What child is this?

The elegant young woman in the blue cloak gazes pensively at the child cradled in her left arm. Her young son, perhaps two years old and wearing a lavender cloak over a red tunic, looks back at her and reaches up to move the veil from her face. The child, like the viewer, admires the flush on his mother’s cheek, her lovely almond-shaped eyes, her beautifully modeled nose and delicate lips. The mother and child are presented against a golden background and behind a parapet. The scene is at once intimate and majestic, as tender as any caress between a mother and a child; and yet, there is something sorrowful in the woman’s eyes.

This picture (see cover), which measures only 8 x 11 inches, is one of the most famous portrayals of the Madonna and Child. Painted by the great Si­en­ese artist Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-1319), it represents a break from the traditional Byzantine representations of the Madonna, which tended to be highly stylized and two-dimensional. Duccio’s Madonna, in contrast, is recognizably human: we can sense her body beneath her robes. The tender depiction of the child reaching toward his mother was revolutionary and would be copied by artists for generations. The great British art historian John White has called Duccio’s Madonna “the first, lonely forerunner of that long line of Italian Madonnas...which achieved its finest flowering almost two centuries later in Giovanni Bellini’s splendid variation on the theme.”

Duccio is generally not so well known as other Italian painters, so it came as a surprise to some that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York purchased the Madonna and Child for a reported $45 million last month. That’s more than twice what the Met has paid for any other painting, but it is worth it. Duccio and his slightly younger Florentine contemporary Giotto (1266-1337) were pioneers of early Renaissance painting. “The first slide in an art history 101 course is a Duccio,” Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Met, told the New York Times (November 10). “He was one of the founders of Western art.”

Known as the Stroganoff Madonna (after its first recorded owner), or sometimes as the Stoclet Madonna (after its second), Madonna and Child was intended for private devotional purposes. It is in excellent condition, with only two slight candle burns on the lower border of its wonderfully preserved original frame. It is one of only about a dozen known works by the artist. Painted circa 1300, it came midway in his career, probably after Duccio made a visit to the Church of St. Francis in Assisi, where Giotto was at work on his famous fresco series. There, according to Keith Christiansen, the Met’s curator for European paintings, Duccio encountered “an art that embraced the complex and varied worlds of human experience, rather than one based on codified types, as had been the case with medieval and Byzantine painting.” Scholars have drawn parallels between the work of Duccio and Giotto and Dante. Like the great poet, these two artists helped reinvigorate their medium, infusing it with a full range of feeling.

The Stroganoff Madonna was painted a decade before Duccio’s greatest work, the Maestà (Virgin in Majesty) altarpiece for the cathedral in Siena (1308-11). By then, Duccio’s human touch, his easy draughtsmanship and narrative sense, and, above all, his sense of color had reached its apogee. The monumental double-sided altarpiece features the Madonna and Child on one side and the public life, passion, and Resurrection of Christ on the other. (The Madonna faced the congregation, the Christ, the clergy.) The piece is now largely preserved in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Siena, although a number of its almost sixty narrative scenes have been dispersed to museums around the globe, including the National Gallery in London and in Washington, the Frick Collection in New York, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The work as a whole, wrote John White, is “probably the most important panel ever painted in Italy. It is certainly among the most beautiful.”

And it was exquisitely foreshadowed in the Stroganoff Madonna. Christiansen praises the “lyricism and sensitivity to color” in the Madonna “that became the basis of Sienese painting. This new, complex vision attains its first clear statement in the Stroganoff Madonna and Child,” he continues, “and it is for this reason that this small panel intended for private devotion is so revolutionary.”

The Duccio is currently in London, but it is expected to be shipped to New York soon. One hopes that it will be on display in the Met before the holidays, so visitors can see how sublime a small if costly Christmas gift can be.

Published in the 2004-12-17 issue: 

 

Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, is president emeritus of Georgetown University.

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