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.
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
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
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
A horizontal band, cut from a single plank, below the main panels of an altarpiece. The appearance of the predella can be seen as part of the development of the altarpiece from a single panel to a large, multilevel polyptych. The small figures or scenes painted on the predella formed part of the integrated program of the altarpiece, providing a visual commentary on the major images above and at the same time physically raising the main panels, thus improving their visibility. —Ronald Baxter, Grove Art © Oxford University Press
Terms that refer broadly to the study of subjects and themes in works of art. Iconology, which is based on the results of iconography, is the more wide-ranging and comprehensive. One of the principal concerns of iconography is the discovery of symbolic and allegorical meanings in a work of art. —Willem F. Lash, Grove Art © Oxford University Press
On the iconography of the scene, cf. Gertrud Schiller, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, 6 vols. (Gütersloh, 1966 – 1990), 1:69 – 98; and Günter Ristow, “Geburt Christi,” in Reallexikon zur byzantinischen Kunst, ed. Klaus Wessel, 7 vols. (Stuttgart, 1971), 2:637 – 662. The motif of the cave setting for the Nativity first appeared in the East in the sixth century, while the amalgamation of this tradition with that usual in the West, in which the scene is placed in a hut, took place in Italy about 1300. The presence of the two animals next to the child lying in the manger is found in the earliest examples of the iconography, dating to the fourth century. The Church fathers linked the image of the ox and the ass with a passage in the Prophet Habakkuk (3:2): “O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years,” a text that in Hebrew and in the Greek version of the Septuagint reads, “You will reveal yourself between the two animals.” Christian exegetical literature later related these words to the two Churches: the one that descended from the Jewish people, and the other that derives its origin from the gentiles. The motif of the First Bath of the Child, with an evident baptismal reference, was especially disseminated in Byzantine art on the basis of the apocryphal “Protoevangelium” of Saint James. An aspect peculiar to Byzantine art is the inclusion of the scene of the Glad Tidings to the Shepherds, found in representations of the Nativity starting in the tenth century.
The painting was the second of seven scenes (
An image-bearing structure set on the rear part of the altar, abutting the back of the altarblock, or set behind the altar in such a way as to be visually joined with the altar when viewed from a distance. It is also sometimes called a retable, following the medieval term retrotabulum. The altarpiece was never officially prescribed by the Church, but it did perform a prescribed function alternatively carried out by a simple inscription on the altarblock: to declare to which saint or mystery the altar was dedicated. In fact, the altarpiece did more than merely identify the altar; its form and content evoked the mystery or personage whose cult was celebrated at the altar. This original and lasting function influenced the many forms taken by the altarpiece throughout its history. —Alexander Nagel, Grove Art © Oxford University Press
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; 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; the altarpiece was moved to the church of Sant'Ansano in 1777, where its two sides were separated and returned to the cathedral; 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. probably with Charles Fairfax Murray [1849-1919], London and Florence, in the early 1880s, who seems to have been the seller, in 1884, to the Gemäldegalerie der Königliche Museen, Berlin; deaccessioned 1937 and exchanged with (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris); purchased 26 April 1937 by The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
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- "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.
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- Lusini, Vittorio. Il Duomo di Siena. Siena, 1911: 128, 148 n. 115.
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- Schottmüller, Frieda. "Italienische Schulen." In Das Kaiser Friedrich Museum. Führer durch die Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin. 4th ed. Berlin, 1919: 146 (repro.). 147-148.
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- 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.
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- Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 5.
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- 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.
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- 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.
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- 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.
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- 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.
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- Gordon, Dillian. The Italian Paintings Before 1400. National Gallery Catalogues. London, 2011: 174-175, under no. NG1330, color fig. 1.
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This is one of the few early Italian panels in the collection that has not been
Attaching a woodent grid to the reverse of a panel to prevent the panel's warping.
The NGA scientific research department analyzed the wood using cross-sectional microscopy, and it was determined to be poplar (see report dated January 31, 1989, in NGA conservation files).
A mixture of finely ground plaster and glue applied to wood panels to create a smooth painting surface. —Grove Art © Oxford University Press
The layer or layers used to prepare the support to hold the paint.
A photographic or digital image analysis method which captures the absorption/emission characteristics of reflected infrared radiation. The absorption of infrared wavelengths varies for different pigments, so the resultant image can help distinguish the pigments that have been used in the painting or underdrawing.
A drawing executed on a ground before paint is applied.
Infrared reflectography was performed with a Hamamatsu c/1000-03 Vidicon camera fitted with a lead sulphide tube and a Kodak Wratten 87A filter.
A photograph taken in or shortly before 1885
Reproduced in Eduard Dobbert, “Duccio’s Bild Die Geburt Christi in der Königlichen Gemälde-Galerie zu Berlin,” Jahrbuch der Preußischen Kunstsammlungen 6 (1885): 158 – 159.
A gradual loss of material on the surface. It can be caused by rubbing, wearing, or scraping against itself or another material. It may be a deteriorative process that occurs over time as a result of weathering or handling or it may be due to a deliberate attempt to smooth the material.
On this treatment, see Helmut Ruhemann, The Cleaning of Paintings: Problems and Potentialities (London, 1968), 41. The same restorer noted that on seeing the painting again in 1952, it looked “finished” with “invisible retouchings.” The evidence of an old photograph in the photographic archive of the Kunsthistorisches Institute in Florence suggests that a partial cleaning of the panel may have occurred sometime before Ruhemann’s.
Loss of pieces paint and/or ground.
The network of cracks in the paint and ground. Also sometimes referred to crackle pattern.
A telegram dated April 6, 1937, recorded in the Duveen Brothers Records, accession number 960015, Research Library, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles: reel 92, box 237, folder 23, stated, “picture cleaned off several years ago by Dr. Friedlander.”
Application of restoration paint to areas of lost original paint to visually integrate an area of loss with the color and pattern of the original, without covering any original paint.
William Suhr archives at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (notes in NGA conservation and curatorial files). This treatment was probably accomplished in 1937, because a telegram dated April 6, 1937, in Duveen Brothers Records, accession number 960015, Research Library, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles: reel 92, box 237, folder 23, stated, “Absolutely cannot be shown its present state although no important parts missing yet much small detail work necessary get proper effect,” and another telegram dated May 7, 1937, stated, “Duccio marvelous perfectly exquisite color enchanting very happy with it far superior Benson Duccios.”
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.
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.