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Movement from Byzantine Period to Early Renaissance Style

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The transition from the Byzantine period to the early Renaissance as seen through the works of Duccio

Contents (Jump to)



Literature Review

Chapter One:  Madonna of the Franciscans and The Rucellai Madonna

Chapter Two:  Madonna and Child and Maestà,

Conclusions and Recommendations



The purpose of this study is to assess the rationale for accepting the notion that the works of the Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna have made a significant impact on the way in which the transition from Byzantine to Renaissance styles can be determined.

The dissertation focuses its attention in particular on the period in the region between 1270 to 1311 in which time Duccio was commissioned to paint a number of significant and high profile works; namely Madonna of the Franciscans, The Rucellai Madonna, Madonna and Child and Maestà. Using these four masterpieces as the basis for analyzing their use of form, composition and the subtle influences of a much more realistic and humanistic quality. This will be compared to Duccio’s innovative relationship with the Renaissance period in contradiction to the somewhat basic style more associated with the Byzantine era that he was working in.


It is important perhaps to begin with an overall definition of what is meant by Byzantine and Renaissance painting in order to put the context of where the artist Duccio resides in this discussion.

The Byzantine art movement was active from the period spanning the 5th century AD to 1453 during the time when the Byzantine Empire was the most dominant. The period was centered on the Orthodox Church and featured painted icons, and decorative churches with mosaics and frescoes. With the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul today) to the Turks in 1453, the Byzantine style also ended. This occurred during the European Renaissance era but the influence of Byzantine art remained strong in Russia, and other areas where the Orthodox Church was influential. The Byzantine style essentially grew out of traditional designs involving saints and biblical stories as well as religious symbolic decoration. Figures represented in this period do not have natural forms with human figures depicted as unnaturally long, any emotion portrayed is limited - formal and still, and the facial expressions are conventional and one dimensional. The most prominent figures to be painted during this era are representations of Christ and the Virgin Mary, the apostles, the saints, Bishops and angels.’ The political structure of the period revolved around the emperor who was believed to be divinely appointed by God. Art played a large role in visualizing his powers with images of gods, goddesses, cherubs, and personifications of virtues’.

Most historians believe that the birth of the Renaissance occurred in Florence, Italy during the fifteenth century, but the new movement can be seen to have been growing and developing at least a century before this. Evidence to back this theory up will be presented throughout this paper. In particular the most well known f these painters is Gioto, who is referred to in a number of instances within the body of this text. He introduced an early three dimensional quality to his work; however the perspective was inaccurate and unsophisticated, a little like that of Duccio, with figures in paintings often hovering in space in a shallow depth of field.

The Oxford English dictionary definition for Renaissance is The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists

‘ATerm meaning ‘rebirth’ applied to an intellectual and artistic movement that began in Italy in the 14th century, culminated there in the 16th century, and influenced other parts of Europe in a great variety of ways. The notion of a rebirth refers to a revival of the values of the classical world, and the concept was used as early as the 15th century, by Italians who thought they were living at a time when the qualities of ancient art and literature were blossoming anew after centuries of barbarism. In the following century Vasari gave the idea of such a revival a systematically developed form; he thought that art had declined in the Middle Ages, had been set once again on its true path by Giotto, and had risen to its greatest heights in the work of his friend and hero Michelangelo. To modern historians this picture seems much too simplistic, and the Renaissance is seen more as a period of gradual change than as a sudden break with the past. Nevertheless, the intellectuals of the Renaissance were the first people to conceive a period identity for themselves, and this in itself gives the label certain coherence. Scholars may debate endlessly over the exact interpretation of many aspects of the period, but in the general historical scheme of things, the Renaissance has come to represent the time when ‘Medieval’ turns into ‘Modern’ and the religion-dominated world of the Middle Ages gives way to a culture more concerned with the individual.’

Although both terms have many connotations attached to them and a broad scope of other historical references and intricate philosophies and ideologies; for the purposes of this study they will be referred to in terms of their transcendence from flat, one dimensional religious iconographic paintings to the emergence of a humanistic and realistic portrayal of people, architecture and other living things providing a mathematical approach to composition and a clarity of realism.

There is little documented information relating to Duccio's life and career. In large part his life can only be reconstructed, taken from the evidence of those works that have been confirmed as his own. The use of a new stylistic approach provides enough evidence to support the rationale that he was painting in accordance with very early Renaissance tendancies.Duccio is first mentioned in 1278, when the treasurer of the commune of Siena commissioned him to decorate 12 strongboxes for documents. The fact that he was officially self-employed as a "painter" demonstrates that he was a mature and independent artist quite early on. (Jannella, 1991) In 1280 Duccio was fined the considerable sum of 100 lire by the commune of Siena for an unspecified case of misconduct. The number of fines documented throughout Duccio’s life suggests that he was a restless and tempestuous character.

Three predominant shifts took place during the Middle Ages which would drastically change the course of Western Civilization. These included:

  • The movement of cultural leadership from the Mediterranean to France, Germany and the British Isles.
  • Paganism and barbarism was replaced by a new found appreciation of Christianity
  • The ideology of the here and now moved to thinking about the hereafter. Consequently the body was seen as not so much beautiful but as corrupt

With the new emphasis on religion, nudes were forbidden. Medieval artists were concerned with the soul and instructing new believers in the church. Art then became somewhat of a servant to the church.

Medieval Art consisted of three styles; Byzantine, Ranesque and Gothic. Duccio’s work is often categorised as Byzantine or Gothic.

The central tradition of Byzantine Art was located at the heart of Constantinople. The prevailing view of Byzantine Art is that it was highly true to nature, although contemporary academics criticise the aesthetic value of it, with flat surfaces and little realism, its ‘reverse perspective radiating composition disregard for scale and depth etc’.

And that the main purpose of artistic expression was for images to serve and elevate people’s minds to immaterial realities. Although Byzantine Art is considered more Abstract than realistic.

During the early 1400’s the World began to appreciate a broader alternative to artistic elements and influences. From Florence in Italy the new cultural appreciation spread to Rome and Venice and after 1500 throughout the whole of Europe. This new Renaissance can be attributed to the increased awareness and interest in the art and literature of Greece and Rome – the natural world, realism and the science of the human body. Anatomy was studied and reflected in the way in which artists started to paint people. The attributes of the natural world, realism and the science of the human body were now being contemplated. In addition the Protestant Reformation also decreased the emphasis on how religion and the church were perceived. Before the Renaissance and Reformation, pious images were treated not as ‘art’ so much, but as objects of worship which possessed the physical presence of the Holy.

During this period the concept of Perspective was recognised and changed the whole visual interpretation of art. The illusion of creating depth on a flat surface was discovered and objects could be seen to be receding in the distance. Even the materials changed from wooden panels and fresco plasterwork to stretched canvases. By the end of the 13century a birth of technically skilled painting emerged and one of those pioneers was Duccio who managed to break down the rigid Byzantine style, replacing it with a softer and more lifelike form. One doctrine cited in this paper is that of the Sienese School. To briefly explain The Sienese School of painting flourished in Siena in Italy Siena, most documented between the 13th and 15th centuries. For a time including Duccio this rivaled work coming out of Florence. Although it is true to mention that it was more conservative and is more frequently associated with Gothic Art. Its most important members include Duccio, his pupil Simone Martini, the Lorezetti brothers, Domenico, Taddeo di Bartolo and Matteo di Giovanni, amongst lesser known others. .

In Owen’s The Florentine and Sienese Renaissance: A monopsonistic explanation we are reminded that Historians have long been fascinated by the origins of the Renaissance and that ‘For art historians this fascination has appeared in investigations of the prominence of Florence in artistic development or comparisons of Florentine, Venetian, and Northern artistic Renaissance movements. It considers the question of how the arts flourished so creatively in Florence rather than anywhere else. Declaring that ‘Florentine artists have dominated the course of artistic development for 300 years in a straight line from Giotto to Michelangelo’. It then begins to address the obvious influence which is attached to other European cities, most notably Siena. A city located less than forty miles from Florence which developed its own painting tradition and produced the Siena School. It can be argued that this school despite being innovative and receiving such early practitioners of Renaissance influence like Duccio it bypassed mainstream artistic developments that were forming in other cities such as Florence. One scholar notes ‘.had this Sienese school not arisen we should have seen no difference in the progress of Western painting....It is simply that Sienese painting forms, as it were, an island.’

The peak of Renaissance Art is apparent in the works of masters such as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Duccio di Buoninsegna is often referred to as the Italian precursor to this Renaissance style.

Born in Siena round 1255 Duccio was the founder of the Sienese school of painting. All of his work is religious and characterized by skillful composition, a decorative quality similar to mosaic work and most importantly bearing a much more emotional tone than that of the traditional Byzantine model.

As one of the most important painters of the early 14th century, Duccio introduced a dynamic move away from the Byzantine style into early Italian Renaissance painting.

Duccio was known for dynamic new altarpiece designs, a striking use of landscape and colour, and unusual expressive relationships between the figures in his paintings. Duccio painted many pictures for the city of Sienna and one for the church of Santa Trinita in Florence. He also executed various works for a number of churches in Pisa, Lucca and Pistorla. These provided him with great renown and made him a considerably wealthy man.

The first work ascribed to Duccio is the Madonna with the Three Franciscans. Despite its damaged condition today it still demonstrates all the traditional features of the Byzantine period, but there is a definite softness and more defined features in the gestures of the Mother and Child.

The Madonna Enthroned (Rucellai Madonna) On first glance epitomizes many aspects of Byzantine painting, but on closer investigation the three dimensional qualities not found in iconography are very evident. The faces possess contours, shadow and light and a hint of personality. In particular Mary’s hand is more natural looking and the two pairs of bare feet on the right and left sides are also fleshed out and real looking. They do not sport the same sized shoes.

These subtleties and more naturalistic, fluid lines are what provide the evidence to support Duccio’s work to be categorised in terms of a painter functioning within a style that incorporates the features of both Byzantine and Renaissance characteristics.

This paper will present an overview of the discussions that seek to demonstrate this argument by way of illustration using four of his most significant works Madonna of the Franciscans, The Rucellai Madonna and the later Madonna and Child and Maestà.

The Literature Review following on from this Introduction presents an overall and comprehensive approach to the way in which various publications, books, articles, journals and internet references were incorporated into this dissertation. The subsequent chapters detail the main body of the text whilst demonstrating the findings and conclusions determined from the research, together with a complete Bibliography of the references employed.

Literature Review

In response to the challenges of researching and presenting aspects of Duccio’s work there was a need to adopt a number of methods and approaches to this study. He is not featured amongst the most popular of artists and although he receives a following of academics and interested students Duccio does not necessarily receive the deserved recognition for his inspirational insight and wealth of artistic material generated over a small space of time.

Despite Duccio Buooninsegna not being the most well known of artists certain information is not limited due to the fact that for some reason Duccio was a well documented character during his lifetime. Biographical text books relating specifically to the painter and his working life include the highly informative Duccio (Masters of Italian Art Series) by Andrea Weber. The large, sumptuously reproduced images compensate for the minimal amount of text. it provides a synopsis of Duccio's years, of which little is written about with regard to his private life. It documents his success as an artist in Siena and the various commissions he received. The book brings together the fragments of his Maesta and reconstructs it using a montage of photographs. Each piece of the painting is analysed and written about, the most famous of which is the Rucellai Madonna, now residing in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and is also explored in more depth in this research. This is a favourable book for those people who like iconic art and the work of early Italian masters.

Duccio Di Buoninsegna by Cecilia Jannella is a good user friendly paperback reference book.with over 100 color reproductions. It makes reference to the man in relation to documentation that exists regarding his financial affairs and his spontaneous spending sprees. It presumes that he was born between 1255 and 1260, and died in late 1318 or in the early part of 1319. It is well written and extensively researched

A reasonable potted source of chronological information also exists online. The Art encyclopedia website accessed from http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists provides other useful links to art galleries and different reference sites specific to Duccio.

Sourcing texts that refer specifically to his work also exist. The most useful and comprehensive being Duccio: The Maesta By Luciano Bellosi. This book combines all the elements of this famous altar piece using a series of glossy colour plates that enlarge details to actual size. We see that the central panel depicts the Madonna enthroned surrounded by saints and angels, with the back showing scenes relating to the Passion. Other panels from the Maesta portray the Apostles and the Gospel story

The informative text, by a well respected Italian art historian, discusses the social and historical context of Duccio's commission, as well as the artist's well versed relationship with his cotemporary’s Cimabue and Giotto, and the influence of their work on Sienese and Italian painting.

In order to gain an appreciation of Renaissance techniques in comparison to the Byzantine era Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting by Marcia B. Hall is an excellent approach guiding the reader on the subject of How Renaissance painters used colour to fuse their pictures, create symbolism and achieve the emotional expressiveness so lacking in Byzantine Art. Simplistic and explanatory it focuses on 20 paintings providing an insight into Leonardo's naturalistic use of shadow in the Mona Lisa and the way in which Michelangelo's flesh toned hues miraculously link the figures in the Sistine Chapel. It also provides an insight into Titian's penchant for bright, colours in order to achieve movement. The writer allows us to appreciate Hall the limited resources so many of these artists had to hand, which makes their work even greater in its context. This text provides a traditional analysis whilst demonstrating a deeper scientific approach from the angle of the Conservation laboratory. The writer provides an insightful appreciation of the type of techniques incorporated between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. It explains how important the use of colour, light and shade is on achieving realism through art which has helped with the overall comprehension of works that have leapt from the Byzantine tradition onwards.

Other places where Duccio is referenced are by way of an abundance of anthologies. In particular Artists of the Middle Ages By Leslie Ross. The identity of artists is examined in the context of their relationship to some of the most influential works of Art in Medieval history. However as with most books on this subject the artists themselves lose a great deal in translation, as so little information exists regarding their lives.

Ross investigates the Medieval Art world in terms of architecture, iconography, metalwork, and sculpture, whilst summarizing the lives and work of these leading artists. What is gained from reading this book is a factual idea of how an artist’s life is led, combined with a useful list of reference material as to how the work was collated. Readers are also provided with an insight into the practices and traditions of medieval art and the role those traditions played in medieval society. A helpful timeline and full index gives scholars or interested students of Art History a breakdown of the research tools that are necessary for finding more information in this field.

In terms of a definitive study providing a critical analysis that connects and provides evidence for Duccio to be heralded as a founding father of Renaissance art, no specific text appears to exist, although many hint to this relationship and subtlety found throughout his work. A re-examination of long established beliefs about the early renaissance painters can be found in Painting in the Age of Giotto: A Historical Re-Evaluation By Hayden B. J. Maginnis, Andrew Ladis

The study is the first to discuss the theories and observations of the sixteenth century art historian Giorgio Vasari in any detail. The writers argue the origins of modern views regarding the period and the ongoing critical strategies and conventions that exist in contrast to historical reality.

In an investigation of the "new art" of the fourteenth century, Maginnis puts forward the argument that not only was the visual concept of naturalism remarkably short-lived but that that its main pioneers were the painters of Siena and not the painters of Florence.

In particular the detailed analysis of Giotto the Florentine painter and architect’s work demonstrates that his art belonged to a different kind of trend. Through a re-examination of the historical and art-historical evidence related to painting immediately after the plague of 1348 the writers determine the existence of a new interpretation of painting by the mid-century.

Iconography, Byzantine and religious art prior to the Renaissance are discussed in detail in Hans Belting, Edmund Jephcott’s Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art. This book provides an overview of the concept of Byzantine Art and its true definition. That Byzantine Art was not necessarily an art form, but much more to do with worship and the recognition of all that is Holy. Hans Belting traces the long history of the sacral image and its changing role in European culture; combined with the beliefs, superstitions and hopes, that exist in relation to people’s response and understanding of sacred images. It is an interesting source of facts relating to European Christians and their churches. Not so relevant to the immediate content of this research, yet providing significant background to appreciating a better understanding of Byzantine Art.

There is a chapter on Early Renaissance in Horst Janson and Anthony Janson’s History of Art. And an overview of Duccio from the perspective of evidence that supports his early Renassance tendencies. Janson writes ‘In Duccio’s hands the Greek manner has become unfrozen. The rigid, angular draperies have given way to an undulating softness…The bodies, faces and hands are beginning to swell with three dimensional life.’

This is a well established classic hand book of Art History with Extensive captions provided by twentieth-century art historians speaking about specific pieces of art featured throughout.

Janson has also rearranged early Renaissance art according to genre rather than in terms of any specific time sequence. Ultimately this paper is too trying to demonstrate a grounded positioning of the work of Duccio for inclusion within the Early Renaissance which does not necessarily need to be defined in terms of geographical location or specific timeframe.

Sienese Painting: From Duccio to the Birth of the Baroque by Giulietta Chelazzi Dini

is a volume tracing the correlation between the Sienese painters namely Duccio di Buoninsegna, Simone Martini, and the Lorenzetti brothers and the dawn of Renaissance painting. It also extends to include painters right up until 1700 and charts the success of lesser known artists such as Rutilio Manetti, whose style changed radically when exposed to the work of Caravaggio. The last chapters focus on Baroque paintings but the focus for the narrative is principally early Sienese masters. It documents the struggle towards naturalism. It is organized chronologically, with well documented texts on each period and work.

Additional reading from a chronological perspective includes Duccio di Buoninsegna by Curt H. Weigelt which is an early novel and the first attested biography of the painter written in German in 1911, R.S. Van Marle, The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting, vol. 2 published in 1924. This contains a chapter on Duccio published in English but providing little scope for original ideas.

Duccio di Buoninsegna (1961) is an interpretation, in Italian, of the work of Duccio and boasts a number of colour reproductions of his established works Duccio (1951) by Brandi, is an Italian language text that comprehensively researches the works of Duccio from the perspective of more modern consideration. Later works in English include John White, Duccio: Tuscan Art and the Medieval Workshop (1979); James H. Stubblebine, Duccio di Buoninsegna and His School (1979); Cecilia Jannella, Duccio di Buoninsegna (1991), with many colour illustrations of his work; Andrea Weber, Duccio di Buoninsegna, About 1255–1319 (1997).

The Documents and Early Sources (2000), ed. by Hayden B.J. Maginnis is one of the most modern approaches to Duccio’s work. It offers a series of research tools with which to take further research forward.

Chapter One: Madonna of the Franciscans and The Rucellai Madonna

Madonna of the Franciscans is a small Tempera on wood, Tempera being a technique using powdered pigments mixed with egg yolk and water. It is chronologically the first work ascribed to Duccio in the Academy of Siena. Despite its damaged condition it shows many of the traditional features of the Byzantine era , but the formal stiffness of the ancient Hodegetria (Greek iconography) type has been softened to produce the effect of a more kindly and human depiction. Yet the composition is still dignified apparent though the gestures of Mother and Child toward the kneeling figures. The overall design has been softened with its characters flowing and lucid.

The picture portrays the enthroned Madonna of the protective mantle. A type derived from Byzantine Art. The three Franciscans kneeling at the virgin’s feet demonstrate imploring gestures and intense emotional expressions. This is a cult Byzantine image, yet one that relays far more expression than typical to the style. Particularly as her head is looking out of the picture at the viewer. Her head remains the central focal point of the composition, whilst at the same time maintaining a calm, concentrated devotion. The style of artistic representation captivates the audience and pulls the viewer into its world. There are fine undulating gold lines at the hem of the Madonna’s mantle, which is traditional to that applied to old early paintings. But as a rule Duccio always refrained from covering garments entirely in gold.

By painting the hems and seams only in gold this makes elements of the painting stand out further and encourages an appearance of sumptuousness. In Duccio’s time the colour that most represented glamour was the blue which was obtained from the semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli. This was far more expensive than gold and used frequently in painting to highlight the rich ornate quality of the work. So by avoiding its use Duccio is in fact contradicting his images. Making them at once more emphasized and yet down playing them at the same time. And is in direct contrast to the Byzantine opulent representations

Duccio responds again to the contemporary desire for the modernisation of Art by adapting to the French artistic model in this painting with the inclusion of French gothic motifs in their pure form on individual standing figures. This blatant clear French derivation and the measured breadth of contour, the curving of the robe's hem and the smooth masses of colour make up part of a wider spatial dimension. Here the Gothic preference for linearity and flowing lines reaches its climax. This consequently encourages a pervading sense of animation and movement through expression.

Duccio’s Madonna of the Franciscans echoes the compositions developed in Armenia and Cyprus amongst Crusader artists. It can also be identified in terms of its unique composition to being an early precursor of the Renaissance master Piero della Francesca’s triptych depicting the Madonna della Misericordia. Where the virgin is drawn holding back the edge of her robe the better to receive and protect the three kneeling friars.

The elaborate combination of echoes from the Italian mosaic painter and Duccio’s Florentine contemporary Cimabue alongside the added softness of Duccio's own unique personal touch, inspires elements of the new artistic language of the Renaissance.

The features of the beseeching friars and the throne which represents a simple wooden seat placed at an angle to create an effect of perspective, reflects the teaching of Cimabue, who tutored the controversial artists Giotto. Controversial in terms of his professional association with Duccio and the centuries of scholarly rivalry which has evolved in relation to authenticating their works. The unusual posture of the Child's legs is again out of context and repeats the gestures of his early Madonna of Buonconvento and the Rucellai Madonna. 

When trying to understand Duccio’s style better his Madonna Enthroned, also known as the Rucellai Madonna is one of the best examples. The Rucellai Madonna was commissioned on April 15, 1285, by the Confraternity of the Laudesi of S. Maria Novella in Florence. This contract was discovered in the 18th century and led to the correction of the early biographer Giorgio Vasari’s attribution of the Rucellai Madonna to that of Cimabue. Nonetheless the proven documentary evidence and the obvious difference in style between the Rucellai Madonna and Cimabue’s other paintings still lead some academics to legitimise the painting as being that of Cimabue’s. There are also others who are reluctant to think either responsible due to the distinctive style and attribute the work to an unknown third artist the general consensus is that the painting belongs to Duccio. There is nothing in the style of the Rucellai Madonna that makes its attribution to Duccio implausible. This fact plus the documentation relating to the contract of 1285 certainly makes such an attribution acceptable.

In stylistic terms, the Rucellai Madonna remains fundamentally Byzantine in many ways. But demonstrates a use of colour uncommon in the late 13th century. For example the dress of the six angels illustrates an abandonment of symmetry and reveals both the deep colors of the more traditional Byzantine period teamed with pastel silvery lilacs, pinks, and light blues, giving the painting a softer and decorative appearance. This decorativeness is exaggerated by the fluid gold lines that trace the hem and opening of the Virgin’s mantle.

The Rucellai Madonna is so refined that it excels as an example of more advanced artistic thought. Delicate hues make up the formation of the throne and the shimmering cloth of honor behind the virgin.

The gold hem of the Madonna’s cloak accentuates a feeling of movement and the kneeling angels appear weightless, almost hovering. The Christ child sits on the lap of the virgin in a convincing manner which suggests the use of early perspective and the form of her body is clear underneath her cloak. The cloth of honor is also folded in a way to make it look three dimensional.

When reflecting on the rash assumption that scholars continue to believe that the Renaissance was founded in Florence, initiated by a Florentine Baptist, it is worth considering the significance that Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna presents. When the authenticity of the painting was still being questioned In 1864 the scholars Crow and Cavalcaselle devoted almost three pages of text to reviewing this painting and commented ‘the altarpiece of S.Maria Novella would alone suffice to explain the superiority of Cimabue over his predecessors, the rise of Giotto and the principles on which he started. Without it the principal link of artistic history at Florence would be lost and Giotto’s greatness unexplained’. Once lost and having been left to decay and gather centuries of dust and grime, the Rucellai Madonna was acquired and restored by the Uffizi Gallery in 1988/9. What this process would ultimately reveal was an outstanding demonstration of early Renaissance tendencies. The textiles have immense detail and precision painted throughout. The delicate lavish detail afforded to the images of the Virgin and child is like no other earlier painter from Duccio’s time. It broke revolutionary new ground in Art History.

Whether the Madonna Enthroned in the Rucellai Chapel of Santa Maria Novella is the same panel which Duccio painted in 1285 for that church or not is still disputed, but there is an understanding amongst scholars to believe that it should be attributed to the artists. Stylistically the panel appears to be similar to the Madonna of the Franciscans. In colour, particularly in the green under painting, and design it is more conservative than other panels created by Cimabue; aside from the more architecturally composed throne and synthetic figure, the arrangement remains flat in the manner of the Byzantine school yet far more refined and delicate in terms of its attention to detail and realism.

Chapter Two: Madonna and Child and Maestà

On November 10, 2004 The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it would be purchasing Duccio’s Madonna and Child, declaring it a ‘uniquely important early Renaissance masterpiece’ Commenting on Duccio's the Museum’s Curator’d of European Paintings at the time Keith Christiansen, the Jayne Wrightsman remarked: "In certain respects, we might say that Duccio was to Giotto what Matisse was to Picasso. Giotto is the master of the grand statement—grave, weighty figures acting out the human drama on a spatially cogent stage. Duccio is the great colorist. The space of his pictures is more perceptual than rational, and he explored a more lyrical, tender emotional range."

The painting itself is once again composed in tempera and gold on wood and depicts the Madonna and Child behind a parapet. Scholars attribute the intensity and beauty of this work down to the fundamental influence of Giotto on Duccio at this later stage of his life. Duccio was extremely impressed by the techniques incorporated by Giotto to create an illusion of the weight and density of figures in addition to the use of spatial awareness and early perspective. This new style of painting was one energized by human experience and emotion rather than a stereotype structured formation in keeping with a certain style, epitomized by the Byzantine period. The Madonna and child are recognized as the early opening chapter for the Maestà altarpiece. In the biography Duccio: Tuscan Art and the Medieval Workshop the Madonna and Child is referred to as ‘the first, lonely forerunner of that long line of Italian Madonna’s with a parapet which achieved its finest flowering almost two centuries later in Giovanni Bellini's splendid variations on the theme.’

Earlier critics of Duccio’s premature Renaissance style, remain adamant that the Byzantine quality of the figures in respect of the oval face of the Virgin and the long aquiline nose, teamed with the small headed child are typical features of the Byzantine period. When compared to the other flamboyant styles to the found in this piece these features appear somewhat superficial and only accentuate the evidence to support the cross-over of style that remain apparent. The way in which the child tenderly touches its mother’s veil an overt gesture which hints to the intimacy present in their relationship. The way the right foot of the Christ child gently makes contact with the wrist and sleeve of the Virgin once again communicate a tactile quality, emphasizing the modern interpretation to depict sacred figures as real. Absent also is the stiffly wrapped turban worn by typical representations of the Virgin in Byzantine painting. It has been replaced here by a free flowing veil with folds that respond to movement and the stylised treatment of the hands of the Virgin, with her intriguingly pointing index finger. With the two figures gazing at each other rather than at the viewer/worshipper which is the traditional stance for the Byzantine portraits is another indication of an emerging influence on Duccio to escape the confines of convention. In fact the very pictorial space itself communicates a means ‘of relating the fictional, sacred realm of the painting to the world of the viewer and eliciting from him or her an empathetic response. (The angle of foreshortening of the consoles, which has been done empirically, suggests that the ideal point of view was from below: the position that would be assumed when kneeling.)’. It is considered that this unique use f space on the canvas can be attributed to Duccio’s study of Fresco’s in Assisi, where ‘the most advanced experiments in spatial illusionism took place on the walls of churches and were then adapted to the more conservative practice of devotional painting.’ 

This intricate mixing of styles can be interpreted in several ways. For example Duccio’s symbolic rather than narrative reaction to painting. His realism is somehow still governed by Byzantine practice, both traditional and contemporary. He is by no means a converted high Renaissance artist. Instead what he demonstrates is flashes of inspiration within a conventional doctrine; during a period when it was still maintained that the Renaissance was evolving in Florence, not to be fully appreciated for almost another hundred years.

His essential expression of volume and depth in some of his work is still maintained within the confines of traditional composition in many ways. With Duccio’s figures remaining fairly iconic yet possessing some ‘real’ attributes making the styles almost conflict with one another.

This provides Duccio with an artistic freedom, a sort of paradoxical two-wordly license to experiment between two different mediums. In most depictions of Madonna and child composed by Duccio, the child is often featured in red, whilst a half-length Madonna is adorned in a black/dark blue hooded robe, with a block gold background. Under the Virgin’s hood is a thin fine line of rose or reddish hue which reflects the gown of Christ. Frequently as with Byzantine Art the design on the Virgin’s gown is composed of fine lines of gold, matching the background. Duccio’s relationship with light and shadow is more realistic when the thin gold lines are absent. It is important to remember that Duccio was predominantly and demonstrably working within the Byzantine tradition. What he does generate to this Byzantine philosophy of painting is his removal of worship through art. He actually reverses this objective by using abstraction to achieve an affect and one which was most frequently adopted by the slightly later early Renaissance painter Holbein. This technique forces the observer to be distracted by creating two vantage points. This leads us to question exactly what realism is. By forcing the viewer to turn away from the painting or look in another direction, like that of the finger indicating downwards in Duccio’s Madonna and Child, are we experiencing a sense of quizzical reality or a more profound statement by the artist? Is the art of resemblance here in some way being demystified and if so why?

Whatever the messages are that Duccio is trying to communicate, they are indeed mixed and variable. Yet there is no doubt that he is exploring new concepts of presentation and interpretation particularly visible in his later works.

In 1308, Duccio di Buoninsegna, now recognized as one of the foremost artists in Siena, signed a contract to paint a panel for the high altar of Siena's cathedral. Just three years later, the richest and most complicated altarpiece ever created in Italy - The Maesta was produced. It remains the greatest achievement of Duccio's documented career.

Centuries later, the altarpiece was removed from the cathedral and several panels were separated from it. While most of the Maesta which is composed of forty-six panels in all survives in Siena's Cathedral Museum, parts of it can be found in museum collections around the world, including the National Gallery and the Frick Collection.

The front side of the altar represents the Virgin Enthroned with accompanying hosts of angels and saints, of whom the four patron saints of Siena - Savinus, Ansanus, Crescentius, and Victor are positioned in the front row on either side of the Madonna. At the base of the throne reads the inscription ‘Mater sancta dei sis causa senis requiei sis Duccio vita te quia depinxit ita’ This translates as Holy mother of God, be thou the cause of peace for Siena and because he painted thee thus, of life for Duccio. It can be argued that when Duccio prayed ‘Holy mother of God, be thou the cause of peace’. He is addressing and acknowledging the Virgin Mary as the protector of Siena. Beseeching her to bring peace to the Sienes people, following years of war with the Florentines. And when he says because he painted thee thus’ he is acknowledging too his own sense of achievement and status as an artist and the consequent reason why his soul should be redeemed. The Maesta is not only then the embodiment of his career, but the saviour for Siena. Although an alternative historical interpretation suggests this is a plea made by Duccio to raise him up as an esteemed painter publically.

Whatever the understanding of this inscription is, it represents one of the earliest documented signatures ascribed to a Western work of art. And as so can be seen to illustrate a turning point in Art; a recognition by artists to be seen as important contributors of society. And perhaps acting as another parallel demonstrating the shift in style from ‘glorifying the divine’ as depicted in Byzantine work to ‘representing human concerns’ as with regard to the Renaissance ideology.

Around this are smaller panels with scenes from Her life; scenes from the youth of Christ insofar as they are associated with the Virgin Mary, a row of half-length apostles, and those scenes depicting the Virgin Mary’s life after the Savior’s death, with the Coronation as her climax. The original back side of the altar was divided into small scenes from the life of Christ with the Passion in the center, the Public Life in the predellas below, and scenes after the Resurrection in the panels above. The total number comes to about ninety-two scenes.

A close inspection of the separate panels reveals many variations in quality and style, which might again be interpreted as either a development of Duccio's own style or the assistance of his students.

The enthroned Madonna is represented once again as stiff and flat, particularly in the head. Similarly the apostles radiate the atiquainted Byzantine style. Other parts of the composition demonstrate a greater use of space and figure composition akin to Last Supper or Christ's Entry into Jerusalem. The sheer size and detail within the iconography are far more ambitious than anything produced in this Italian region at the time. Duccio's genius was apparent in the way he introduced soft characters through the interpretation of figures and clothing and the subdued colours once again apparent here.

Duccio has approached the use of space in a completely volumetric way with this masterpiece and because the Maets occupied a space under the dome of the cathedral that was free-standing, it could be painted on both sides. Its colours are typically set against a gold background as with the iconic tradition. However the Madonna in Duccio’s Maesta resides on a considerable, realistic and three dimensional throne holding a large Christ child more softly and convincingly portrayed next to any other at this time seen in Siena or Florence. In face=t the faces of all the characters are fuller and softer in appearance than those typified by the Byzantine age. And Duccio demonstrated special effects to enhance the rounded contours of the figures whilst emphasising their spatial relationship to one another and by of stance and over-lapping forms. Less wooden and more fluid that the old style.

Although there are similarities it is believed that the considerable change in artistic development illustrated within the Maesta is accountable by way of a suggested trip made by Duccio to Paris between the time he painted the Ruccellai Madonna and the Maesta. There is some documentary evidence to a ‘Dutch de Siene’ (Duccio of Siena) travelling to Paris in 1297, which coincides perfectly with his absences at this time. It would also account for the highly advanced and sophisticated style inspired by the French gothic painters.

The British Scholar and Duccio biographer John White wrote in 1979 that where the artist was concerned ‘It is hard to think of a major painter who…is less appreciated for himself and on his own terms and who is more consistently considered in a framework of relatives and qualative comparisons’

Critics analyse Duccio and interpret his work in a number of ways, but there is little to refute the fact that he was the right side of Renaissance innovation, rather than a representative of the Byzantine school. The Maesta confirms this as it appears to reflect the skills and attributes of the sixteenth and seventeenth century masters as yet unknown or discovered during his time. In relation to the Maesta, this may in part be consequential to the fact that when commissioned to create the altarpiece Duccio realised that this was not a painting to be framed, isolated an displayed for the benefit of a few. This cathedral commission would provide him with an opportunity to create something memorable and lasting. It needed to be accurate in its sacred representations, yet also credible and easy to interpret and understood as an account of Christ’s life. The Maesta above all needed to be convincing, demonstrate light and shape and characterisation within a consistent narrative. Some academics note that Duccio fails to completely adopt a naturalistic form, particularly evident in the way in which he controls the perspective throughout. This visible decision is attributed to the assumption that although Duccio appreciated and recognised it, he was essentially incapable of capturing realism, because it had somehow been suppressed through his study and understanding of the Christian Byzantine style which over the course of his life had somehow fundamentally made him unable to truly realise the naturalistic approach to Art.

This theory is exemplified by Jules Lubbock who describes the procession scence the day that Duccio transported his panels from his work shop to the Cathedral. How the streets were full of supporters and the church bells rang trumpets, pipes and casternets lining the way. Identifying the altarpiece as the largest and most elaborate of its time, with duccio dedicating non other than eleven scenes to the trial of Jesus.

It is estimated that in order to make these scenes so seemingly accurate and lifelike Duccio would have needed to study the biblical texts voraciously.

Lubbock refers to one scene in particular, set in Pilate’s courtyard. Instead of placing three columns on the ground on the front plane in order to overlap the human figures behind them, as if the viewer is observing the drama through the columns, as even empirical perspective dictates, Duccio positions the figures in front of one column or another with the columns disappearing behind them, not meeting the ground. These columns therefore rather than meeting the basic rules of perspective create what Hogarth termed ‘false perspective’. Whether such effects were purposefully designed by Duccio to add or detract from the Realism will always be debated as will his style and even the patronage of some of his pieces. However there is a general consensus amongst modern day scholars that the Maesta provides enough early evidence alone to support the verification that it set Italian painting on the road which led away from the hierarchical representations characterised by the Byzantine art movement, towards a more direct and humanistic presentation of realism and reality founded in the renaissance philosophy of later artists.


There is little documented information about Duccio’s life and career but as has been mentioned previously a great deal of evidence survives pertaining to his financial dealings. He was fined more than once for nonpayment of debts; in 1295 he was penalized for refusing to pledge allegiance to the head of the popolo party; in 1302 for not appearing for military duty; and in the same year for what appears to have been practicing sorcery. Just as Giotto dominated the Florentine school for much of the rest of the fourteenth century, Duccio's style dominated Sienese art.

This dissertation has sought to provide an indication of the type of influential impact his work made on the history of Art, in relation to appreciating his early Renaissance style. The Madonna Ruccellai wrongly attributed to Cimabue for many years depicts a serious and robust child and illuminates the vivid expressions detailed on the faces of the adoring angels. The stylistic way in which the angels float in mid air, with the light and shade lending itself to an enhanced feeling of spirituality and elegance previously unseen in Siena or even across Italy as early as the 1280’s. The positioning of the throne and the gradual light and dark shading in addition to the way in which the Virgin’s robe drapes to determine her figure underneath are innovative in their presentation and indicative of early Renaissance naturalistic style. However the painting still recalls the Virgin looking out directly at the viewer, behaving more as an object to be worshipped than understood or questioned. The stars on her robe and the throne of surrounding angels epitomize her figure still as one of the Queen of Heaven, maintaining the Byzantine pious overtones. Although the Madonna Rucellai is in many ways truly original it is still reminiscent of many Byzantine features including the Old Testament references in the frame around the picture.

In the twenty years following the creation of the Madonna Rucellai. Duccio was the leading painter in the city of Siena. He needs to be fully recognized as being responsible for taking the arts in a new direction and helping to inspire a whole new cultural era. During this period we are presented with Duccio’s small altarpiece representing the Virgin enthroned with angels entitled The Madonna of the Franciscans epitomized by the three monks kneeling at the foot of the throne. The three kneel at her feet in various degrees of a curtsy, while the Christ child reaches out to them. According to Maria Vasilake the virgin belongs to a type of iconography which is not found in Byzantium, but rather is represented in Western culture as the traditional Madonna della Misericordia. Typically she spreads out her mantle or cloak to her right hand side to enfold the Christ child in a protective manner. The creation and circulation of this depiction in the thirteenth century we are told is rare and was disseminated by religious orders who believed in the physical and spiritual protection that the Virgin provided by her mantle. One of the earliest examples of this type of Western iconography is actually attributed to Duccio and The Madonna of the Franciscans Not only was his painting style unique, but his subject matter too proves distinctive.

There is no doubt that having a knowledge of Cimabue's work can be attributed to Duccio's style at this time, but considering Ducio’s methods and his advancement of style it is perhaps best to consider Cimabue’s influence to be a later attribute as it is clear that Duccios personal style had already evolved significantly within the framework of the well defined Sienese tradition.

Siena is depicted as one of the key centers of Art during 1260 and 1280 particularly in accordance with their significant and majestic cathedral.

Most notable local influences of Duccio include the older painter Guido da Siena who adopted a serene dignity across his figures. Duccio may also have traveled to Florence in his early years, and met his biggest rival artistically at the time, Cimabue, yet again it is not as straightforward as to imagine that Duccio received any type of influence from any one person. It can be assured that Duccio was nothing more than a follower of Cimabue

The work in which the genius of Duccio unfolds in all its majesty is within the Maesta the altarpiece for the main altar of the cathedral of Siena. He was commissioned to do this work in 1308, for a payment of 3,000 gold florins, the highest figure paid to an artist up to that time. Duccio himself was aware of the work’s significance; and signed the throne of the Virgin with devout and proud message. Duccio reflects the new spirit of an age of Renaissance, with his greatest achievement being the Maesta, which took over three years to complete for Siena Cathedral. The range of emotional expression is astonishing with Duccio revealing not only the physical appearance of each of his subjects, but their emotional states as well. In some of the scenes the action takes place in an architectural setting conveying a great sense of space which is not commonly present in paintings of his time.

The Maestà is painted on both sides. The central rectangle of the front side depicts a single scene showing the Madonna and Child enthroned in the middle of a heavenly court of saints and angels with the four patron saints of Siena kneeling at their feet. The back is of the altarpiece is divided into 26 compartments illustrating the Passion of Christ. In total there are 59 narrative scenes.

The rigorous symmetry contained within the groups of figures surrounding the Virgin are arranged in inspired by compositions within the Byzantine tradition The 30 figures, through the manner in which Duccio paints their gestures and turnings of the head, are intimately related, their positions repeated to give a feeling of intense contemplation. The shared feelings that emanate from this contemplation give the facial features of each character a unique and spiritual beauty. The Madonna is resplendent and slightly larger than the other figures is seated on a massive throne of marbles. The scenes in the predella, pinnacles, and back are filled with the Byzantine iconographic schemes from which Duccio finds it difficult to detach himself from this style.

Only tiny bits of information are available about the few years that Duccio lived following the completion of the Maesta. He had a prosperous workshop from which other works emerged, but they seem to have been executed by many of the students that he took on. He had obviously accumulated wealth because by 1304 he bought a vineyard in the neighborhood of Siena. However the records of around ten years later determine that he was once again severely in debt. He died before his wife Taviana, leaving behind seven children. It is believed that at least two of his children, Galgano and Giorgio, were painters, but there are no records relating to the scope of their work or whether they were even successful. 

The Columbia Encyclopedia tells us that Duccio di Buoninsegna , was living in the period 1278-1319,that he was an early Italian artist, and the ‘first great painter of Siena. Infusing new life into the stylized Byzantine tradition’, with ‘The use of line varied from a vigorous quality in his rendering of narrative scenes to a lyrical and majestic tone in his portrayal of the Madonna and angels’. 

In Harold Edges A History of Sienese Painting he devotes a chapter to the artist in his book. One of the paragraphs from his writing summaries Duccio with great eloquence and is a fitting way to conclude this paper. ‘Duccio Di Buoninsegna aas the first great and The first truly characteristic painter of the Sienese school. From documentary sources we have many facts, yet his personality still remains vague. Dry references record his commissions, his debts, his fines, but the picturesque legenda that so frequently gather about figures of far lesser importance are absent in his case. The account in Vasari is worthless. The Aretine displays no prejudice against the great Sienese, but only abysmal ignorance concerning him. He was not even familiar with the great Majesty in the Cathedral of Siena, and he assigns to Duccio works of 1350, some thirty years after the artist's death. By Vasari's time Duccio was only a vague memory, just persistent enough to force the biographer to include him in his works. He evidently considered him merely one of the many Sienese active in the mid trecento, and tried to treat him as sympathetically as possible consistent with his ignorance of the facts. The haziness of our impression of Duccio the man is the more regrettable since the documents reveal, in occasional flashes, the fact that the painter lived a turbulent and picturesque life. Most of it was spent in Siena, and the artist seemed to take an active part in the uneasy politics of his day. The fines for disturbing the peace, as well as the bills for wine, give us the impression that his political activity and moral character were not on the most elevated plane.’


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