di Buoninsegna, Duccio: The 'Maesta' Altarpiece (1308-11)

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About the artist

Novels have chapters, poems have stanzas, plays have acts and scenes, symphonies have movements, operas have arias, and even films occasionally have an intermission. But paintings normally don't have internal breaks. Most of the paintings that we look at are like post-Wagnerian opera the image is "through-composed", all one bit.

Of course, there are pictures that have subsections and subdivisions. Strip cartoons, invented about a century ago, are one of our most familiar visual forms. We know how to read their frames. We follow them like lines of text, from left to right, and downwards though a full-page strip will often introduce refinements, varying the size of the frames dramatically, and inviting you to see the page not only as a sequence but as a more complicated composition.

Still, the strip cartoon struggles to be taken seriously as an art form. You have to go back a long way to find an artistically respectable version of the subdivided picture to the pre-Renaissance altarpiece. Even then, we modern viewers often prefer to single out the subsections, treating each one as an independent painting (some art books encourage this) rather than as part of an ensemble.

Duccio's altarpiece, nicknamed the "Maesta", or Majesty, is one of the founding monuments of European painting. Made for Siena cathedral, it is not only subdivided but double-sided. Its A-side is dominated by a single big image, the Virgin and Child sitting in majesty among a throng of saints and angels. Its B-side, which is illustrated here, is packed with rows of small images. They tell the story of Jesus Christ, his life, death and afterlife.

The sectional art work runs a risk. Its parts may be dismantled and get dispersed or lost. That has happened to the Maesta to an extent. Most of its pieces remain in Siena, but a few are in other galleries around the world, and a few have gone missing. The image on this page no longer exists in reality, so it is a partly conjectural reconstruction, with blanks.

It works more or less like a cartoon strip, reading from left to right, with some zigzagging detours, but with one big difference. The sequence (as befits a story of triumph) unfolds upwards, rather than downwards. The starting picture is in the bottom left corner, missing as it happens, probably depicting Christ's baptism.

The bottom row has episodes from Christ's mission years temptations, miracles, meetings. In the middle four rows the action slows down: 25 framesdevoted to a single week. Beginning with a double-size frame, showingChrist's Entry into Jerusalem, they relate, sometimes moment by moment, the events of Christ's last supper, betrayal, arrest, trial, death, burial and resurrection.

In these frames, the tight storyline snakes and ladders up and down between rows. In one frame, two separate but simultaneous episodes are set on two different levels of a building joined by a staircase. And the Crucifixion, though keeping its place in the narrative, is also the central and governing image of the whole work, four times the size of a standard frame.

The row of scenes above that shows Christ's various appearances between his Resurrection and his Ascension, but the end of the story has suffered loss, too. Immediately above the Crucifixion, the highest pinnacle, here blank, would probably have held two images, depicting the Ascension, and, above that, Christ Reigning in Glory.

So the Maesta does not just display a storytelling sequence going across the picture horizontally. It is a theological diagram as well as a strip. It all revolves round the Crucifixion, and is pierced by a central, rising, vertical axis death, ascension, glory representing an upwards motion, from Earth to Heaven, from torment to victory.

Then, along the top, there's a row of angels, not a sequence at all now but a seating plan, an eternal presence looking down on the evolving temporal story.

And beyond that, there may be subtler contrapuntal complexities. This chequerboard of images could yield any number of substructures and internal patterns. Every vertical column of units, say, could be taken as a separate sequence. Every adjacent pair, threesome, foursome, sixsome, might be a significant grouping. Every left-right opposite number in the symmetrical layout might be worth considering.

The work could be criss-crossed by all sorts of visual and thematic links. Multi-dimensional interconnection is one of the resources of the subdivided picture. Unlike unified pictures, but like music and poetry, it can do refrains, repeats, variations. And knowing how Christian teaching likes to join up one part of the story with another, to elicit analogies and foreshadowings, the temptation is to seek and find echoes everywhere.

In fact, the altarpiece is probably the most complicated narrative art-form ever to be invented.

The artist

Duccio di Buoninsegna (working 1278-1319) is a rival to Giotto as founding father of the European pictorial tradition. Not much is known about him. His only certainly attributed work is the Maesta altarpiece, but with it he inaugurated two centuries of Sienese art, so rich in narrative subtlety, delicate human interaction, intimate feeling of place. It is usually said that, unlike Giotto in Florence, he failed to make the crucial move away from Byzantine painting towards 3D space and solidity. An alternative view is that Duccio's art exemplified a sense of closeness to the world that Western art, taking the Florentine way, and to its cost, has mainly rejected.