Italian Painting of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries

The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, 1308/1311

Duccio di Buoninsegna
The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, 1308/1311
Andrew W. Mellon Collection
1937.1.8

View all 13th- and 14th-Century Italian Paintings

Early Italian artists adopted the techniques and traditions of Byzantine art: the gold backgrounds and timeless figures that give spiritual force to icons. But increasingly they began to convey a physical as well as a spiritual reality. The Renaissance celebration of freedom of self-determination had a profound effect on the visual arts. Whereas medieval art focused on otherworldly truths, Renaissance art was nurtured on the principles of humanism, which also paid tribute to visible reality. Greek and Latin learning emboldened thinkers to place the human being at the center of their world view. Interest in the classical past did not impede Christian devotion; religious art remained dominant, and secular art forms emerged also.

Tuscany was the cradle for the new humanist concerns. While Duccio's fourteenth-century Maestà altarpiece for Siena Cathedral owes much of its linear and decorative style to his Byzantine predecessors, certain elements in it derive from the painter's direct observation of nature. As religious emphasis shifted to Christ's human experience, closer identification with people's experience was required of art. Artists responded with details familiar in the lives of their viewers.