predella, has been a work discussed for centuries. An unusually large work and extremely complex, the altarpiece consists of one central panel, a Madonna and Child enthroned with saints, along with many more narrative panels on both the front and back. The altarpiece was later dismantled, and therefore the exact number of panels is unknown. What is certain is that the narrative cycles of The Childhood of Christ, the Life of the Virgin, and the Life of Christ are all present in this unusually large work. Duccio began work on this piece for the Siena Cathedral in 1308 and continued to work on it, perhaps with the assistance of his workshop, until around 13ll. This was a highly transitional period for artists; new artistic conventions, such as the use of natural light, perspective, and observance of the natural world, that would take stronger holdings in the Renaissance were just being discovered, yet Byzantine traditions still remained. In particular, this concept holds true when discussing Duccio’s treatment of various exterior and interior settings. Through careful examination of the central triplet on the back predella of the Maestá, the scenes of The Calling of Peter and Andrew, The Feast at Cana, and Christ and the Woman of Samaria, it is easy to see that the settings of these scenes were influenced by new ideas and Byzantine visual conventions.

The first of these three images is The Calling of Peter and Andrew (Fig.1), which presumably was the fourth panel of the back predella. A scene from the Ministry cycle, the imagery in this picture depicts the moment Jesus requests that Peter and Andrew join his ministry. Christ stands on a rocky cliff by the sea with his hand outstretched toward Peter and Andrew in a somewhat beckoning motion. The figure standing to the left in the boat holds up his hand in a surprised position that one might associate with Mary in an annunciation scene. It seems as if this apostle is surprised and delighted to have been called upon by Christ. The figure to his side looks up at Jesus with curiosity as the scene unfolds. The brothers seem to have been interrupted from their daily work as fishermen; both still hold a seemingly weightless net with fish they have caught. More fish swim in the surrounding waters, each different and surprisingly unique. It seems as if Duccio had a strong knowledge of various varieties of fish, as the ones present seem to be drawn from nature. The water in which the fish swim is more opaque than many of the other highly saturated colors existent in this scene, and the gold background still shimmers underneath where the paint was not thick enough. This gives the lake an overall effect of appearing to possess the qualities of real water, which constantly changes colors and shimmers in light. The lake also provides the viewer with a somewhat skewed perspective. A horizon line is created where the lake ends and the shimmering gold background begin, and yet the rocky outcroppings behind Christ seem to go beyond where the lake stops. The Calling of Peter and Andrew is the only landscape scene in this central back triplet, and it includes no architectural elements.

Figure 1

As a pure landscape, this scene offers a synthesis of ideas from contemporary Byzantine art, and the new conventions that were developing. The scene is “seemingly Byzantine because of …the landscape of plain rocks against a gold background” (Bellosi, 16). Perhaps Duccio and his assistants were influenced by Byzantine manuscripts in the creation of this arrangement. “…Extensive cycles were…confined to the format of illuminated manuscripts, and thus were easily transportable and readily available”, and therefore it is quite likely that the workshop had seen these images (Stubblebine, 177). Because the The Calling of Peter and Andrew is often only found in more extensive narratives, it is likely that manuscript pictures of this scene were witnessed before the scene was painted. Ideas that became more grounded during the Renaissance, but were just beginning to become prominent during the time the Maestá was being painted, are also present in almost every aspect of this landscape. For example, “the rocks, with their slopes which catch the light and their steep shadowy crags, full of crevices…are obvious attempts at portraying realism in an object” (Bellosi, 16). Though these rocky outcroppings (Fig. 2) are designed to only suggest a landscape, there is a clear influence of natural light sources , or chiaroscuro, and how such a source renders shadow in an object, “… a technique not found in Byzantine paintings or even in Cimabue’s work” (Bellosi, 16). Rendering objects in naturalistic light is not purely Duccio’s innovation. “Instead, it is another of Giotto’s innovations which Duccio made use of in the Maèsta, where the chiaroscuro passages are indeed created by a single source of light which appears systematically from the left” ( Bellosi, 16).

Figure 2

The next panel in this triplet is Duccio’s vision of the Feast at Cana (Fig. 3). This scene depicts the important scene where Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding. This transformation not only has Eucharistic symbolism, as Jesus “…transforms the water of purification of the Old Covenant into the choice of wine of the Eucharist of the New Testament”, but it also offers a reaffirmation of Christ’s divinity (Sullivan, 27). Turning the water into wine marked the “…beginnings of miracles in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him” (John 2: 11). In order to depict this significant event, Duccio shows Christ, Mary, and several of his disciples seated at a rectangular table. Mary sits at the head of the table, her eyes towards Christ, her hand raised in a gesture that may indicate that she is speaking to him. This may be the moment at which she says to her son “They have no wine” (John 2:4). Christ sits at Mary’s left, next to members of his ministry. He is turned back and looking at Mary as if to respond to her. The disciples are all tuned toward the Virgin and Christ, drawing the viewer’s eye toward the pair. Directly below the conversation between Mary and Jesus, the miracle of the water turning into wine is taking place as depicted by servants staring in awe as the water in the holding jugs has turned into wine in the serving jugs. Interestingly, the bodies of Mary, Jesus, and the disciples are much larger than those of the servants; it is almost as though a hierarchy of scale has been employed to display who is the important figures in this scene. Toward the center of the panel one servant pours wine into the clear glass of another figure, yet another reminder of the miracle that has just taken place. The entire scene is encapsulated in an interior space complete with coffered ceiling, patterned floor, and exit.

Figure 3

In this instance, Duccio once again is able to synthesize old and new artistic conventions in order to create a coherent narrative image. Byzantine interiors as seen in manuscript books are often very similar to the one on the back of the Maestá. Like in many manuscripts, such as the image of The Supper at Cana from the Iviron 5 codex (fig. 4), the interior setting of this scene uses “the vertical divisions of the back wall… to group and separate the figures; the whole is tied together by the pronounced horizontal of the cornice” ( Stubblebine, 181). Though the divisions of the back predella panel are far less pronounced than those in the Iviron 5 codex, where columns act as a visual break, there is no denying that the straight vertical lines molded into the back wall also offer an element of division. However, most unlike the Byzantine manuscripts is Duccio’s intent on showing his interior in perspective. “…Constantly we can see the artist’s concern with rendering perspective, one of the many examples being the coffered ceiling…” which seems to recede back to suggest a covered room (Dupont, 77). Perspective also plays a role in the rendering of the view through the doorway behind the heads of Christ and the Virgin. This deeper space causes the eye to follow the architecture further back into the image, and the “effect [reminds] us in a simple, literal way of the existence of the outside world beyond the walls” (Dupont, 77). Although not entirely convincing, the illumination in the foreground further emphasizes the use of light in the deep recession of the exit, while the architecture on the other side of the doorway is plunged into darkness (Dupont, 77). Because these settings are farther away from the light source offered in the room where the wedding is held, a darkening of buildings outside the room not only suggests that they are farther away, but also a naturalistic use of light in this image.

Figure 4

The final image of this triplet is Christ and the Woman of Samaria (Fig 5). Unlike both The Calling of Peter and Andrew and The Feast at Cana, this scene takes place in an exterior setting, yet included many architectural elements in the form of a city on the right end of the panel. The scene depicts another one of Christ’s miracles in which Jesus approaches a Samarian woman at a well as she is about to draw water. She is a nonbeliever, but Christ proceeds to tell her of her sins. The woman is convinced that he is a prophet, and calls the men in the nearby town to see the messiah. In the right hand corner, the town is rendered in an exquisitely detailed fashion, and the townsmen peak out from the city gate. The steep diagonal of the path leading up to the city draws the viewer’s eye down to where the Samarian woman stands with a water jug on her head and a small bucket for water in her hand. Her other is outstretched towards Christ; it seems as though they are interacting. Christ sits on an octagonal marble well to the right of the Samarian woman he gestures back toward the Samarian woman with one hand while the other steadies himself on the well’s ledge. A rocky ledge leans in behind Christ, perhaps to suggest a wilderness beyond the city walls that are so prominent in this image.

Figure 5

This image perhaps offers the strongest mixture of Byzantine and Renaissance artistic techniques as there are both landscape and architectural elements present. As with the landscape in The Calling of Peter and Andrew, rocky outcroppings are used to differentiate where Christ is from the city limits. These rocks are “a stock theme of Byzantine iconography” and almost seem to lean in toward Christ, pulling the eye in toward the central figure (Dupont, 77) . Even more interestingly, Christ sits on a strange projection off of the octagonal well. “This projection appears to be a vestige of a cruciform well, in all probability derived from a Byzantine version of this episode” (Stubblebine, 56). The octagonal portion of the well may instead suggest a baptistery, and therefore serve as a visual metaphor for Baptism (Sullivan, 47). The gold background, which gives the scene overall warmth, is a third element left over from Byzantine tradition. More important, perhaps are the use of new conventions in this panel, particularly in his depiction of the town towards the right. “In spite of his thirteenth-century artistic background and the influence of the Byzantine tradition, Duccio no longer depicted those decidedly oriental buildings which were still a feature which were still a feature of Cimabue’s frescoes in Assisi” ( Bellosi, 15). Instead, Duccio moves forward and paints the buildings in a fashion that “…has been seen to allude to the architecture of Siena” (Bellosi, 15). This type of landscape painting has been referred to as ‘environment portraiture’, as it is apparent that Duccio has painted them from buildings that he has encountered in daily life (Bellosi, 15). Furthermore, Duccio’s use of perspective in this panel is much stronger than in other works. The town seems to continue on into convincing space instead of abruptly stopping where the panel ends. Overall, “there is not only a general feeling of greatly increased complexity and coherence, but of a bolder and more far-reaching recession” in the placement of the buildings of the town (White, 109).
Already an established painter for his time, Duccio’s painting of the Maestá marked a turning point in his career. By combining Byzantine artistic practices with new innovations, the images of not only the central triplet in the back predella, but also the other panels in the altarpiece, are able to tie together new and old to create a visual language that is both reserved and innovative as well as beautiful. Indeed, these panels certainly exhibit a “…lyrical resolution between the figures and the background, be they gold grounds, architectural backdrops, or rocky landscapes” (Bellosi, 15). Though the figures of the narrative cycles are important, the aettings in which they are placed also play their role in the evolution of religious art.


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