Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Duccio’s altarpiece, Maesta (Majesty) painted for the Cathedral of Siena in the early fourteenth century, was composed of a large panel of the Madonna and child surrounded by a host of saints and angels. In its original form, this main panel was part of an assemblage that included many smaller paintings. Above the central painting were eight crowning panels depicting scenes pertaining to Mary’s death. Below the central panel was a row of thirteen small paintings that made up a predella (Italian: kneeling stool); this served as a base or plinth. The Maesta was the first known altarpiece with a predella and this addition became a form used by subsequent artists. On the reverse side of the main panel there were originally forty-three smaller paintings representing events in Christ’s life.
The scenes in Duccio’s predella illustrate The Annunciation and events in Christ’s infancy and youth but they are not in chronological order. Each scene is approximately square in shape and each except the last one is followed immediately by a panel that is the same height but half as wide containing an image of an Old Testament prophet holding a scroll. The prophet’s words on the scroll are interpreted as foretelling the New Testament event that is pictured in the preceding scene. The scenes and accompanying prophets of the Maesta predella, from left to right, are as follows:
Annunciation: The Prophet Isaiah (7:14)
Birth of Christ: The Prophet Ezekiel (44:2)
Adoration of the Magi: The Prophet Solomon (shown above).
In the scene of the “Adoration,” three Magi, along with two horses and four men, have arrived to see the Messiah. Two camel heads can be seen in the background, thus indicating they are from the East, and a star is above the grotto where Mary sits with the infant Jesus in her lap. Two of the Magi, wearing crowns and holding gifts, are standing while the third one with his crown on his arm is kneeling as he kisses the foot of the child, Jesus. [Artists often borrow an image if it fits their need (Picasso said “What I see, I steal”). For the basis of his kneeling Magus, Duccio used the image of the kneeling king in Nicola Pisano’s sculpture of the baptistery pulpit at the Cathedral of Pisa]
The panel to the immediate right of the Adoration of the Magi is the lone figure of Solomon, standing with a scroll on which is written a passage from the Book of Psalms; “The kings of Tarshish and the islands shall bring presents: the kings of the Arabs and of Sheba shall offer gifts” (Psalm 72:10).
Presentation in the Temple: The Prophet Malachi (3:1)
Massacre of the Innocents: The Prophet Jeremiah (31:15)
Flight into Egypt: The Prophet Hosea (11:1)
Christ Disputing with the Scribes (not accompanied by a prophet)
The figures of the prophets are small but, as seen in “Solomon,” they stand solemnly and with dignity. It is believed the statues on the facade of the Cathedral of Siena were used as models for each of the prophets.
During the eight hundred years since the Maesta was painted, both time and human actions have taken a toll. In 1711, it was decided to take apart the altarpiece and divide the sections between the two altars of the cathedral. During this process, severe damage was caused. After it was taken apart, several sections were taken to museums and others were misplaced and are missing. A major restoration was done from 1953-1958 at which time it was discovered that part of the damage to Mary and Jesus was caused by nails being driven into their faces in order to hang rosaries.
[For a brief background of Duccio and the Maesta Altarpiece see Art Commentary for Proper B Easter 3 for April 22, 2012.]
© 2012 Hovak Najarian