After a year and a half of Covid restrictions it is wonderful to be back in Italy at last, especially to be in Tuscany, in Siena, one of my favourite towns. Although I was very much looking forward to some Tuscan gastronomy, the pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale and Brunello di Montalcino had to wait a little while longer as I headed straight to the Museo dell’opera del Duomo in Siena to be reacquainted with Duccio di Buoninsegna’s magnificent ‘Maestà’.
The ‘Maestà’, more properly ‘The Virgin and Christ Child in Majesty with Angels and Saints’, was painted by Duccio and his studio between 1308 and 1311, when it was installed in the Duomo amid great celebrations. A contemporary account records that “on the day [the Maestà] was carried to the Duomo the shops were shut, and the bishop conducted a great and devout company of priests and friars in solemn procession … and they accompanied the said picture up to the Campo, as is the custom, all the bells ringing joyously, out of reverence for so noble a picture.”
The altarpiece was two sided, although it was later sawn into two separate parts so that now the front and back are displayed separately. The front has a large enthroned Madonna and Child with angels and saints, including John the Evangelist, Saint Paul, Catherine of Alexandria, John the Baptist, Saint Peter, Mary Magdalene and Saint Agnes, as well as Siena’s own patron saints. The predella, originally below the main panel, depicts the Childhood of Christ with prophets, whilst the reverse consists of a combined cycle of twenty-six scenes from the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ. However, when the altarpiece was dismantled in 1771 some of the panels were damaged and others sold, resulting in many ending up in museums around the world.
Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Maestà’ (front panel)
Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Maestà’ (reverse)
Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Maestà’ (reconstruction)
The Museum’s collection also includes another Duccio, the ‘Madonna di Crevole’, from the parish church of Santa Cecilia in Crevole, and Pietro Lorenzetti’s masterpiece, ‘Nativity of the Virgin’ from 1342, which originally decorated the altar of St. Sabinus in the Duomo. Other important works in the collection include Giovanni Pisano’s original sculptures from the façade and sides of the Cathedral.
Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Madonna di Crevole’ (1283 – 84)
Pietro Lorenzetti ‘Nativity of the Virgin’ (1342)
Giovanni Pisano Sculptures from Siena Cathedral
September is a good time to visit Siena Cathedral as it is one of the months during which the ‘pavimenti’, the superb marble mosaic floor, is uncovered.
The central nave of Siena Cathedral
Opposite the Cathedral is the Ospedale Santa Maria della Scala, an enormous medieval hospital complex, built on the Via Francigena to provide shelter and care to pilgrims en route from Northern Europe to Rome. Particularly impressive is the extraordinary ‘Pellegrinaio’ or Pilgrim’s Hall, decorated in the 1340s with frescoes by Lorenzo di Pitro, Domenico di Bartolo and Priamo della Quercia, depicting subjects such as ‘Caring and Healing of the Sick’ and ‘Almsgiving’.
Pelegrinaio, Santa Maria della Scala, Siena
Domenico di Bartolo ‘Care of the Sick’ (1341 – 42)
Domenico di Bartolo ‘Almsgiving’ (1342 – 1343)