Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, January 18, 2014


Virgin in Majesty Altarpiece, early 14th century, Duccio di Buoninsegna
Rucellai Madonna, 1285, Duccio
How would you like to go your entire career as an artist painting only one subject? For most painters today, the answer would involve switching to paint in gallon buckets first. Some might inquire as to the nature of that subject or the sums of money involved, but for most of us such a prospect would be totally unthinkable. Though he probably wasn't the only one, that was literally the case for the Italian Early Renaissance painter, Duccio (pronounced DOOT-chee-oh). This pillar of the Sienese painting community (Siena, Italy, that is) painted only pictures of Jesus and His mother sitting on an ornate throne covered in gold leaf. Actually, that's not quite true, usually there were some angels, saints, and apostles involved too, but you get the idea. Less than twenty of his paintings survive. Most are multi-paneled (polyptych) altarpieces. Among them all, there is one crucifixion and a surrender of a castle, but all others were Madonna and Child paintings with supporting images from the life of Christ.

Virgin in Majesty (detail), ca. 1300, Duccio
Duccio di Buoninsegna was born around 1255-60. As is so often the case with artists of the Early Renaissance, little is known of his early years other than the fact he was married, probably had in the neighborhood of seven kids, and (perhaps not surprisingly, with a brood like that) also had recurring money problems. It's believed he may have studied with the Florentine painting master Cimabue (pronounced Chee-ma-BOO--ee) and probably spent time in Constantinople learning to paint like a Byzantine. This training pedigree (mostly based upon circumstantial evidence) is why his work is usually classified as Byzantine Gothic. It certainly looks that way to me. His first major surviving work (also his largest) is the Rucellai Madonna (above left) from 1285. There are only six angels surrounding this early Madonna. That number later grew to around twenty in the Virgin in Majesty altarpiece (top) probably from the first decade of the 14th century.

The Last Supper (detail), Siena Duomo Altarpiece (below), 1308, Duccio
The works of Duccio are all the more astounding in that they are not painted in oils. Imagine mixing dry pigment with what you may have had leftover on your plate from morning breakfast--egg yolk. I've never tried it, but from what I've read, the stuff may have been about the nastiest, most confounding, most cantankerous concoction ever conceived by the creative consciousness of man. Mixed with a little water, the paint dried almost the instant it was applied in thin, transparent glazes allowing for little or no blending and quite unforgiving of even the most minor errors. Any painter who could have handled that has to be admired, if for no other attribute than sheer patience.

Stories of the Passion, Siena Duomo Altarpiece, 1308-11, Duccio 
Duccio's most important commission came around 1308, an altarpiece for the Siena Cathedral, referred to now as Stories of the Passion or sometimes the Siena Duomo Altarpiece. Consisting of around 40 combined panels, the altarpiece is something like the Gospels illustrated, centered around the crucifixion. (Literacy was not a common attribute among worshipers of that era.) The quality is somewhat uneven, some quite exceptional (perhaps explaining why two panels are missing) while others range from mediocre to "what was he thinking?" The conquest of linear perspective lay decades in the future, halos were the latest fashion in apostolic headgear, and landscape details barely rise above kindergarten "lollipop" trees. Still there is a lively, fascinating, chronological narrative of Christ's ministry never before attempted in religious painting. The chart below gives some idea of the visual "flow" intended by the artist. Duccio died around 1318-19.

Stories of the Passion, Siena Duomo Altarpiece (diagram)  
Diagram and key courtesy of Olga's Gallery


No comments:

Post a Comment