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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Duccio di Buoninsegna/The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel/1308-1311,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed January 22, 2018).


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This panel is one of two owned by the National Gallery of Art from one of the most important monuments of Western painting: the towering, two-sided altarpiece known as the Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Sienese, c. 1250/1255 - 1318/1319). The Maestà dominated the main altar in Siena’s cathedral for nearly two centuries. The National Gallery of Art is the only institution in the United States to own two panels from this masterpiece. The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew is the second panel from the Maestà in the Gallery’s collection.

Standing on either side of this Nativity are two Hebrew prophets, whose writings—quoted on the scrolls they hold—are thought by Christians to foretell Jesus’s birth. The Gallery's Nativity joined other scenes from Jesus’s childhood (and other prophets) that unfolded along the front horizontal base of the altarpiece called the “predella” below a monumental image of the Madonna and Child in majesty, enthroned in a crowd of saints and angels (see Reconstruction). The Virgin was Siena’s patron saint, and devotion to her had a strong civic as well as religious dimension. Before it was installed in June 1311, Duccio’s altarpiece was paraded triumphantly through the streets. Musicians were hired to accompany it, along with all the priests and monks of Siena. A procession of city officials and citizens was followed by women and children ringing bells. Shops were closed all day and alms were given to the poor.

The visibility and authority of the Maestà, along with Duccio’s importance as a teacher, help explain Siena’s sustained taste for the gold and abstraction of the Byzantine style even as artists elsewhere in Tuscany adopted a more naturalistic approach. This Nativity blends Byzantine elements with more contemporary and local trends. The Virgin’s recumbent pose and out-of-scale size recall icons of the Nativity, and like many icon painters Duccio has included two midwives who wash and tend the new infant and confirm his virgin birth. The cave setting also comes via the Greek East, but the manger roof is similar to ones found in the Gothic art of northern Europe. While the effect of gold and brilliant color is highly decorative, Duccio’s elegant lines and flowing brushstrokes soften the austerity of the Byzantine style.

Completed in less than three years, the Maestà was a huge undertaking, for which Duccio received 3,000 gold florins—more than any artist had ever commanded. Although he must have had substantial help from his pupils and workshop assistants, the design and execution indicates that Duccio exercised control over the whole project. Moved to a side altar in 1506, the altarpiece was sawn apart in the 1770s and individual panels subsequently dispersed. This makes it impossible to determine its dimensions with certainty, but it must have been about 15 feet wide, with the gables rising to as much as 17 feet high. In all, there were probably more than 70 individual scenes.


The Nativity is flanked by the full-length figures of the two prophets who foretell the birth of Christ [fig. 1] [fig. 2]. Isaiah, to the left, as revealed by the text of his scroll and his leftward-turned gaze, is thematically linked to the previous scene of the front predella, representing the Annunciation [fig. 3], now in the National Gallery of London. The iconography of the Nativity follows the figurative tradition of Byzantine art, combining the scene with the subsidiary episodes of the Glad Tidings to the Shepherds and the First Bath of the Child. Mary is shown semirecumbent on a mattress inside the cave setting, into which a simple wooden hut with sloping roof is inserted. At the center of the hut, in the background, we see the manger with the child and two animals. In the foreground the episode of the First Bath occupies a central position, with the two midwives portrayed in slightly smaller proportions than the Madonna.[1] To the left we see Saint Joseph seated on a rock, sunk in meditation, while to the right appear the two shepherds conversing with one of the fourteen angels that throng the upper part of the scene.

The painting was the second of seven scenes ([fig. 4] [fig. 5] [fig. 6] [fig. 7] [fig. 8]) interspersed with standing figures of prophets that formed the predella of the front side of the two-sided altarpiece placed over the high altar in Siena Cathedral [fig. 9] (see also Reconstruction). For a discussion of the multipart complex of which this work has always been recognized as an integral part, see the entry on The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


left section, on the scroll of Isaiah: ECCE VIR / GO CONCI / PIET [et] PA / RIET FILIU[M] / [et] VOCABI / TUR NOM / EN EIUS / [E]MANUE[L] (Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel; from Isaiah 7:14); middle section, on the scroll of the announcing angel: A[nnunti]o / Vobis / Gaudiu[m] / Magnu[m] (Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy; variant of Luke 2:10); right section, on the scroll of Ezekial: VIDI PORTA[M] / I[N] DOMO D[OMI]NI / CLAUSA[M] / VIR / NO[N] TR[AN]SIBIT / P[ER] EA[M] DOM / IN[US] SOLUS / I[N]TRAT ET[?] / IT [?] P[ER] EA[M] (I saw a door in the house of the Lord which was closed and no man went through it. The Lord only enters and goes through it; variant of Ezekial 44:2)


NGA 1937.1.8 formed part of the front predella of Duccio's double-sided altarpiece the Maestà, which was in the course of execution by October 1308 and was placed on the high altar of the Cathedral of Siena on 30 June 1311;[1] the altarpiece was removed from the cathedral in 1506, first stored by the Cathedral authorities, and then later displayed on the wall of the left transept, close to the altar of Saint Sebastian, but probably by this time the predella and gable panels had already been separated from it;[2] the altarpiece was moved to the church of Sant'Ansano in 1777, where its two sides were separated and returned to the cathedral;[3] in 1798 the gables and eight panels of the predella were reported as being kept in the sacristy of the cathedral, whereas the rest, including NGA 1937.1.8, must already have been in private hands.[4] probably with Charles Fairfax Murray [1849-1919], London and Florence, in the early 1880s,[5] who seems to have been the seller, in 1884, to the Gemäldegalerie der Königliche Museen, Berlin; deaccessioned 1937[6] and exchanged with (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris);[7] purchased 26 April 1937 by The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh;[8] gift 1937 to NGA.

Dobbert, Eduard. "Duccio’s Bild Die Geburt Christi in der Königlichen Gemälde-Galerie zu Berlin." Jahrbuch der Preußischen Kunstsammlungen 6 (1885): 153-163.
"Fragment von Duccios Dombilde." Kunstfreund 1 (1885): 75.
Thode, Henry. Franz von Assisi und die Anfänge der Kunst der Renaissance in Italien. Berlin, 1885: 75.
Schubring, Paul. Moderner Cicerone, vol. 1, das Kaiser Friedrich-Museum, Berlin. Stuttgart [u.a.], 1890: 81, repro. 83.
Meyer, Julius, Hugo von Tschudi, and Wilhelm von Bode. Beschreibendes Verzeichniss der Gemälde. Königliche Museen, Berlin . 3rd ed. Berlin, 1891: 72, repro.
Pératé, André. "Études sur la peinture Siennoise. Duccio, 1." Gazette des Beaux-Arts S. 3, v. 9 (1893): 89.
Pératé, André. "Études sur la peinture Siennoise. Duccio, 2." Gazette des Beaux-Arts S. 3, v. 10 (1893): 178, 200.
Lisini, Alessandro. "Notizie di Duccio pittore e della sua celebre ancona." Bollettino senese di storia paria 5 (1898): 25, 27.
Posse, Hans. Die Gemäldegalerie des Kaiser-Friedrich-Museums: vollständiger beschreibender Katalog mit Abbildungen sämtlicher Gemälde, vol. 1, die romanischen Länder. Berlin, 1909: 15 (repro.), 16.
Lusini, Vittorio. Il Duomo di Siena. Siena, 1911: 128, 148 n. 115.
Posse, Hans, ed. Die Gemäldegalerie des Kaiser-Friedrich-Museums: vollständiger beschreibender Katalog mit Abbildungen sämtlicher Gemälde. Berlin, 1913: 15 (repro.), 16.
Millet, Gabriel. Recherches sur l’iconographie de l’évangile aux XIVe, XVe et XVIe siècles, d’après les monuments de Mistra, de la Macédoine et du Mont-Athos. Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome ... fasc 109. Paris, 1916: 110.
Péladan, Joséphin. "Au Louvre. Les maitres qui manquent." Les Arts 169 (1918): repro. 6.
Schottmüller, Frieda. "Italienische Schulen." In Das Kaiser Friedrich Museum. Führer durch die Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin. 4th ed. Berlin, 1919: 146 (repro.). 147-148.
Staatliche Museen Berlin. Die Gemäldegalerie, vol. 2, die italienischen Meister 13. bis 15. Jahrhundert. Berlin, 1930: repro. 44.
Kunze, Irene. Führer durch die Gemäldegalerie: die italienischen Meister. Berlin, 1934: 4.
Cecchi, Emilio. Giotto. Milan, 1937: 117-122.
Duveen Brothers. Duveen Pictures in Public Collections of America. New York, 1941: no. 6, repro.
National Gallery of Art. Book of Illustrations. Washington, 1941: 98 (repro.), 233.
Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 59, no. 8.
Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 239, repro. 100.
Carli, Enzo. Vetrata duccesca. Florence, 1946: 39.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Mellon Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1949 (reprinted 1953 and 1958): 4, repro.
Einstein, Lewis. Looking at Italian Pictures in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1951: 16.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 5.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Early Italian Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959 (Booklet Number Three in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 14, color repro.
The National Gallery of Art and Its Collections. Foreword by Perry B. Cott and notes by Otto Stelzer. National Gallery of Art, Washington (undated, 1960s): 10, as Nativity with Two Prophets.
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art. Translated. New York, 1962: 10, color repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 297, repro.
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 44.
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 1:4, color repro.
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 37, repro.
Ruhemann, Helmut. The Cleaning of Paintings: Problems and Potentialities. London, 1968: 41.
Pesenti, Franco Renzo. "Dismembered works of art - Italian painting." In An Illustrated Inventory of Famous Dismembered Works of Art: European Painting. Paris, 1974: 20, 26-27, repro.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 112, repro.
Amico, Leonard N. "Reconstructing an Early Fourteenth Century Pentaptych by Ugolino di Nerio: St. Catherine Finds Her Niche." Bulletin Krannert Art Museum 5, no. 1 (1979): 13, repro. 14.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. Washington, 1979: 1:168-172; 2:pl. 119.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 67, no. 8, color repro.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 136, repro.
National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1992: 11, repro.
Bock, Henning, and Rainald Grosshans, eds. Gemäldegalerie Berlin: Gesamtverzeichnis. Berlin, 1996: 601.
Gordon, Dillian. “Duccio (di Buoninsegna).” In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. 34 vols. New York and London, 1996: 9:344.
Shaw-Eagle, Joanna. "Christ's Birth Gave Birth to Astounding Images: Gallery Glitters with holy Masterpieces." Washington Times (21 December 1997): D5.
Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. "Virgin/Virginity." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. Edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 2:906.
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 2-3, 6-7, no. 2, color repros.
Hartt, Frederick, and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, 2006: 105-107, color figs. 4.3, 4.8.
Giorgi, Rosa. “L’iconografia della Natività nella tradizione e la novità del Lippi.” In Filippo Lippi: La Natività. Exh. cat. Museo Diocesano, Milan, 2010: 55-57, color figs. 2, 3.
Gordon, Dillian. The Italian Paintings Before 1400. National Gallery Catalogues. London, 2011: 174-175, under no. NG1330, color fig. 1.
Dunlop, Ann. "Carrying the Weight of Empire." in Matters of Weight: Force, Gravity, and Aesthetics in the Early Modern Period. Edited by David Young Kim. Emsdetten and Berlin, 2013: 87 n. 11.
"Vasari and the National Gallery of Art." National Gallery of Art Bulletin 48 (Spring 2013): 10-11, repro.
National Gallery of Art. Highlights from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Washington, 2016: 36, repro.
Technical Summary

This is one of the few early Italian panels in the collection that has not been cradled. The wooden support is a two-member poplar panel [1] of remarkable thickness (6 cm), with horizontal grain; engaged to this is a simple gilded molding that demarcates the three areas of the support to be painted. The panel and moldings were prepared with a fine fabric followed by gesso. A thin, orange bole was applied under the gilded areas. The ornamental border along the edges of the gold ground, the halos, and the contours of the figures of the prophets were incised in the preparation before painting. Mordant gilding is evident in the robes of the Virgin and of the angels. Infrared reflectography reveals a simple underdrawing.[2]

A photograph taken in or shortly before 1885 [3] suggests that the painting was subjected to a rather drastic restoration, of unspecified date but probably carried out before the acquisition for the Gemäldegalerie der Königliche Museen in Berlin, in order to integrate the abrasions and render the image more pleasing by extensive retouching. The inscriptions were also reinforced. Helmut Ruhemann treated the painting in 1929;[4] photographs made after this treatment show the worn areas of the painting. The figures of the prophets in particular are damaged by abrasion and by small flaking paint losses as well as by sharp craquelure. Dr. Max Friedlander “cleaned” the painting at some point between 1929 and 1937.[5] According to information in the William Suhr archives at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, William Suhr removed a varnish, inpainted, and revarnished the painting.[6] On the whole the painted surface, in spite of some abrasion, is fairly well preserved. Numerous small areas of inpainting affect the faces of the angels, the hair and beard of Isaiah, and the face of the Virgin.

Explore This Work

On the day on which it was carried to the Duomo, the shops were locked up...and all the populace and all the most worthy were in order next to the said panel with lights lit in their hands, and then behind were women and children with much devotion; and they accompanied it right to the Duomo...sounding all the bells in glory out of devotion for such a noble panel as was this.

Anonymous, mid-14th-century description of a procession to carry Duccio’s Maesta from the artist’s studio to the Siena Cathedral (L. A. Muratori, Rerum italiarum scriptores (Bologna, 1931–1939), xv/6, 90)

The small tripartite painting, The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, was once part of a massive two-sided, wood-paneled altarpiece of nearly 16 by 15 feet—the “noble panel” joyfully paraded through the streets of Siena on a summer day in 1311. Its point of origination was Duccio’s studio where it had been built and painted; its destination, Siena Cathedral, a Gothic edifice distinguished by its horizontal bands of greenish black and white marble and soaring interiors.

The altarpiece remained at the cathedral for the next 450 years. It was practically an element of Gothic architecture itself, elaborately topped with pinnacles and gables resembling the cathedral’s façade, the whole outlined with gilded framing, supported by buttresses (for it was freestanding), and likely situated on the high altar beneath a four-posted baldachin, or ceremonial canopy. The focal point of this towering shrine was a luminous, gilded expanse of painting depicting the Virgin and Child Enthroned. It is this scene that gives the altarpiece its name, the Maestà, meaning Virgin in Majesty. The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel occupied a place on the left side of the predella, or horizontal series of paintings forming the base of the altarpiece. The reverse of the altarpiece comprised a complex array of 40 detailed vignettes from the life of Christ and his Passion. 

Church documentation records the purchase of candles to light the altarpiece within the cathedral’s dim interior: 150 for the front side (visible to the congregation) and 80 for the reverse (seen by church canons who would have sat behind it during a service). In an age when most people had very limited exposure to images, it would have been an awesome sight worthy of the veneration due its subject, the Virgin, Queen of Heaven. 

The Nativity scene, although a component of the original Maestà, played a more modest role. Smaller and more human-scaled, the Nativity was positioned low on the altarpiece and required a closer approach in order to see its details, creating a more intimate relationship between the onlooker and the miraculous, yet humble aspects of Christ’s first night on earth. Here, Mary reclines on a red cushion, gazing toward the Christ child who is watched over by an ox and ass, in whose manger he rests. Although Mary appears to float against the flat red ovoid shape, her body has mass and is suggested beneath her royal blue robes. Her gesture of gathering her garment about her is familiar and may portend the chilly winds of the future that await her child. Her scale, twice that of any other figure, allows her to be read as the protagonist of the composition. Above, angels express their adoration, eagerly leaning over the parapet to catch a glimpse of the child.

Multiple scenes narrate different aspects of the birth—women bathe the child on the left, while an angel announces the birth to shepherds accompanied by their flock and a dog at right. Joseph, at left with pink cloak and halo, is separated from Mary and the Child to underscore the immaculate birth—he is not the child’s father. Other symbols, such as the semicircle above Mary at the top of the panel (heaven) and the eight-sided star that lights the way to Christ’s side, are familiar ones in Christian iconography, which Duccio followed in every respect.

The prophet Ezekiel from the Old Testament stands on the right side of the Nativity, turned toward the scene. His Latin scroll refers to the Virgin birth. Isaiah, on the left, faces toward what is the predella’s first scene, the Annuciation (National Gallery, London) and prophecies, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear and son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel."

About the Artist

The events of Duccio’s life can be only partly drawn through a constellation of points offered by civic records, contracts, and the political and cultural life of Siena, the city in which he was born and worked. The Maestà came toward his life’s end and was the pinnacle of his achievement.

Duccio may have trained with the Italian painters Guido da Siena or Cimabue. His first artistic commissions were to paint ceiling coffers and biccherne covers, small panel paintings that bound the volumes housing Siena’s financial records. Siena’s governors took great pride in their city’s prosperity and their fiduciary responsibilities, and they commissioned the best native artists to decorate the books, which were publicly displayed.

Duccio’s approximately 12 existing works include commissions from Siena’s city leaders but also from Florence, where the Dominican church Santa Maria Novella commissioned his Rucellai Madonna, indicating a reputation beyond his home base. Siena, while not a port or river city, was along a major route used by pilgrims traveling from Rome to France during the years of the Avignon papacy, which stimulated cultural and economic activity and competition.

Duccio’s work and occasional appearance in civic records (that show infractions for nonpayment of taxes and occasional unruly behavior) situate him in Siena for most of his life. For a period around the turn of the 14th century scholars place him in Paris or Rome, where he may have absorbed other artistic influences. By the time of the Maestà commission, Duccio was managing a large studio in Siena where the painters Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Simone Martini were likely to have trained (works by Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini are also in the Gallery collection). Contracts show that the Maestà was undertaken in stages, without the entire program of the work being outlined in advance. The scale of the project indicates that Duccio likely enlisted a number of other artists to work on it, especially with respect to the rear panels, and that he was under some pressure to complete the whole in a timely fashion. Nonetheless, its unified nature suggests that Duccio strongly directed the other artists.

Political considerations also have shaped our understanding of this artist and his contributions to Western art over time. In the 13th century, Florence and Siena were bitter rivals, the former aligned with the papacy, the latter with the authority of the Roman emperor, a position Siena was forced to cede in 1268. Over time, Florence assumed a greater economic and cultural significance, its classically inspired art more closely associated with the flowering of the Renaissance, while Sienese art became associated with an older style, based in archaic Greek or Byzantine models.


Altarpiece Reconstruction

Click on any panel in the altarpiece reconstruction below to see an enlarged version of the image. Color reproductions in the reconstruction indicate panels in the National Gallery of Art collection.

Reconstruction of the front of the predella of Duccio di Buoninsegna's Maestà:

a. The Annunciation (Entry fig. 3)
b. The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel
c. The Adoration of the Magi (Entry fig. 4)
d. The Presentation in the Temple with Salomon (or David?) and the Prophet Malachi (Entry fig. 7)
e. The Massacre of the Innocents (Entry fig. 6)
f. The Flight into Egypt with the Prophets Jeremiah and Hosea (Entry fig. 8)
g. Christ among the Doctors (Entry fig. 5)