Relatively few painters from before the Renaissance are well known, in that we know much about their lives or careers, or even their names. In the case of Duccio di Buoninsegna, we’re not even sure of his dates: he is thought to have been born between 1255 and 1260, in the Italian city of Siena, and probably died there at some time during 1319 (or possibly the previous year). If those dates are correct, this year marks the seven hundredth anniversary of his death – and this article is a short commemoration of that.
Duccio was a key artist forming the bridge between the Middle Ages (typically around 400-1400), and the early Renaissance (from about 1400). Together with Cimabue and Giotto, he laid the foundations on which Renaissance painting developed. He was active over a century before Filippo Brunelleschi discovered 3D perspective projection and Antonello da Messina popularised oil painting in Italy, and 150 years before the birth of Leonardo da Vinci. So the paintings below are intermediates, stepping stones from the generally non-representational styles of the Middle Ages to the realism of the Renaissance.
Duccio’s The Rucellai Madonna from 1285-86 is the largest surviving Italian panel painting from the century, and was commissioned for the Laudesi Confraternity chapel in the Dominican Santa Maria Novella church in Siena. Although Duccio’s contract specified that the conventional blue robe worn by the Madonna was to have been painted using ultramarine paid for by the artist himself, in 1989 it was discovered that he in fact used predominantly azurite instead. It owes its name to the Rucellai family chapel, to which it was moved in 1591.
In contrast to the Byzantine style which had preceded it, Duccio’s Madonna and Child are recognisably human, rendered softly and with intimacy.
Duccio’s triptych of The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea (1300-5), was painted for the newly appointed Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, near Rome, around 1303 or perhaps 1312-15. The unusual choice of saints reflects the Cardinal’s Dominican order and the patron saint of Ostia. On this occasion, the cloak worn by the Madonna uses ultramarine; given its distinctive deep warm blue after over 700 years, the pigment used must have been of high quality.
This small Triptych: Crucifixion and Other Scenes from 1302-08 was also probably intended as a portable devotional work, in that its wings fold neatly over the centre panel to protect their painted surfaces.
Duccio was a pioneer of narrative painting, and typically merged two or more scenes from the same narrative into a single image – what I term multiplex narrative. This was popular during the Renaissance, but died out later.
His Healing of the Man born Blind, from his Maestà Predella Panels of about 1310, is an excellent example of a narrative painting as art emerged from the Middle Ages. Much of the panel is taken up by the first scene, in which Christ is healing a man we know – from the Gospel story – is blind. Back to back with him being healed as a blind man, he is shown healed and sighted to the right.
The Transfiguration is another of the Maestà Predella Panels. Moses is shown to the right of Christ, and Elijah to the left, with a group of disciples below. Duccio here uses the distinctive colour of vermilion for its association with holy people, and holy objects, and contrasts with the other brilliant pigment of ultramarine, conventionally used in the clothing of the Virgin Mary.
Duccio’s Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel (1308-11) forms a prototype for centuries of subsequent paintings, with its humble shed set into rock, the Holy Family, and the attendant animals (ox, ass, sheep) and humans (shepherds, angels). This was installed at the high altar in the Duomo (cathedral) in Siena on 30 June 1311, and remained there for nearly two centuries, only being removed in 1506. Each panel has its own apposite Latin inscription.
Duccio’s marvellous panel painting of The Raising of Lazarus (1310–11) tells this popular story from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus brought back to life one Lazarus of Bethany four days after his burial. His composition, which again uses multiplex narrative, is ingenious and integrates its scenes into a coherent whole.
Lazarus’ two sisters are shown pleading with Christ to attend their ailing brother, reminding the viewer of the start of the story, but at the right the stone has been removed from the tomb, and Lazarus appears alive again. Duccio humorously shows some of the attending crowd holding their noses in expectation of the smell of his rotting corpse.
My final example of Duccio’s magnificent and pioneering paintings is another story from the Gospel of John, that of Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1310-11). Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well, and asked her for a drink. She was taken aback, as Jews and Samaritans at that time didn’t normally associate with one another. He then preached of living water, which will satisfy all thirst, and reveals himself as the Messiah.
Although a simpler composition which didn’t require multiplex narrative, this is of particular interest in showing how close Duccio was to realistic perspective projection.
Throughout his career, Duccio appears to have painted on wood using egg tempera paints with extensive gilding. He is not known to have painted any frescoes. Little is known of his personal life, although there’s documentary evidence that he was often in debt, and following his death his family tried to separate themselves from his financial problems. Some records claim that he was married with seven children.
We are extremely fortunate that a couple of dozen of his wonderful paintings have survived more than seven centuries, and can be seen in major collections around the world. Let’s look a while at these paintings and remember a master who helped shape our whole visual culture.