By Anne Leader
Duccio’s Maestà was placed on the high altar of Siena Cathedral on 9 June 1311. The painting was carried in a triumphal procession from the artist’s studio to the Cathedral where it replaced an older painting known as the Madonna degli occhi grossi (Virgin Mary with the Big Eyes). The event was cause for celebration throughout the city as recorded by a contemporary eyewitness:
On the day on which it was carried to the Duomo, the shops were locked up and the Bishop ordered a great and devout company of priests and brothers with a solemn procession, accompanied by the Signori of the Nine and all the officials of the Commune, and all the populace and all the most worthy were in order next to the said panel with lights lit in their hands, and then behind were women and children with much devotion; and they accompanied it right to the Duomo making procession around the Campo, as was the custom, sounding all the bells in glory out of devotion for such a noble panel as was this. – L. A. Muratori, Rerum italiarum scriptores (Bologna, 1931–9), xv/6, p. 90
Despite its fame and honor, the picture was deemed outmoded by the early sixteenth century and was replaced in 1506 by a sculptural configuration including a bronze ciborium that had been made by Vecchietta for Santa Maria della Scala. When Giorgio Vasari visited Siena to learn more about the great Trecento master, he was unable to find the painting, and remained in the dark about Duccio’s greatest contribution to early Sienese Renaissance painting.
The Maestà suffered further indignities in 1771 when the enormous, double-sided panel was sawn in half. This dismemberment allowed for the sale of certain scenes, now in collections from London to Washington to New York.
Reference: Dillian Gordon. “Duccio.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.
Maestà, 1308-1311 (reconstructed), front view: Virgin and Child in Majesty; back view: Scenes from the Life and Passion of Christ, most panels, including main panel, Siena, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, from front predella, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.8
Christ Washes the Feet of his Apostles and The Last Supper, back panel, Siena, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, tempera on panel, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.141
The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, tempera on poplar panel, New York, The Frick Collection, 1927.1.35
Unknown Italian Artist, Madonna degli occhi grossi, first half of 13th century, Siena, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo