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The Meanings of Duccio’s Maestà: Architecture, Painting, Politics, and the Construction of Narrative Time in the Trecento Altarpieces for Siena Cathedral

Conrad, Jessamyn Abigail

Duccio’s Maestà, made between 1308 and 1311 for the high altar of Siena Cathedral, is one of the best-known works of medieval painting. Astoundingly complex, with dozens of individual fields and several narrative cycles, it measured around 15 feet or four meters square. It was, and long remained, the largest panel painting ever made. But why did its designers reach so far outside the bounds of normal altarpieces, and why did they stretch the media of panel painting to new heights? Replacing Duccio’s Maestà within its original Trecento context demonstrates that the altarpiece cannot be explained by either earlier Cathedral images or by earlier Marian panel paintings made for monastic churches, whose imagery the Maestà appropriated but drastically expanded. Instead, the creation of Duccio’s Maestà comes into clearer focus when understood in its original setting, the civic Cathedral.
Santa Maria della Assunta comprised not just its particular physical space, but a political and economic one. Duccio’s Maestà interacted with the specific, material building, especially the Cathedral’s unique hexagonal crossing and its dense green-black and white stripes; both features may have contributed to a reading of the Maestà’s central Virgin as a symbol for Ecclesia, occupying her own Temple of Solomon. But the Maestà also crucially served as the backdrop to the city’s biggest annual holiday, the Feast of the Assumption. Though generally characterized by scholars as a unifying event, the Feast was in fact a means of social control, regulated by the state, where participation was enforced by law and on point of fine, and whose main event was the legally mandated presentation of candles to the Virgin in the Cathedral. Moreover, Duccio’s high altarpiece was commissioned during a troubled period: threatened by plotting nobles, and having steered the city through a sensitive election for a new bishop, the Government of the Nine was increasingly intent on regulating the Assumption Feast and the Cathedral’s commissioning body, the Opera del Duomo, which was largely funded through the wax donated on the Assumption.
Confronted by unique pressures, Duccio and his unknown potential collaborators created unique solutions, contextualizing popular Marian imagery within the Cathedral’s theological and political concerns through the use of elaborate narrative cycles. Faced with the puzzle of fitting an entire image program onto a panel painting, Duccio privileged a coherent spatial setting, drawn largely through carefully-depicted architecture, that allowed him to keep figure size constant and that therefore to create a smooth spatio-temporal reading of the altarpiece; his arragement of the narrative scenes allowed for new meanings and cross-readings; Duccio further used different perspectival constructions to direct the viewer’s reading of the altarpiece. Duccio thus turned painting’s limitation, its lack of time, into a strength, showing new ways in which images could be deployed to interpret narrative; he also spurred a long conversation among artists on the very nature of their medium and what, exactly, it could accomplish: Within 40 years, four altarpieces, occasioned again by architecture, were commissioned for the Cathedral’s patronal altars. Located near to Duccio’s high altarpiece, these altarpieces would reflect their artists’ reception of Duccio’s Maestà. These radical works by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and Bartolommeo Bulgarini include the first narrative altarpiece and probably the first painting to pretend it is a view through a window in Western art. Above all, the patronal altarpieces demonstrate an interest in narrative, played out in the depiction of time and an attendant depiction of commensurate pictorial space.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Klein, Holger
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 21, 2016