Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Rucellai Madonna, the Madonna of Santa Trinita and the Madonna of Ognissanti

Detail of the Rucellai Madonna
by Duccio di Buoninsegna
Back in the mid sixteenth century a "Renaissance Man'' by the name of Giorgio Vasari wrote a book called "The Lives of the Great Painters, Sculptors and Architects".   The book is sufficiently famous so as to be known as "Vasari's Lives".  Vasari was indeed a "Renaissance Man" being a competent painter, a good architect and an excellent writer.

"Vasari's Lives" is regarded as the first serious art history.  But as the art historian John White points out*, Vasari has a good deal to answer for, in the way in which he guided both sixteenth century artistic taste, and that of later generations.  Vasari told us in the most definite terms that almost all worthwhile painting began with Giotto and had Michelangelo as its benchmark.  Moreover, Florence was the home of art, and if it did exist anywhere else, then it was hardly worthy of a mention.

The art that went before the great painter Giotto, whose life spanned seven decades around 1300, was what Vasari called "the old Greek style",  stiff, formalised, stylised and unconcerned with realism.   Vasari's biographies mention a number of individuals, notably Cimabue who was Giotto's teacher, and the man who was regarded as Cimabue's rival,  Duccio, the leading painter of the nearest large city, Siena.  Vasari had heard that Duccio was a very great painter, but since he could not find either of his reputed masterpieces, it was hard to speak with authority on the subject.

There were two reasons why Vasari failed to find these paintings, even when they were right under his nose.  One of the paintings was right there in Florence, hanging above an altar in the transept of the large Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella, which had been still under construction at the time that the painting was commissioned.  Amazingly, although the documents for the commission have lasted all these centuries, the identity of the artist was lost to Vasari, and he presumed it to be the work of the Florentine, Cimabue, who painted another very big altarpiece, for the church of the Holy Trinity.  The other major work by Duccio that Vasari failed to find, the Maesta in Siena Cathedral, had its surface so covered with gold and silver crowns, stars, necklaces and votive trinkets, that it was barely recognizable to someone who really didn't know what he was looking for. *
Duccio's Maesta, painted for Siena Cathedral.
This double-sided altarpiece had small panels depicting the Life of Christ on the back.  It is now in the Duomo Museo

Duccio's Rucellai Madonna and Cimabue's Trinita Madonna have survived the centuries remarkably well and are now together in the same room in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence  The subject, in both cases, is the Madonna and Christ Child, seated on a throne, in majesty, and adored by brightly robed and winged angels.  In both cases the background was of gold leaf, and the robes of the Madonna decorated with gold.  The paintings have the style of the Byzantine icons which are a very important religious tradition and art form in all Orthodox countries.  However there is one major difference between these two paintings and the familiar Orthodox icons.   Duccio's painting was was 4.5 metres (15 feet) high, the largest such painting to have survived, and Cimabue's was not much less.

According to White, only about 600 paintings survived from this period.*   Those works include two huge altarpieces by Duccio, and two by Cimabue.  Half a dozen small works by Duccio have survived, and perhaps two or three by Cimabue.  Almost all are now in museums.

Cimabue's surviving works have suffered badly.  A large Crucifix was ruined in the floods in 1966.  The two huge frescos of the Crucifixion and Deposition that he painted in the Upper Church at Assisi were ruined by fire.  Of his frescos at Assisi, only the exquisite Madonna and Child with angels and St Francis remains intact.  Because of Cimabue's age, it is possible that his likeness of St Francis is based upon his personal memory of the man.

Madonna and Child in Majesty with St Francis of Assisi,
Fresco by Cimabue in the Lower Church of Sy Francis at Assisi

Cimabue and Duccio represent the culmination of the Byzantine style in Tuscany, and the heralding of a new era.  While both, in the context of their great altarpieces, adhere to forms that had developed in the preceding century and had their roots in the very long tradition of icon painting, both artists abandoned the formalised faces and expressions with which the Madonna and Christ Child were traditionally depicted in favour of greater naturalism.

In the case of Duccio, his new style proved so popular in Siena that magnificent works by his more conservative contemporaries had their faces scraped off and overpainted in Duccio's softer style, sometimes to the great detriment of the artwork.

As for Cimabue, the story goes that he was walking one day in the hills north of Florence when he came across a merry little shepherd boy who was scratching the portrait of one of his sheep onto a rock.  Cimabue went to the child's home and begged to apprentice him.  Little Giotto soon broke from the old traditions, inspired perhaps by a growing movement towards naturalism that was occurring in contemporary sculpture.

Giotto's great Ogni Santi Madonna, painted for All Saint's Church, is now in the same room as that of his older contemporaries, demonstrating a break with Byzantine tradition and style that was to lead to the Renaissance emphasis upon realism, solidity of form and naturalism of expression.   Vasari greatly praised Giotto as the harbinger of the Renaissance.   And, after Giotto, the beauty of the so-called "Greek style" was ignored and neglected for about six hundred years.

The Trinita Madonna  
Madonna della Santa Trinita
by Cimabue
Of the three Maestas that are displayed together in the Uffizi, Cimabue's is the most formal, and in some way the most arresting.  The throne upon which the Virgin is seated is front-on and rises in three elaborate tiers like a gilded wedding cake.  Its decoration is chiefly its elaborately-turned colonnettes, but whether they are pale wood or  ancient ivory like the 6th century throne preserved at Ravenna, it is impossible to say.  Like the throne, the angels that surround it are perfectly symmetrical, in position, in gesture and in colour.  Only the four prophets beneath the throne have individual identities.  The perspective of the throne smacks of Escher. It is impossible to tell whether the base of the throne curves inward or arches upward in order to make room for the prophets.  What works perfectly well on the two-dimensional picture plane makes no three-dimensional sense whatsoever.

On the throne and set high in the picture so that her head rises into the gable of the frame, sits the Madonna in Majesty.  Her position, like the throne, is almost frontal, with just the level of one foot and the angle of her head balanced to left and right.  With a direct gaze through eyes that have been strongly defined by the painter, she commands the viewer to adore her son. Her hand gestures towards him, and simultaneously lies between her belly and her heart.  The Christ Child has little sense of babyhood about him; he is an imperial ruler,  his law clasped in one hand while he gestures his divine benediction with the other, fixing the viewer with his eternal gaze.  Within this world of symbolism the red of his dress prefigures his death and the pink of his robe, his resurrection.

The quality of the painting is magnificence itself.  The arrangement of the folded robes with their warm subtle tones, the pattern of gilding on the uncompromising dark blue, and the luminescent gradation of vermilion and grey on the angels' wings all combine to make this one of the most magnificent works of Medieval period, the painterly equivalent of the greatest stained glass window of Chartres.

The Rucellai Madonna 
In Duccio's huge painting he respects many of the formal Byzantine conventions.  His throne is set at the angle found in smaller icons and manuscript illuminations.  The Madonna is conventionally positioned against the beautifully draped and decorated curtain, and the Christ Child gestures his benediction to an unseen penitent. The angels kneel around the throne on nothingness.

Madonna Rucellai 
by Duccio
Yet Duccio's painting is in its own way revolutionary.   The style of painting the face of the Madonna, in the late 13th century, was so formalised that every line followed a set and seemingly unchangeable pattern.  A U-shape was inscribed in white between her eyebrows,  the lines around and under her eyes were numbered and painted at set angles.  Every detail was dependent on some historic model of the past, meaning that over the centuries of repetition faces became increasingly stylised and geometric in appearance.  

To Duccio's contemporaries, the thing that set his paintings apart was the sweetness and naturalism of the faces of his Madonna and Christ Child.  Duccio carried this naturalism into the painting of the child's body. This is a baby that sits on its mother's knee with something of feel of a real baby.

 The naturalism extended to the angels, who unlike Cimabue's angels, have real bodily form, despite their ability to kneel on air. They are differentiated partly by their positions, which are not exact mirror images of each other, but mostly by their robes which fall in patterns that are similar, but all different.  Duccio uses these softly flowing garments to demonstrate his skill as a colourist.  The balance of pink, blue, mauve, pale red, apple green and olive green is one of the delights of this painting.

Another delight is Duccio's use of gold.  Gold leaf was obligatory to any altarpiece.  It reflected the candlelight and looked wonderful in the church,  It was written into the contract and often provided by the  commissioning patron.  But Duccio has chosen his method of using it.  He has fully decorated the shawl that drapes the Christ Child, as Cimabue decorated the robe of the Madonna in his Maesta.  But here, unlike Cimabue, Duccio has left the Madonna's robe a deep and intense midnight blue, forming a powerful tonality against which all the brighter elements are thrown into relief.  He then accentuates the form of this robe and the body of the Virgin by the skilful placing of six little vermilion accents, her dress, which is only visible at the neck, sleeve and hem, along with two little piece of red cushion that precisely define the angle of her knee and hip.

Her robe is edged with gold.  The line of it starts above the Christ Child's raised hand and curves delicately upward to frame his mother's face.  It then angles downward from below his hand to the unseen top of her left knee. It meanders playfully to describe the angle of her legs before falling in delicious loops and curls above her feet. The journey of this single line and its tributary which loops around the Virgins arm link and define the most important structural elements of the figure composition, against the dark blue background of the robe.

The Ognissanti Madonna 
Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna is something else.   It is possible that Giotto went with Cimabue to Rome, where he met a painter called Pietro Cavallini and other artists of the Roman school whose works, in general, were more naturalistic than those of the painters of Tuscany.  For whatever reason, Giotto abandoned formalised painting and began to paint directly from observation.   He was the master of the human form, master of movement and most of all, master of human expression.  He was the story-teller par excellence.  
Madonna di Ognissanti
by Giotto Bordone

Much of this is not apparent in this particular work, which is, after all, a conventional altarpiece and would have been commissioned with very rigid stipulations.   But within the constraints, Giotto has created a highly original work.

As with the other Great Maestas, the painting is dominated by the figure of the Virgin, conventionally seated on a throne, surrounded by angels and with her importance indicated by her scale which is much larger than the other figures around her.   The throne, for the first time, is real.  It is architecturally Gothic, is three-dimensional and is constructed of marble set with decorative polychrome inlays such as are still produced in Florence.

The Madonna herself and the figures who stand around are as three dimensional and tangible as the marble throne, despite the discrepancies of size.  The Christ Child is chubby.  The faces of the Madonna and Child appear to respect the trend begun by Duccio in that they have not quite broken away from the expected formality, but have none of the traditional mandatory linear features.  They are taking on the character of a real mother and son.

It is the bodily form and the posture of the Virgin which more than anything else, are a radical departure from the past.  This figure is that of a real woman whose large solid body is seated on a cushion on a throne, with her feet firmly planted, her knees apart and is tilted slightly forward and at an angle that balances the weight of the child.  Unlike Duccio and Cimabue, who have relied on the gold to create the flow of cloth over and around the body, Giotto has succeeded in introducing tonality into that huge unmanageable chunk of blue paint, defining the form of the jutting knees and heavy drapes as if daylight was falling across them.

The gold borders are minimised, and perfectly placed to visually accentuate the weight and balance of the figures.  The tiny touches of vermilion surround and emphasise the Child in his little pink dress. The angels and saints stand or kneel like real people, and their dinner-plate haloes overlap each other's faces, possibly causing the same frustration as large hats at a wedding.

Another feature of this painting is Giotto's use of white.  He has chosen to robe the two angels at the very front of the composition in simple white garments, in contrast to the midnight blue of the Virgin's robe and the dark green of the other angels.  The white garments of the angels reflect the colour and tonality of the dress of the Virgin, possibly symbolising her purity, but unusual at a date when her dress was usually painted red.  The effect is stunning. It forms a large triangle with the face of the Virgin making its apex.  This triangular format, consciously demonstrated here,  was to become the basis of later Florentine altarpieces, when the formalities of the Medieval style had been completely abandoned.

* Reference: John White, "Duccio, Tuscan Art and the Medieval Workshop", Thames and Hudson (1979)

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