Duccio di Buoninsegna’s “Madonna and Child” is currently on display in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Gallery 624 as part of its A New Look at Old Masters exhibit. A mere 11 x 8 1/4 inches with frame included, the piece stands upon a pedestal in a prominent place in the room, though its significance could easily be overlooked due to the gallery’s grand theme—Giotto’s Legacy, which presents Giotto on par with Dante as a herald of early modern culture.
But scrutiny reveals the value The Met places upon their only Duccio. An audio recording accompanying the piece features curator Keith Christiansen, who says, “We’re standing in front of one of the masterpieces in the Metropolitan Museum, and it’s the intimacy of this picture that makes it so special.” He explains that this Madonna and Child was intended for private devotion, noting that it remains in its original frame, which has burn holes from prayer candles being placed too close to it. Christiansen then offers a suggestion that promises to recreate the revelatory experience of viewing the painting in the way originally intended, when he says, “It’s also meant to be seen on your knees, and if you have it in you, lower yourself, look up, and it’s at that point that you will see that the little parapet behind which these two figures stand falls into place, and we are admitted into a sacred realm.”
The reverential lens through which Christiansen invites visitors to see this painting hints at its fortuitous provenance and the insight its discovery and acquisition brought regarding Duccio’s work. Estimated to have been created between 1290 and 1300, Duccio’s “Madonna and Child” was lost to history until 1904, when Russian collector Count Grigorij Stroganoff lent it to a landmark exhibit on Sienese art and it stole the show. No one knows for certain how Stroganoff came by the painting, but it disappeared back into his collection until his heirs were displaced by the Russian Revolution and had to sell it in the early 1920s.
In a Met publication entitled “Duccio and the Origins of Western Painting,” Christiansen recounts how the piece narrowly escaped being scooped up by the commercial art firm Duveen, which, he writes with a tone of disdain, “would certainly have put a new frame on it, regilt the background, and made sure that the colors positively glowed!”
Duccio’s “Madonna and Child” slipped past the scrutiny of Duveen on multiple occasions, perhaps demonstrating that, like its subject matter, it was easily overlooked by those measuring its value according to worldly standards. Assuring it would be cared for even in obscurity, the piece found its way into the hands of Adolphe Stoclet, who Christiansen describes as “one of the most discerning collectors of early Italian paintings.”
Summing up its provenance, Christiansen writes, “It sank out of sight and was seen by few specialists until 2004, when it was offered for sale by Stoclet’s heirs. So inaccessible was it that it was first reproduced in color only in the catalogue of the Duccio exhibition held in Siena in 2003.”
Referencing a series of chances The Met missed to acquire paintings by Duccio, Christiansen characterizes its acquisition of the “Madonna and Child” in 2004 as a “unique opportunity to redeem our sins of omission.” It also seems fortuitous that the Met passed up acquiring those other Duccios, because it created a sense of urgency that led to the museum circumventing the normal procedure of in-house examination and review of potential acquisitions. Instead, it sent a small delegation of scholars to seek out and authenticate the piece soon after receiving word of its availability, giving itself the advantage in securing the find.
Like his “Madonna and Child,” the legacy of Duccio di Buoninsegna was lost to history for a time, and this was due to a series of misattributions and inaccurate stories that formed what Christiansen calls an “imaginative historical fiction,” all of which combined to rob Duccio of his rightful place as “one of the pioneers of European painting.” By the 16th century, the only work Duccio was remembered for was the “Maesta,” an elaborate altarpiece centered on a depiction of Mary enthroned in majesty, created around 1310 when he was at the height of his artistic abilities.
Comparing the work of Duccio, who operated out of Siena, with the work of his younger contemporary Giotto, who operated out of nearby Florence, Christiansen shows how the two trecento artists were in dialogue with each other and argues that, while Giotto is rightly hailed as the “towering genius” of the time and the “most extreme in his insistence on painting as a rational discipline,” Duccio was a pioneer in his own right and exerted a more subtle albeit lasting and profound influence over European art.
Christiansen notes that the “Madonna and Child” prefigures what he calls “the miracle of the Maesta” and represents a turning point not only in the artist’s career but in the history of art itself. Duccio’s utilization of the parapet in the foreground of the “Madonna and Child” marks both of those turning points with a subtlety befitting his legacy. The parapet demonstrates his dialogue with Giotto, who utilized illusionistic architecture to bridge the gap between viewer and narrative, but Duccio’s parapet also builds on Giotto’s technique by tying a piece of illusionistic architecture into a specific viewing point. Of this innovation, Christiansen writes, “In this little picture Duccio explored, evidently for the first time, what was to become the imaginative realm of Renaissance painting, playing his own artistic vision off against the viewer’s experience of the everyday world.”
In contrast to Giotto’s stark rationality, Duccio tended towards the emotive and experiential, yet both artists incorporated their innovations into a reverential style that invoked Byzantine iconography, creating a bridge between early Christian and early modern culture. However, Duccio’s purposeful utilization of medieval techniques often provoked critics of the past to overlook his subtle innovations, which nevertheless planted the seeds for what came to be known as the distinctive characteristics of Sienese art, as Christiansen writes, “the dazzling sense of pattern and color, the keen sense of narration, the manifest interest in the investigation of spatial problems, and the lyrical beauty of the figures.”
Duccio’s “Madonna and Child” is a masterpiece because it manages to present the miracle of the Incarnation in a way that invokes reverence while connecting with the viewer in an accessible way. The parapet at once delineates the world of the sacred and reaches into the everyday with an invitation to witness and believe. Mary looks lovingly at Jesus, with an air of sorrow that foreshadows the burden He will carry, while He reaches up to clasp her veil and peer into her eyes, as though inviting the viewer to see her with the same love and curiosity as He did in his most vulnerable beginnings in her arms.
It is a painting whose provenance has guarded against glitzy alterations dictated by fashions of the times, and it is a work passed down to us in a humble state, with its aged frame that’s cracked and burned from years of devotion, depicting two figures so selfless in their devotion to one another that they seem willing to be overlooked by anyone except those who bend a knee before the inconspicuous miracle of their love.