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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Narrator] We're in the museum of the Cathedral of Sienna, and we're looking at probably the single most famous work of art from Sienna. Certainly, one of the most important works of art from the 14th century. This is Duccio's Maesta. - [Narrator] The title means the Virgin Mary in majesty - [Announcer] And we see her very large in the center of the main panel. She is by far the largest figure anywhere in this painting. - [Narrator] This is Polyptych, it's made out of many, many panels, not all of which are here in the museum unfortunately. Maesta has painted on both the front and the back. So, Mary's on the front, and stories of Mary's life are on the front, but the story of Christ is on the back. - [Narrator] So in a sense this is a free standing painting. It is this large sculptural object that has imagery all over it. - [Narrator] The saints and prophets and angels are almost life size. - [Narrator] They are local saints in front and then angels and saints in the second row. And I think a unbroken row of angel in the back. Now, we would've originally seen a Predella below. That is a step of small paintings. And then above the large panel, there would've been a series of scenes as well. We think that the Predella, would've held scenes of the early life of the Virgin Mary, and then above, her death and ascent into heaven. - [Narrator] And then there would have been a really elaborate frame. - [Narrator] In the previous century, Sienna had won a significant battle against its arch rival Florence. Now, both Sienna and Florence were wealthy city states, and that as they were independent nations. And they were often at war with each other. Sienna believed that they won because of the grace of Mary. Many years later, the town of Sienna, commissioned their most famous painter Duccio, to create a very large painting which dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It would've stood exactly on the altar of the Cathedral in the crossing, just under the dome. As you approach the high altar, you'd be able to make out just at the bottom, an inscription that read, "Holy Mother of God, be the cause of peace to Sienna, and to the life of Duccio, because he has painted thee thus." Now, Sienna was very much a competitor with Florence. And the great Florentine painter of the day was Giotto. He had painted a major cycle telling the story of the Virgin Mary, of Christ parents, of Christ himself, and in some ways the Maesta was a kind of answer to that. We can do this too. We can be as comprehensive and have a masterpiece. - [Narrator] And I think they proved that they did something that rivals, what Giotto did in the Arena Chapel. - [Narrator] But while Giotto's painting was Fresco, Fresco didn't make sense for the Cathedral of Sienna, because the Cathedral of Sienna is made of alternating blocks of black and white marble. - [Narrator] It has a very decorative interior that wouldn't have worked with Fresco. And so, it made sense to do a panel painting for the altar piece. - [Narrator] And we have to remember, that at the end of the Medieval, Mary had taken on an enormously important role. She was the bridge that normal people could access Christ through. You would pray to the Virgin Mary and she would perhaps speak to her son on your behalf. - [Narrator] She had the role of an intercessor or someone who intercedes between God and mankind. - [Narrator] As is traditional, she is garbed in this intense blue, which must have been fabulously expensive, given all the Lapis that would've required to produce that ultra-marine paint. There is this beautiful embroidered gold in the striae behind her. - [Narrator] There're a lot of decorative surfaces. That was something that was particular to the Siennese style. - [Narrator] There is a sense of delicacy and subtlety. Look for instance at the clothing that Christ is swaddled in. There's a kind of transparency around his leg. There's a beautiful modulation of light and shadow. This real Chiatoscuro that's being used here. Not only striations of gold, this is not the earlier work of Cimabue, this is an artist Duccio who's moving steadily and carefully, and obviously very consciously, towards creating a sense of real mass and real volume. - [Narrator] The drapery around Christ is so softly and beautifully modeled. Look at how Christ with his left hand pulls at the drapery, and you see those folds that pull. And that modeling that we see under Christ's chin and neck. He really is three dimensional in the way that we begin to see artists like Giotto also in the early 1300s, creating forms that are three dimensional. - [Narrator] And look at the face of Christ. There is a look of awareness of the kind of wisdom that is piercing. He seems to look directly at us. And it is the stare of a fully conscious adult. - [Narrator] The angels are remarkably animated. Some look at Mary, some look away, some look at us. There's a kind of informality. - [Narrator] It's true, that informality is so unexpected. - [Narrator] Yeah, you would expect something a lot more rigid. This is the court of heaven after all. I'm also noticing the lovely curls that make up the wings of the angels, that somehow actually start to almost feel like feathers. - [Narrator] They create a sense of volume. Those wings are not flat. - [Narrator] And if we look down, we see the throne opening out, moving into our space. - [Narrator] In the medieval era, cathedrals and churches in general, were not open for people to walk through as they are now. And the lay people, that is everyday people, would have gone to the front of the church only. The area of the altar at the back of the church would've been reserved for those that were associated directly with the church. And it's interesting to think about the Maesta on relationship to this. It meant that the public would've had access to the side of the painting that focused on the Virgin Mary. - [Narrator] The intercessor, - - That's right. between man and the divine. - [Narrator] A more privileged view perhaps was available to the monks, to the priests, to those that were associated directly with the church. Let's walk around to the back and take a look at those panels. (piano music)