The Nativity

Our faith, our story, seen through the eyes of Duccio.

Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_-_The_Nativity_between_Prophets_Isaiah_and_EzekielThe Nativity (with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel), 1308-1311, egg tempera, Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1255-1319

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Duccio’s “Nativity” was once part of the Maesta (Majesty) which served as an altarpiece for the Cathedral of Siena, Italy. When the painting was completed in 1311, it was composed of a very large panel of the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints and angels. Its base – called a “predella” (Italian for “foot stool” which it resembled) – was below the main panel. It served physically to support the altarpiece and visually to depict seven scenes of the birth and early life of Christ. In its original form, an Old Testament prophet stood to the right of each event holding a scroll on which a passage written by him pertained to the scene.

Duccio’s “Nativity,” the second scene in the predella, takes place in a grotto with Mary reclining on a red cushion in a royal robe of blue. In keeping with the practice of increasing a person’s size in accordance with their importance, she is much larger than the other figures. In the manger, the baby Jesus is being watched over by an ox and an ass and many angels have gathered above them; some are looking heavenward in praise and others are leaning over for an adoring glance at the baby. A small star is at the peak of the cave entrance with its rays shining onto the face of Jesus. Below the figure of Mary are two related scenes. On the left, two midwives are bathing the newborn Jesus and on the right, angels are announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds as they stand with a sheepdog and their flock. On the left side, Joseph is sitting outside of the grotto in a pink robe, To the right of this scene is a painting of Ezekiel holding a scroll with his words; “This gate shall be kept shut: it shall not be opened, and no man may pass through it.”

In the early eighteenth century, the Maesta altarpiece was taken apart in order to divide it between the two altars of the Cathedral of Siena. During this process, damage was caused and some parts of the painting became separated and lost. Other sections were purchased and placed in museums. One of the results is Isaiah now is not with the scene to which he and his words belong. The scroll he is holding states; “Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” and he was placed originally at the immediate right of the “Annunciation,” (the first scene of the predella). He was separated from it and is now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC standing next to the “Nativity.” Isaiah is not looking toward the birth of Jesus because in the original he was looking toward the Archangel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. The painting of the “Annunciation,” to which his words of prophecy apply is an ocean away in the National Gallery of London without its accompanying prophet, Isaiah.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Be well. Do good. Pay attention. Keep learning.

Image: Web Gallery of Art

Rachel and Leah (Track 1 ) & Solomon (Track 2 )| Art for A Proper 12

RCL Track 1
Genesis 29:25 When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”

Rachel and Leah
MICHELANGELO Buonarroti
(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)
Rachel and Leah
1545
Marble
San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome
Click image for more information.
Click for artist bio.

RCL Track 2
1 Kings 3:5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night

Solomon by Duccio
Solomon 1308-11 Tempera on wood, 42,5 x 16 cm Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena

Additional commentary by Hovak Najarian 8/15/2012

The Nativity between Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel | Art for A Christmas 1

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us….

The Nativity between Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel
DUCCIO di Buoninsegna
(b. ca. 1255, Siena, d. 1319, Siena)
The Nativity between Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel
1308-11
Tempera on wood
National Gallery of Art, WashingtonClick image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian
(Previously Hovak has commented on works from the Maesta:
Christ’s Appearance to the Apostles and Solomon)

The Nativity (with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel), 1308-1311, egg tempera, Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1255-1319

Duccio’s “Nativity” was once part of the Maesta (Majesty) which served as an altarpiece for the Cathedral of Siena, Italy. When the painting was completed in 1311, it was composed of a very large panel of the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints and angels. Its base – called a “predella” (Italian for “foot stool” which it resembled) – was below the main panel. It served physically to support the altarpiece and visually to depict seven scenes of the birth and early life of Christ. In its original form, an Old Testament prophet stood to the right of each event holding a scroll on which a passage written by him pertained to the scene.

Duccio’s “Nativity,” the second scene in the predella, takes place in a grotto with Mary reclining on a red cushion in a royal robe of blue. In keeping with the practice of increasing a person’s size in accordance with their importance, she is much larger than the other figures. In the manger, the baby Jesus is being watched over by an ox and an ass and many angels have gathered above them; some are looking heavenward in praise and others are leaning over for an adoring glance at the baby. A small star is at the peak of the cave entrance with its rays shining onto the face of Jesus. Below the figure of Mary are two related scenes. On the left, two midwives are bathing the new born Jesus and on the right, angels are announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds as they stand with a sheepdog and their flock. On the left side, Joseph is sitting outside of the grotto in a pink robe, To the right of this scene is a painting of Ezekiel holding a scroll with his words; “This gate shall be kept shut: it shall not be opened, and no man may pass through it.”

In the early eighteenth century, the Maesta altarpiece was taken apart in order to divide it between the two altars of the Cathedral of Siena. During this process, damage was caused and some parts of the painting became separated and lost. Other sections were purchased and placed in museums. One of the results is Isaiah now is not with the scene to which he and his words belong. The scroll he is holding states; “Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” and he was placed originally at the immediate right of the “Annunciation,” (the first scene of the predella). He was separated from it and is now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC standing next to the “Nativity.” Isaiah is not looking toward the birth of Jesus because in the original he was looking toward the archangel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. The painting of the “Annunciation,” to which his words of prophecy apply is an ocean away in the National Gallery of London without its accompanying prophet, Isaiah.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

B Proper 15, Art for August 19, 2012

DUCCIO di Buoninsegna
(b. ca. 1255, Siena, d. 1319, Siena)
Click to open Web Gallery of Art Artist Biography and to explore other works by this artist.

Solomon
1308-11
Tempera on wood, 42,5 x 16 cm
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena
Click to open Web Gallery of Art commentary page. Click image for large view.

Related art commentary by Hovak Najarian.

Solomon, 1308-1311, Egg Tempera, Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-1319)

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Related post B Proper 15, Art for August 19, 2012

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.]

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© 2012 Hovak Najarian

B Easter 3, Art for April 22, 2012

DUCCIO di Buoninsegna
(b. ca. 1255, Siena, d. 1319, Siena)
Click to open Web Gallery of Art Artist Biography and to explore other works by this artist.

Appearence While the Apostles are at Table
1308-11
Tempera on wood, 39,5 x 51,5 cm
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena
Click to open Web Gallery of Art commentary page. Click image for large view.

Related art commentary by Hovak Najarian.
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Christ’s Appearance to the Apostles, Tempera, 1308-1311, Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255- 1319)

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Related post “Easter 3, April 22,2012′

Until the nineteenth century, Italy was made up of independent city states and often there were rivalries among them. Neighbors such as Siena and Florence competed constantly with each other; they fought wars, had disputes over territory, and were rivals even in the arts. During the late thirteenth to the early fourteenth century, Florence was developing rapidly in the arts as Giotto and Cimabue worked there. During this same period, Duccio di Buoninsegna, better known as simply Duccio, was the principal painter in Siena. It was through his work and influence that Siena became Florence’s major rival in culture and art.

The art of Siena during Duccio’s youth was influenced strongly by Byzantine iconography. Duccio, himself, was trained in the Byzantine style but as time progressed, he brought more life to figures than is found in the icons of Eastern Churches. Duccio’s most renowned work is a large altarpiece known as the Maesta (Majesty), designed for the Cathedral of Siena. In the early eighteenth century this altarpiece was dismantled and the parts separated but in its original form it was an assemblage of panels. The very large front panel of the Maesta is a single scene showing a Madonna and Child in large scale surrounded by smaller sized saints and angels. On the back side are a large number of individual paintings depicting scenes from the New Testament. Among them is, Christ’s Appearance to the Apostles.

In Christ’s Appearance to the Apostles we see Jesus as he stands before the eleven remaining disciples after his resurrection. He is pictured as though he has just stepped before them and is speaking with his arms outstretched. The disciples, in turn, are all facing Jesus with a hand raised in a gesture that suggests they are startled and in awe. On the table are broiled fish; a piece of which was given to Jesus when he asked if they had anything to eat. Duccio’s composition is arranged simply but his attempt to create an illusion of space is awkward. Its shallow pictorial depth, the use of gold leaf, and Jesus’ robe are all manifestations of Byzantine art but the individualized faces and fullness of the robes of the disciples are departures from it as Duccio depicted Jesus and the apostles as real people; not as beings existing as though in another realm.

By observing the appearance of things as we see them, Renaissance artists learned to create an illusion of space by devices such as linear and atmospheric perspective, size differences, color and value changes, and in the location of figures or objects in a picture plane.

In Duccio’s painting, all parallel lines of the architecture and table would not meet at a point if they were extended as they would in linear perspective. The disciples with halos on the far side of the table are seen from waist up and we can’t be sure if they are standing or sitting on a bench; the disparity in size tends to negate space rather than to create an illusion of it. The perspective of the table also is awkward and the plates seem to be defying gravity. Yet, despite the inaccuracies of perspective, Duccio achieves a strong sense of unity through the repetition of shapes and colors. Above all, the emotional content of the subject is ever-present and overrides any technical distractions.

Note:

When the medium of a painting is given as “Tempera,” as in Duccio’s Christ’s Appearance to the Apostles, the binder is usually egg yolk and the medium may be sometimes stated as, “egg tempera.” Egg yolk mixed with finely ground pigments holds the particles together and binds it to the surface of the painting as well. Later during the Renaissance, linseed oil was used as the preferred binder; thus we have the term, “oil painting.”

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© 2012 Hovak Najarian

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