The Duccio Maesta Altarpiece Nativity is the subject of our tour of Nativity art. You can view this post in video form on my YouTube channel here.
Evolutionary thought can blind us
In the last article we examined a work by Giotto, who was a contemporary of today’s artist, Duccio. Giotto represented the city-state of Florence, while 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 art historians make comparisons.
There is an inherent bias to place a higher value on art that is progressive. We’ve examined Giotto’s paintings, which moved us toward the realistic representation that will be fully realized during the Renaissance. This bias toward progress 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.
Reading the Duccio Maesta Nativity panel
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. Both have their hands raised in blessing, and their scrolls provide balance and a framework for the entire piece.
Similarities to Pisano’s Nativity Panel in the Pisa Baptistry
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 appear to be at the stable.
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. According to tradition one of the midwives had a withered hand and also doubted that Mary would deliver the Messiah. However, as she bathed the baby Jesus her hand was healed.
Communion and Baptism
Some have commented that the basin that Christ is being bathed in looks like a communion cup. This is highly probable, Artists frequently included references to communion in nativity works. Additionally, the Christ child being lowered into the cup reminds us of the sacrament of baptism, another allusion to Christ upcoming ministry.
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.
Is it a stable or a cave?
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 has 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 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.
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.
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. Each master painter ran a workshop and had other artists and apprentices working under him. The master painter would compile pattern books which were highly valued and guarded. Everyone working in the workshop would practice copying the patterns until they mastered them. This practice meant that people often looked very similar, maybe with just a hair color change or a different position. We can clearly see in this work that the angels are all drawn from the same pattern.
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, and it appears that the lengths to which God went to save his creation 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.
The ox and donkey are two of the oldest symbols of nativity art, for a variety of reasons. The most commonly understood is that both are mentioned in the prophet Isaiah, “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood.” The verse implies that the ox and donkey recognize Jesus as their master and have come to adore him, just as the shepherds and kings will come.
Additionally, in Jewish tradition, the ox is a clean animal, and the donkey is unclean, yet both are included at Christ birth. This was thought to signify the nation of Israel (the ox) and the Gentiles (anyone not Jewish) coming together under their new master (Jesus).
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 depth and richness 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 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 like this one, 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.
We often forget that works like this one were created to be displayed in a particular spot. (Check out this post for more on this topic.) The artist understood and used this information to his advantage.
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. This altarpiece would have been surrounded by candles and the reflective nature of the gold, seen by candlelight would have been otherworldly. Additionally, the reflected light would have made it appear that the painting itself was giving of light.
70 Individual Paintings Create a Masterpiece
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.
I hope you are enjoying our examination of Nativity Art. I have a video on this work that you can watch here, and be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel here. If you are reading this after 2020, then you can check out the Advent in Art playlist.
You can view the list of Advent Art works that I will be exploring this month (Dec. of 2020) here. These were originally posted in 2017, and I’m in the process of updating them.
Please, subscribe to the blog so you will receive notifications as the updates are completed.
Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 5 Martini
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.