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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