Italo-Byzantine Florence, continued
The largest surviving Italo-Byzantine panel painting (and probably the largest made) originally sat on the high altar of the church of Santa Trinita in Florence. Cimabue’s Maesta is 12 feet high. It dominates the Trecento galleries in the Uffizi museum, and must have presented quite a spectacle inside the church. We can only imagine its huge gilded presence looming in the darkness of Santa Trinita, sparkling in the candlelight.
Santa Trinita, Florence, ca. 1250 - 1260, modified late 14th century.
Cimabue, Maesta for Santa Trinita, ca 1280
It is an enormous and much more ambitious version of the Maesta, the Virgin and Child enthroned in majesty in heaven, pioneered by Coppo di Marcovaldo and by early Sienese painters such as Guido da Siena. Cimabue remains faithful to the original Byzantine prototypes and expands upon them, and not just in terms of size.
Cimabue turns the Maesta composition into a magnificent heavenly pageant, as though the Queen of Heaven and her Son majestically descend from heaven to the altar of Santa Trinita, bidden by the faithful. She stands out in vivid silhouette against the gold leaf background.
Cimabue, Maesta, detail
Cimabue, Maesta, detail
Her once blue mantle is now black. Blue was a difficult and expensive color to make. Most blues of the time were chemically unstable and turned greenish black with time. As in Coppo’s painting and in earlier Byzantine paintings, there are gold striations throughout her mantle. Cimabue makes them appear not as expressive pattern, but as highlights on the fabric. The Christ child that sat so fitfully upon His Mother’s lap in Coppo’s Maesta now sits more securely upon her knee. He looks less like a miniature man and a little more like a child. The angels in Coppo’s painting were a kind of symbolic afterthought. Here, eight angels in two almost symmetrical groups of 4 make a magnificent escort.
Cimabue, Maesta, detail
Their heads, halos, and wings form an almost musical downward sequence, emphasized by the gradations of rich colors on their wings. Coppo’s throne was an odd prop. Cimabue’s throne plays a crucial role in this picture. It is large and architectural. More striking, there are some indications of rudimentary perspective. The arms and the podium appear to recede back from us. Almost everything in the picture seems to turn inward toward the Virgin and Child. Cimabue, true to Byzantine tradition, goes just so far with perspective before he begins to subvert it. Only the lowest pair of angels appears to be standing on a kind of running-board on the throne. It is not clear at all what the other angels stand upon. The prophets improbably stand in a kind of open crypt under the throne.
Cimabue, Maesta, detail
The central two prophets stand in a kind of spatial ambiguity worthy of Cezanne or Picasso. Are they standing under an arched window, or is that part of the throne forming a kind of exedra? Cimabue implies both. Cimabue makes clear that this scene is not set on earth, and has little to do with our experiences of the world. Cimabue’s great panel set a standard and presented a challenge to the next generation of artists.
The most important and the largest work of Italo-Byzantine painting in Florence is the mosaic cycle in the cupola of the Florence Baptistery.
Florence Baptistery, 11th century
Florence Baptistery, mosaics in the dome, 13th century
This huge project was the work of several artists over decades of time. A Venetian mosaicist summoned to Florence may be responsible for the over-all design. Numerous artists executed it. It is possible that Coppo and Cimabue worked on it. It is a magnificently Byzantine interpretation of a very un-Byzantine subject, salvation history. Since the 9th century, the Byzantine formula for dome decoration in the Eastern Church was set in the stone of dogma. Christ Pantocrator, the Ruler of the Universe, always dominated the top center of the dome. Angels, Apostles, and saints appeared in their assigned ranks down the drum and the supporting arches of the dome.
Mosaics in the dome, Monastery Church at Daphni near Athens, 12th century
The Florence Baptistery dome ruled out this traditional format. The top of the Baptistery dome is an open occulus, like that of the Pantheon in Rome. Christ Pantocrator moves to one side of the dome and changes His role to Christ the Judge at the end of time. The Last Judgment spreads over the western three sides of the eight-sided dome.
The Last Judgment from the Florence Baptistery mosaics, west side.
Christ the Judge from the Florence Baptistery mosaics
A very Western hell scene from the Florence Baptistery mosaics
The remaining five sides tell a series of parallel stories in descending order. In the top are the stories of the Creation and Genesis. Below that is the story of Joseph. Beneath that is the Life of Christ, and finally at the bottom is the life of the city’s patron saint and the patron of the Baptistery, John the Baptist.
Narrative cycles from the Florence Baptistery mosaics. From bottom to top, the Life of John the Baptist, the Life of Christ, the Story of Joseph, and scenes from Genesis.
In true Western fashion, the episodes of each story had their concordances with other episodes in other stories. The panels in the narrative bands of the mosaic were very carefully organized for this purpose. Not only can we read the panels from left to right in narrative order, we can read them vertically. For example, along the bottom strip we see John the Baptist imprisoned. When we move upward, we see the theme of unjust punishment unfold before us. Above the imprisoned John, the Holy Family flees into exile. Above them, Joseph sits unjustly accused in jail with the Pharaoh’s baker and butler. And finally, Cain asks God if he is his brother’s keeper over the body of the innocent and murdered Abel.
These details become visible only after we begin to study the mosaic. At first sight, it is a huge and overwhelming image.
The dome of the Florence Baptistery.
We can only imagine how this must have appeared to the newly baptized coming up out of the water of the font. They would have seen a vision of the whole divine plan of salvation that seemed as big as the heavens.
The story of Italo-Byzantine painting in Siena begins in Florence with another huge Maesta panel, the misnamed Rucellai Madonna. This painting has nothing to do with the Rucellai family. It stood on the altar of the chapel of the Confraternity of the Laudesi in the great Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The artist who made it was not Florentine, but Sienese, the founder of the whole Sienese painting tradition, Duccio.
Duccio, The Rucellai Madonna, ca. 1285
Duccio clearly had Cimabue’s great painting in mind. At first glance, it looks as traditional as Cimabue’s work with its very Byzantine looking Virgin and Child. Just as in Cimabue’s painting, there is an angel escort flanking a large elaborate throne. What is different is that the enthroned Virgin and Child appear to be sitting much more securely on a ground plane. The throne and her legs appear to sit at a slightly oblique angle to the picture plane. The angels all appear to be kneeling credibly on a ground plane, even when they are hovering above each other. The top angels hold up a very elaborate, and very Gothic, cloth of honor behind the Virgin. What is really un-Italo-Byzantine are Duccio’s rich florid colors, especially in the angels, salmon pink, lilac, about two or three different greens and blues.
Duccio was contemporary with Giotto, and the textbooks still cast him as the conservative alternative to Giotto. He was nothing of the sort. He certainly was not a revolutionary like Giotto, but he was not any conservative like Cimabue either. In his own way, he was very much an innovator. Duccio would create the brilliant hybrid of Byzantine and Gothic art that would characterize Sienese painting into the 15th century. Duccio would combine Byzantine hierarchies with Gothic splendor into one of the most effective narrative styles ever created.
Nowhere is this narrative mastery more clearly displayed than in Duccio’s greatest work, and the largest most ambitious panel painting cycle of the whole Trecento, the great Maesta altarpiece for the high altar of the cathedral of Siena.
Duccio, the Maesta altarpiece, 1308 - 1311, possible reconstruction of the front side facing the nave of Siena Cathedral.
Duccio, the Maesta Altarpiece, a reconstruction of the back, the side facing the choir.
Anonymous Sienese panel painting showing the presentation of an annual offering to the Virgin Mary. We see a glimpse of the Maesta in its original location in the cathedral in the background on the left.
Interior of Siena Cathedral today.
The Maesta survives in pieces. The bulk of it remains in Siena in the cathedral museum. The remainder is scattered in museums throughout the world. The altarpiece was removed in the 16th century when the cathedral’s high altar was relocated and rebuilt. The altarpiece was broken up in 1771 (never underestimate the destructive power of changes in taste).
The Maesta was not so much an altarpiece as a huge free-standing structure. The altar of Siena’s cathedral originally stood beneath the dome. The cathedral’s choir originally faced toward the dome in the center of the crossing. The Maesta was two sided. The front side facing the nave was the actual Maesta panel with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. Scenes from Christ’s life and Passion made up the back part facing the cathedral choir. It was a very Gothic structure with a lot of elaborately carved and gilded shrine-work and pinnacles. Perhaps the cathedral’s black and white marble stripes (reflecting Siena’s black and white flag) limited the available space for fresco painting, creating the need for so extensive a cycle of narrative panels.
The largest panel that originally faced into the nave, the Maesta proper, was the most innovative.
Duccio, Maesta, the surviving front panel.
So far as I know, this is the first time in Italian painting that the enthroned Virgin and Child were shown together with a throng of saints and angels in the same panel and sharing the same space. This is the beginning of a centuries long Italian (and eventually European) tradition of the composition type known as Sacra Conversazione. The gigantic group of the Virgin and Child dominates the center with a clear strong silhouette.
Duccio, Maesta, detail, the Enthroned Virgin and Child.
Her face unfortunately is a wreck, badly damaged in a botched cleaning in the 18th century. We get a better idea of what her face might have been like when we look at the heads of the flanking angels.
Duccio, detail from the Maesta, an angel.
Duccio made her throne even more clearly perspectival than the one in Cimabue’s huge panel. Not only do all the saints and angels face the center, the throne makes them face inward. The angel escort appears again, but now more attached to the throne and looking inward, even leaning in over the back of the throne. Siena’s patron saints kneel in the first row with Apostles and martyrs standing behind them.
Saints and Angels on the left side of the Maesta.
Saints and Angels on the left side
The back row is a large group of attending angels. Duccio gives the saints, and the rest of the altarpiece, rich brilliant colors ranging from scarlet to yellows to a wide variety of blues, greens, and violets, the colors of a spring meadow.
The Maesta is the earliest surviving altarpiece with painted panels on the base called a predella. Duccio may well have invented the predella in an earlier altarpiece that is now lost. This is an innovation that expands the narrative capacity of painted altarpieces, and that would spread throughout Italian and European painting very quickly. The predella panels, and the panels of the top peaks, front and back, were broken up and sold off. They can now be found in museums from Paris to Fort Worth. The central panels of the attic story on both sides are lost, and scholars can only speculate what they were. The narrative panels on the front of the Maesta told the life of the Virgin Mary. The panels on the predella told the story of Christ’s Incarnation beginning on the left with the Annunciation and ending on the right with the boy Christ teaching in the temple. The panels on the attic storey told the story of the Virgin’s death beginning on the left with the very rare subject, the Annunciation of the Virgin’s Death and ending with her burial on the right. Most scholars believe that the missing center panel showed the Assumption or the Coronation of the Virgin, or both.
The back of the Maesta facing the cathedral choir showed the narrative of Christ’s Passion broken up into 26 panels in the center with more on the predella and on the attic storey. The central Passion narrative remains in Siena, but the predella and attic panels are again scattered, though some remain in Siena. We see in these panels Duccio’s great gifts as a storyteller.
Duccio, Maesta, the surviving back panel of the Passion of Christ.
The Entrance into Jerusalem begins the Passion narrative with a tall panel that combines two panel measures. Christ and the Apostles arrive to a tumultuous welcome at the city gate.
The Entrance Into Jerusalem from Duccio's Maesta
People lean over the city walls and climb trees to get a better look. We can see through the gate one head peeking out an upper storey window. Christ and the Apostles appear to be ascending a steep hill into the city. Duccio does something here that the Italo-Byzantine style never did, apply actual experience to the telling of a story. Duccio would have had a number of occasions to watch grand processions into and out of the city of Siena. People certainly did lean out of windows, climb trees, lean over walls, and call out to each other to get a better view, as they do today (especially for the annual Palio). What is more, Duccio uses very local experiences. Christ and the Apostles climb a hill to enter Jerusalem. To this day, visitors must climb the slope of a hill to enter Siena, even from the railroad station. Duccio cast his own native city into the role of Jerusalem, locating the events of the Passion, not in ancient far away Jerusalem, but in the here and now. We inhabitants of a much more literal-minded age find this kind of creative anachronism to be unsettling. The inhabitants of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance did not share our scruples about historical accuracy. What mattered to them was not the history, but the story and its meaning, and its meaning for them.
The Crucifixion panel in the center is a splendid and original variation on Cimabue’s composition in Assisi.
The Crucifixion from Duccio's Maesta
Instead of Cimabue’s dying giant God-man, Duccio presents a more human Christ, the same size as both His friends and tormentors, collapsing on the thin cross in the angles of bending joints instead of the graceful sweeps of a rhythmic S curve. He dies in the company of the two thieves instead of alone. He still links heaven and earth. The grieving angels still flock to Him in an echo of Cimabue’s composition. The cross decisively divides the two groups of the crowd watching Him die, another variation on Cimabue, but more dramatic. His family and friends are on His right, and His tormentors are on His left (a foretaste of the Last Judgment). Duccio shows Mary swooning in grief, reflecting an anecdote common in popular preaching and devotional literature then current in Tuscany.
Toward a New Beginning
A third great Maesta painting appeared in Florence. This one was painted for the high altar of a church almost around the corner from Santa Trinita and Cimabue’s great panel, the church of Ognisanti or All Saints. The artist who painted it was Giotto.
Giotto, Maesta for the Church of Ognisanti, Florence, ca. 1310 - 1315
The giant Virgin and Child dominate the painting as they did the previous paintings. We have the same gold leaf and halos. But, this painting makes a decisive break with the immediate past. The Virgin and Child have mass and weight. They actually appear to sit upon the Gothic throne. What is more, we know exactly where everything and everyone is in relation to us. We know that the kneeling angels with vases of flowers are closest to us. We know that the back row of saints is furthest from us, and that everyone stands on the same ground plane. The gilded striations in the Virgin’s mantle in Coppo’s painting and in Cimabue’s painting are gone. We see the Virgin’s knees under the mantle described by light and dark. The same is true for the garments of the angels and saints. The angels’ wings that Cimabue turned into a splendid sequence of form and color are here minimized. The throne is far more insistently (and successfully) perspectival than anything that we’ve seen before. Solidity and actuality replace Cimabue’s and Duccio’s grace of form. For the first time with this subject, we are in doubt. Are we in heaven or are we on earth?
All of the art we’ve seen shows the glories of heaven. The inhabitants of all of these paintings and mosaics are the beautiful supernal citizens of the realms of everlasting day. This remains true even in the narrative panels of the painted crosses, the Baptistery mosaics, and Duccio’s Maesta. The stories of salvation history appear in these works of art not as they might have actually happened, nor as anyone might have experienced them, but as they are recounted in heaven in an eternal present tense. The gold halos and background, the insubstantial forms, even in Duccio’s paintings, prevent us from identifying too closely with the actors recounting events on the heavenly stage. This is not our world, nor any world we could ever enter, in these great paintings.
Giotto would turn the gaze of Italian painting from the heavens to earth and to its inhabitants.