By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, MAR. 2015
(ALL PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR)
I am not religious in a traditional sense, but I find religious art sometimes extremely moving. It is the passionate intensity behind its creation and display that is so powerful to me.
Definitely, one need not be Christian to be touched deeply by the social characteristics surrounding art in Italy when found riding on a current of solemn collective significance. Such was the case with my encounter with Duccio di Buoninsegna’s masterpiece “Maestà” (Majesty) (1311) that I studied closely a few times at the Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana in Siena. For me, that huge painting is all about the big deep-blue field of Prussian blue where the eye swims around and the mind floats free. We can see placed around that blue field of color many kneeling figures: the four patron saints of Siena (S. Ansano, S. Savino, S. Crescenzio and S. Vittore) and to the sides we have the two female patron saints who are depicted standing (S. Agnese and S. Catherine of Alessandria). In the background we have another four saints depicted standing (S. Paul and S. John the Evangelist to the left and to the right, S. Peter and John the Baptist). But I love how the Madonna’s left knee ties everything in the painting down at a central point in the field of Prussian blue where the eye returns again and again - and rests in pleasure.
This powerfully beautiful painting was first installed in the city's cathedral (Duomo) on June 9, 1311. I encountered it again few days later on June 9, 2011 (in reproduction and re-enactment) on route to the Duomo in Siena in celebration of its 700th anniversary.
It was a marvelous performance art event, tinged with communal magnificence. I felt very fortunate to have viewed the arrival by oxen and took the accompanying photographs. Keep in mind that except for the first photograph, we are seeing a full-scale reproduction of “Maestà” (I looked closely and I think it is digitally painted on canvas). The original egg tempera on wood stayed next door in the Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana del Duomo.
Duccio (c. 1255-1260 – c. 1318-1319), as he is called for short, bridged the artistic gap between the Byzantine age and the start of the Renaissance. On June 9, 1311, the Governor of the Council of Nine Elders, together with the Bishop and the inhabitants of the city went to Duccio’s workshop in procession and with votive candles and song, they accompanied the painting to the main alter of the Duomo. This procession passed through the Piazza del Campo, which in those days represented the epitome of political power. This procession was a sign of the incredible devotion of the city for the Madonna.
In 1506, the Maestà was removed from the high altar in the reform-minded years leading up to the Council of Trent. It was first placed on a sidewall, which meant that only one side of it was visible. The frame was taken apart and the panels separated, so that both sides could be seen on the wall.
The altarpiece remained in place until 1711, when it was dismantled in order to distribute the pieces between two altars. The five-meter high construction was dismantled and sawn up, and the paintings damaged in the process. Partial restoration took place in 1956. The dismantling also led to pieces going astray, either being sold, or simply unaccounted for. Extant remains of the altarpiece not at Siena are divided among several other museums.
After shooting the arrival outside, I participated in the church procession; walking directly behind the massive reproduction as it was carried all the way up the main church isle; bells tolling intensely. It was placed at the alter for a religious ceremony, and I left the church. WM
Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.view all articles from this author