Maesta Altarpiece by Duccio di Buoninsegna
Interpretation of Tempera Polyptych of the Sienese School of Painting

Pin it

Maesta Altarpiece by Duccio di Buoninsegna
Maesta Altarpiece (detail)
By Duccio di Buoninsegna.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Maesta Altarpiece (1308-11)


Interpretation of Maesta Altarpiece
Further Resources


Artist: Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319)
Medium: Tempera and gold on wood
Genre: Altarpiece art
Movement: Sienese School of Painting
Museum: Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena and elsewhere.

For the meaning of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Posters of Maesta Altarpiece
Fine art posters of paintings
by Duccio di Buoninsegna,
are widely available online.
See also: Poster Art.

Art Appreciation
To understand works like
the Maesta Polyptych
by Duccio di Buoninsegna,
see our educational
article for students:
Art Evaluation:
How to Appreciate Art

See also:
How To Appreciate Paintings.

Interpretation of Maesta Altarpiece

A perfect example of religious art of the early 14th century Siena, the Maesta (from the Italian for "in majesty", that is: Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints) is a vast, horizontal style, two-sided wooden screen, originally designed for the high altar of Siena Cathedral. Created by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1260-1319), the leading figure in the Sienese School of Painting during the trecento, it was painted in the flat hieratic style of Byzantine art, using egg-tempera on wood. Although the figures shown in the work are stylish and elegant, they lack the new naturalism introduced by Giotto (1266-1337) and the Florentine School. Even so, the work had a significant effect on Christian art in Tuscany, comparable to Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel frescoes at Padua. Originally measuring some 16 feet in width, the Maesta was dismantled in the late 18th century, when parts of it were sold. The main front panel of the polyptych is in the Cathedral museum (Siena Museo dell'Opera del Duomo), while some of the other 40 or so panels have been acquired by several art museums in Europe and America, including National Gallery (London), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Madrid), the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), Frick Collection (New York), Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth).


More Analysis of Maesta Altarpiece


Overall, the composition of the altarpiece follows the conservative Sienese traditions of the Proto-Renaissance. The front of the Maesta, the side facing the congregation, was designed for devout contemplation and depicts the Virgin and Child in majesty, surrounded by a host of angels and saints. Above and below this main scene are scenes from the Life of Christ and the Virgin, along with smaller figures of Saints. It seems likely that most of these miniature scenes would only have been visible to the priest. The rear of the Maesta, designed as a commentary on the gospels, is occupied by 26 scenes from the Passion, while above and below them are smaller panels decorated with scenes from the Life of Christ, including: the Annunciation; Isaiah; the Nativity; Ezekiel; the Adoration of the Magi; Solomon; the Presentation in the Temple; Malachi; the Slaughter of the Innocents; Jeremiah; the Flight into Egypt; Hosea; the Disputation with the Doctors; Temptation on the Temple, the Temptation on the Mount, the Calling of Peter and Andrew, the Wedding at Cana, Christ and the Samaritan, the Healing of the Blind Man, the Transfiguration and the Resurrection of Lazarus.

On both sides, the most important figures (like the Virgin) are created larger than the lesser ones (saints), while each saint is clearly identifiable by their clothes and/or personal objects. The background of the painting is pure gold leaf, while the layout is rigidly symmetrical.

Decorative Byzantine Style

Although, as stated, Duccio remained within the conservative Byzantine-style idiom of Sienese fine art painting, the Maesta contains numerous innovations. The figures on the front screen, for instance, have greater weight and solidity than previous works, and are endowed with greater characterization and a new livelier spirit. There is real movement in them - they are not simply stiffly positioned against a gold backdrop. At the same time, the holy stories pictorialized on back of the Maesta make up a skilled narrative which is at least equal to Giotto in its layout, though perhaps not in its iconography, since Duccio was happy to rely on tried and tested Byzantine motifs and models for most of his New Testament Biblical art. In addition, in his overall decorative scheme, Duccio introduced greater elegance and a bold use of colour. Unlike Giotto, he employed gold (and other rich, subtle colours) as an aesthetic feature in its own right, rather than simply as a functional feature to give added impact to figurative forms. Duccio's emphasis on the decorative links him to Gothic art, in particular the International Gothic style of the early 14th century.


Duccio was awarded the commission for the Maesta in 1308. To ensure compliance from their headstrong and unruly artist, the Sienese authorities drew up a contract (preserved in the State Archives of Siena) which specified that the altarpiece should be painted entirely by the artist himself, and that he should accept no other jobs until the work was completed. In keeping with the ambitions of the city, expense was no object. Thus the finest colour pigments were sourced and used, as well as copious amounts of gold leaf. When it was finally completed in June 1311, a public holiday was declared, bells were rung, and the Maesta was carried from Duccio's workshop to the cathedral in a huge procession which included all the religious and civic dignitaries, priests and citizens of Siena.

Decline of Siena

Duccio outlived his masterpiece by 8 years. His influence, however, lived on in the countless religious paintings (altarpieces and frescoes) of his pupils. In fact his workshop trained many of the next generation of Sienese painters, including Simone Martini (1285-1344), Pietro Lorenzetti (active 1320-45) and his brother Ambrogio Lorenzetti (Active 1319-48). Other famous works by Duccio include: the Madonna Crevole (1280, Museo dell' Opera Metropolitana, Siena), the Rucellai Madonna (1285, Uffizi, Florence), Madonna of the Franciscans (1295-1300, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena), the London Triptych (The Holy Virgin and the Christ Child with St. Dominic and St. Aurea) (1300, National Gallery, London) and the Stroganoff Madonna (Stoclet Madonna) (1300, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Sadly, the cultural development of Siena itself came to a sudden end in the middle of the 14th century, following a 3-year famine and the outbreak of the Black Death (1348). As we know, its Tuscan rival Florence managed to escape such a fate, and eventually gave birth to the stunning painting and sculpture of the Early Renaissance.



Further Resources

If you're interested in the Sienese School of Painting, try these resources:

Annunciation Triptych (1333) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
By Simone Martini.

Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338-9) Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
By Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

• For more masterpieces of the trecento, see our main index: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.