Siena at the Uffizi

In the fourteenth century, painting in Siena was certainly on par with painting in Florence. While Florence had Giotto and his followers, Siena could boast of Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1318/1319) and the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro (ca. 1280-1348) and Ambrogio (ca. 1290-1348). In the first rooms of the Uffizi in Florence we can admire various works of these masters. I will discuss three of them in this post.

Santa Maria Novella Maestà – Duccio di Buoninsegna.

Duccio di Buoninsegna was, we may assume, a rather difficult man. He had a strong will of his own, was often in debt and fined many times. However, his immense talent as a painter was generally acknowledged, even in his own time. For the cathedral of Siena he made a beautiful stained glass window and an immense altarpiece for the high altar, which are both now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo of the city. The Uffizi in Florence has his Santa Maria Novella Maestà on display, painted in 1285 for the eponymous church. The work is alternatively known as the Rucellai Madonna. This name might lead to the erroneous conclusion that it was the Rucellai family from Florence that commissioned the work from Duccio. They did not: the name simply refers to the chapel where the Maestà ended up in the sixteenth century. The work was in fact commissioned by a Florentine fraternity, the Compagnia dei Laudesi. The Maestà hung in their chapel in the Santa Maria Novella, where the brothers met to praise the Virgin Mary. This also explains their name (laus = praise).

The Santa Maria Novella Maestà is an immense work. It measures 4.5 by 2.9 metres and was painted on a panel that was itself composed of five separate planks glued together. Unfortunately the gaps between the planks are hard to miss. Duccio painted a scene with the Madonna on her throne. On her lap sits a rather large Christ child giving his blessing. The throne is surrounded by six kneeling angels. On the edge of the panel Duccio furthermore painted thirty tondi containing the busts of saints. The Santa Maria Novella Maestà is Duccio’s most famous work in Florence, and yet it was only attributed to him as late as 1889. In the sixteenth century the architect, painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari was convinced that the Maestà was a work of the Florentine painter Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302). He even wrote a verbose account of how the work was taken in solemn procession from the house of the painter to the church. This account inspired the British painter Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) when he made his beautiful Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna in 1855. The painting features both the Maestà and Cimabue, but as a result of the incorrect attribution poor Duccio is absent.

Maestà – Pietro Lorenzetti.

The Uffizi also possesses a Maestà by Pietro Lorenzetti. Unfortunately not much is known about the lives of Pietro and his brother Ambrogio. It is assumed that Pietro was five to ten years older than Ambrogio and that both succumbed to the Black Death in 1348. This epidemic may have claimed the lives of over half of the population of Siena. Vasari’s biographies of the two brothers are regretfully riddled with errors. He for instance dates Pietro’s Tarlati polyptych in Arezzo to 1355[1], while in Ambrogio’s biography he claims that the painter died aged 83 (in reality, Ambrogio was probably in his late fifties when he passed away).

Pietro’s Maestà – a Madonna and Child and eight closely packed angels – dates from about 1340. The Uffizi is not entirely certain about the dating and has added a rather prominent question mark to the year. The reason is, apparently, that the museum cannot establish whether the date on the platform that supports the throne is complete. Here we read:

(“Pietro Lorenzetti from Siena painted this work in 1340”)

The work originally hung in the church of San Francesco in Pistoia. It once had a predella, which is no longer there.

Presentation at the Temple – Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

I personally thought the Presentation at the Temple by Ambrogio Lorenzetti was more interesting. This altarpiece comes from the cathedral of Siena, where it adorned a chapel dedicated to Saint Crescentius. Together with Ansanus, Savinus and Victor, this Crescentius was one of the patron saints of Siena (at some point Victor had replaced Bartholomew, who is depicted in Duccio’s stained glass window mentioned above). Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s altarpiece dates from 1342, a year that is visible on the lower edge of the work, together with the “signature” of the painter:

(“Ambrogio Lorenzetti from Siena made this work in the year 1342”)

The altarpiece is entirely based on the Gospel according to Luke (2:22-40). It shows us Jesus in the arms of Saint Simeon (his name is visible on his halo). Jesus has stuck a finger in his mouth, which makes him much more childlike than in the other two altarpieces discussed in this post. To the left of Saint Simeon stands the Virgin Mary with the cloths that Jesus was swaddled in; the presentation at the temple is meant as a purification ceremony for her. Joseph is merely an extra in the scene: he is depicted on the far left, behind the two halo-less women. The woman on the right is Saint Anna, the aged prophetess mentioned in Luke 2:36. The text on her scroll is the text of Luke 2:38 from the Vulgate:


(“Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem”)

I really liked the way Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted the priest in the background. The man is holding two pigeons in his right hand, the sacrifice required by Jewish law (Luke 2:24). In his left hand the man has a knife, and the altar fire burns for the offering. The brim of the white hat that the priest is wearing has an illegible text, which is presumably supposed to be Hebrew (a language the painter clearly never mastered). The perspective of the altarpiece is pretty good for a work from the fourteenth century. Behind the priest we for instance see a fairly deep apse in the temple, which actually looks more like a Christian church. The two prophets depicted in the upper part of the altarpiece are Moses (left) and Malachi (right). Moses has been depicted once more in the work, as a statuette on the left column. The right column also has a statuette, which in this case represents Joshua.


[1] Vasari, who was himself from Arezzo, should have known better. He was moreover responsible for the renovation of the church of Santa Maria della Pieve, where we find the polyptych, and was buried there.

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