Accessible Art History
Artist Spotlight: Duccio di Buoninsegna
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I have another post in my Artist Spotlight series. Duccio was one of the greatest artists of the medieval period. His techniques started art towards the ideals of the Renaissance, while still honoring Byzantine and Gothic traditions. In order to highlight this, I’ve chosen three of his few surviving works. So, without further ado, let’s get started!
In order to understand the art, it’s important to understand the artist. Unfortunately, due to the time period, there is little surviving information on Duccio’s life. His full name was Duccio di Buoninsegna. Art historians have pieced together a vague timeline of his life using information from town records and his commissions.
Duccio was born between 1255-1260 in the Republic of Siena. His first commission came in 1278 when the commune (local ruling body) asked him to decorate 12 boxes for public records storage. To historians, this indicates that he was at the beginning of his career because this was the kind of job usually referred to artisans, not artists.
Starting in the 1280’s, Duccio started getting more commissions, including a few prestigious ones like the Maesta, which will be discussed later in the post. Records indicate that he wasn’t the best at managing his money as he was fined a few times for non payment of debt. There is a possibility that he was married, but the evidence is inconclusive.
Duccio died around 1318-1319. He was famous during his own lifetime and inspired many other artists including Simone Martini, Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, and Giotto. Today, 13 of his works survive, including a Madonna and Child painting that resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I covered it in an episode of Art History Minute, which you can watch by clicking here.
The Maestà Altarpiece is the most famous work by Duccio. He worked on it between 1308 and 1312 after the city of Siena commissioned him to create an altarpiece for the Duomo. When it was finished, officials were so amazed at the work that they instructed it to be paraded around the city in a grand procession.
This work is quite large, 7 feet by 13. The main panel features the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints and angels. The Predella (or small step) features the Life of Christ. There is a beautiful inscription carved onto the altarpiece that states. Finally, on the back of the altarpiece are 43 individual scenes showing the life of both the Virgin and Christ.
The sheer size and incredible attention to detail are what makes this work so amazing! Duccio utilized the golden background, heavy haloes, and thick draping of Byzantine/Gothic art. However, he also incorporated some new ideas as well. For example, the use of architecture and perspective give a three dimensional quality to the work. The use of gold creates light and shadow, which means there is depth to the work. Finally, throughout the smaller panels, figures interact with each other, creating a narrative rarely seen before!
Sadly, in 1771, the altarpiece panels were split up and sold off to various high paying collectors. Thankfully, the majority of them remain in Siena, but some can be found throughout the world in museums like the National Gallery and the Frick Collection.
The Perugia Madonna
The Perugia Madonna, also known as the Madonna and Child with Six Angels, was painted by Duccio between 1300-05. It is a fairly standard image, showing the Virgin Mary cradling an infant Jesus. Records indicated that it once hung on the sacristy door of the monastery of San Domenico in Perugia. This piece was removed in 1863 and now resides in the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria.
Once again, we see a golden background and heavy halo. Duccio also utilized some naturalistic elements. Firstly, there is a genuine, motherly, energy coming from Mary as she looks down on her son. Secondly, the angels that populate the top of the work, are painted in a hierarchical perspective. (Meaning they go smallest to largest). This is an important development as this creates a sense of three dimensionality.
The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea Triptych
The final work by Duccio that I’ll be discussing in this post has quite a long name: The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea Triptych. It was commissioned by Niccolò degli Albertini da Prato, the Cardinal Bishop of Ostia. The center panel shows the Virgin and Child, while the two side panels feature the saints. These were a deliberate choice by the patron. Firstly St. Aurea was the patron saint of the city of Ostia. St. Dominic was chosen because da Prato was a member of the order that St. Dominic founded. Due to the small size and folding panels, it appears that this was a personal object that would have traveled with the patron.
As with the other two works, there is a golden background that hints that the scene takes place on an otherworldly plane. However, the relationship between mother and child is as familiar as ever. Mary looks down with affection at her son, who looks up at his mother in awe. There is also a sense of naturalism with the gentle folds of the cloth highlighted by brilliant gold.
Duccio is one of the most important artists in the history of art. His combination of Byzantine elements and new ideas created a unique style that helped forge the path towards the Renaissance.
Sources and Images