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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 December 04, 2023).

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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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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.

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.


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. 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.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 37, repro.
Ruhemann, Helmut. The Cleaning of Paintings: Problems and Potentialities. London, 1968: 41.
Finley, David Edward. A Standard of Excellence: Andrew W. Mellon Founds the National Gallery of Art at Washington. Washington, 1973: 36 repro., 37.
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. 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.
Boskovits, Miklós. Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2016: 81-102, color repro.
National Gallery of Art. Highlights from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Washington, 2016: 36, repro.

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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)

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