Duccio, The Transfiguration
Maestà Predella Panels
These three small panels come from the altarpiece known as the Maestà (‘Majesty’), made for Siena Cathedral. It is the only surviving signed work by the city’s leading artist, Duccio di Buoninsegna. These paintings formed part of the predella, the lowest part of the altarpiece.
The Maestà was painted on both sides: The Annunciation comes from the front predella, while the Healing of the Man born Blind and the Transfiguration were originally placed next to each other on the back of the predella. The predella itself was shaped like a rectangular box, with images on both sides, providing support for the large, double-sided picture.
When the picture was completed in 1311 it was carried in a festive procession across the streets of Siena to the cathedral, where it was placed above the high altar. There it became the focus of the Siena’s devotion to the Virgin Mary, who was considered the protector of the city.
These small square panels come from one of the largest and most ambitious altarpieces ever made. It is the only signed work by Duccio di Buoninsegna, the leading artist of medieval Siena, who created it with the help of a workshop of assistants. The entire work measured five square metres, was painted on both sides and comprised five tiers of images including 54 minutely detailed narrative scenes.
The altarpiece is known as the Maestà (‘Majesty’) after its main image of the Virgin with the Christ Child seated on a marble throne, which was surrounded by rows of saints and angels, including – in the most prominent positions – the patron saints of Siena. The reverse of this image showed 26 scenes from Christ’s Passion – his trial, torture and death. The Crucifixion occupied a central position and was double the size of the other scenes.
The three panels in the National Gallery come from the predella, the lowest level of the altarpiece. The Annunciation is from the front and so would have been beneath the image of the Virgin, while The Healing of the Man born Blind and The Transfiguration come from the back, which showed scenes from Jesus’s ministry. It was probably what is known as a ‘box predella’: the images were painted on either side of a low rectangular box-shaped structure which provided some support for the immense double-sided altarpiece above it.
The Maestà was commissioned by the cathedral authorities, many of whom were members of the city’s council. It was an important statement of Siena’s civic pride as well as the focus of its religious devotion to the Virgin Mary, its protectress. Siena was known as the Civitas Virginis, the city of the Virgin. According to legend, in 1260 the keys to the city had been dedicated to her on the eve of a battle against the nearby city state of Florence, in return for her protection. The ceremony took place before the cathedral’s high altar which most probably bore an image of the Virgin, framed by two candles which burned day and night. The Maestà was commissioned to adorn a new high altar which was under construction from the late thirteenth century when the cathedral was being rebuilt. At around the same time, in 1287, Duccio designed a circular stained glass window showing the death, assumption and coronation of the Virgin.
On 9 June 1311, this magnificent work was carried in procession through the streets of Siena from Duccio’s workshop to the cathedral, where it was installed above the high altar. Surviving documents record how the procession was headed by the city’s bishop, Ruggero da Casole, who was followed by the city’s clerics and officials. The ceremonial procession was accompanied by musicians and lit up with lamps and candles.
There are different ideas as to the location of this high altar and why the altarpiece was double sided, but it is likely that the congregation had access to both sides. By 1506 the Maestà had been removed from the high altar and in the late eighteenth century it was sawn in half, causing damage to the Virgin’s face. Some fragments were sold and are now scattered across international collections; a few are now missing. The majority of it remains to be seen in the Museo dell'opera del Duomo in Siena.