“Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel”,
Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Matthew 1:18-25 (Isaiah 7)
For Sunday, December 22, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
I was fascinated to learn this week about Duccio’s “Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekial” (pictured above). It’s a story that spans from the National Gallery of Art in present day Washington, D.C. all the way back to 14th century Tuscany, Italy, and the city state of Siena.
Duccio di Buoninsegna (say that three times fast) was a prominent Sienese artist with a reputation that extended as far as Paris. His Siena studio received a commission from the government of Siena to create a magnificent altarpiece called the Maesta, that would serve as a crown jewel of the already famous and beautiful Cathedral of Siena. The idea was to raise the profile of Siena, and it’s allegiance with the Roman Emperor, as against that of it’s archival Florence, which was allied with the Pope (1).
The Maesta (“The Majesty”) was intended to celebrate the majesty of God as revealed in the coming of Immanuel (Messiah as “God with Us”). It was a stunningly beautiful free-standing sculpture 7′ high by 13′ wide consisting of many images. The theme on the front was Mary’s role in Jesus’ birth while the theme on the back was the life of Christ. The work en toto was the 13th Century equivalent of a modern cinematic blockbuster. If you had the good fortune of walking into the glorious Cathedral of Siena, and then walking up to the alter to take communion in front of this even more glorious Maesta, it would be an experience of a lifetime.
Across the front of the base of the Maesta was a predalla, a horizontal band of narrative scenes. Front and center on the predella was “The Nativity’. It’s only 18″ tall and 34″ wide, but it was the invitation to enter into the majesty of the larger work. When you approached the Maesta this is where your eyes would go first. Then you would be drawn into the majesty of the entire narrative until finally eyes moved above Mary’s own ascension into heaven and you were forced to contemplate your own mortality in light of eternity. Mind altering, to be sure.
Duccio flanks the nativity scene itself with the Prophet Isaiah on the left and the Prophet Ezekiel on the right. Each is holding a scroll. On Isaiah’s scroll is written ‘ECCE VIRGO CONCIPIET & PARIET FILIU & VOCABITUR NOMEN EIUS EMANUEL’, Latin for “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel” (from Isaiah 7:14). Right… , that certainly makes good sense.
On Ezekiel’s scroll, however, is inscribed ‘VIDI PORTA I DOMO DOM CLAUSA VIR NO TRSIBIT P[ER] EA DOMIN SOLUS ITRAT ET IT P[ER] EA[M]‘, for “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” (Ezekial 44:2). Wow, not the Ezekiel verse I expected. Yet this was always the citation from Ezekiel that resonated with the Sienese, because for them, “the door” was Mary, and if it wasn’t for her, Immanuel could never have come into the world (2).
The Maesta was installed in the cathedral of Siena on June 9, 1311. Here is how one participant described the event:
And on that day when it was brought into the cathedral, all workshops remained closed, and the bishop commanded a great host of devoted priests and monks to file past in solemn procession. This was accompanied by all the high officers of the Commune and by all the people; all honorable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind. They accompanied the panel amidst the glorious pealing of bells after a solemn procession on the Piazza del Campo into the very cathedral; and all this out of reverence for the costly panel… The poor received many alms, and we prayed to the Holy Mother of God, our patron saint, that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor or enemy.
Wow! After reading that I need to see “The Nativity” in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. And I need to see the parts of the Maesta that remain in Siena as well as the Cathedral itself. What an incredible story God weaves over time and through nations. Wouldn’t it be amazing to organize some Christian Worldview culture vulture trips for amazed people such as us?
I love the last part of the description above. “The poor received many alms, and we prayed to our patron Saint that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor, or enemy.” My prayer today for the poor among us, for you and me, for our families, for our churches, for our cities, for our countries, and for our world is that God might do likewise for us.