In the late Middle Ages the Republic of Siena was one of Europe’s smallest but wealthiest states. Siena’s political independence, however, was precarious. Its people believed it was the result of the decisive intervention of the Virgin Mary in a battle against Florence, Siena’s deadliest enemy, in 1260.
The city made the Virgin Mary its queen, and in 1308 commissioned its greatest painter, Duccio, to make a large, double-sided altarpiece called the Maestà in her honour, for the high altar of Siena’s cathedral. The front shows the Virgin and Child in the court of Heaven, while the back – visible only to the clergy – tells 40 episodes from Christ’s life.
Several paintings from the Maestà, which was dismantled in the 18th century, are shown in this room. It became the key reference point for all subsequent Sienese painters. They admired Duccio’s evocation of Byzantine icons, his elegant use of colour, line and pattern, and also his experimentation. His pictures have a sense of depth and space that marks a turning point in Western painting.
Duccio’s followers, who included Simone Martini, Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Ugolino di Nerio, developed his innovations in different ways. Sienese painting was prized and copied all over Europe – even in Florence.