This rare and fascinating panel is a remarkable survival from the decades preceding the turn of the 14th century, and an important piece of evidence in our understanding of the momentous transformations taking place in Italian painting at the time. These advances, which would shape the course of Western art, were largely due to the increased emphasis in the later Middle Ages on the humanity of Christ, and a new Church imperative that encouraged the faithful to lead lives modeled on Christ's own. This early modern form of spirituality emphasized the emotional involvement of the faithful, and believers were encouraged to contemplate events from the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or the saints as if they were present. The extremely popular and influential devotional guide Meditations on the Life of Christ, for instance, reflects the power these ideals carried well into the 14th century: 'Kiss the beautiful little feet of the infant Jesus who lies in the manger and beg his mother to offer to let you hold him a while. Pick him up and hold him in your arms. Gaze on his face with devotion and reverently kiss and delight in him.'
Artists in the last decades of the Duecento reacted to these changes in different ways, and in doing so inaugurated the grand tradition in Italian art of envisioning the sacred figures of the Madonna and Child in terms appropriated from real life. Tuscany was at the heart of these developments. In Florence, the great masters Cimabue and then Giotto di Bondone brought an insistent monumentality and reverence for three-dimensionality and volume to their works, giving their viewers the opportunity to literally imagine themselves in the holy spaces before of them. The father of painting in Siena, Duccio di Buoninsenga, took a somewhat different approach, choosing instead to focus on a heightened attention to narrative and adorning his figures and their environments with carefully observed details relevant to contemporary life.
Since its rediscovery in 1984, the present work has been associated with several important survivals from this period, and is particularly related to two other panels with which it shares its composition (Paris, Louvre, fig. 1; and Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum, fig. 2). All three works share certain basic elements with Byzantine iconography: the Madonna gestures to the Christ Child with her right hand in the manner of a Byzantine Hodegetria icon, while the Child wraps his right arm around his mother's neck and presses his face to hers. This tender cheek-to-cheek gesture can be associated with the Byzantine ideal of Eleousa (tenderness, compassion) but our picture has a completely novel visual power that comes from the way the Madonna and Child touch, flesh to flesh: his hand cradles her chin, their faces are pressed together, and three of her fingers tenderly support the sole of his bare foot – perhaps a direct allusion to the devotional kissing of the foot made so explicit in the Meditations. These naturalistic gestures both emphasize Christ's humanity and also constitute a direct visual link to his eventual torture and death.
During its time, the present composition would have seemed nothing short of revolutionary. It has sometimes been suggested that all three surviving works of this design are based on a lost Byzantine model, possibly a venerated icon from Arezzo or Assisi, the latter of which was one of the most frequented pilgrimage places in Italy as well as a unique site of artistic innovation and exchange that Cimabue, Giotto, and Duccio all likely visited. It is also possible, as some scholars have noted, that the prototype could have been a contemporary one, possibly even one of the three surviving panels themselves. Indeed, Millard Meiss wrote of the composition in 1955 that “the gesture of the Child's hands, one of which caresses the chin of the Madonna while the other embraces the shoulder, has no precedent.” (M. Meiss, "Nuovi dipinti e vecchi problemi," Rivista d'arte, XXX, 1955, p. 111.)
The Louvre picture, which presents with the more static monumentality characteristic of the Florentine concern for form and structure, has generally been considered the work of a Florentine follower of Cimabue. The Oberlin picture, on the other hand, has almost always been accepted as Sienese. In recent years, the possibility that it could, in fact, be a work by Duccio himself, datable to the artist's enigmatic early period, has been raised. Indeed, when the picture was exhibited in Nashville at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in the 2014-2015 exhibition Sanctity Pictured: The Art of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in Renaissance Italy, it was catalogued as “Possibly Duccio di Buoninsegna or an early follower, Italian, Sienese.”
There is still no consensus on the precise chronology and attribution of Duccio's paintings, and his early career is particularly mysterious. His only two securely dated works are the Rucellai Madonna (Florence, Uffizi), commissioned in 1285, and the Maestà for the Siena cathedral (Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo), documented 1308-1311. Writing about the Oberlin picture before the discovery of the present work, Millard Meiss noted that it is “closer to the Rucellai panel than any work of Duccio's following known” (handwritten comments in Allen Memorial Art Museum file). More than a decade earlier, in December 1943, Richard Offner had observed the Oberlin Madonna and similarly noted, “it is the only painting within the range of Duccio's circle that shares his hellenic lyricism and the style typical of his early period.” Indeed, all three of the panels here discussed display delicate gold punchwork and tooling, notably elegant arabesques with a filigree effect, that relate directly to the decorations on the Rucellai Madonna. The position of the Christ Child's head, too, relates to that of the adoring angel kneeling at lower right in the monumental Uffizi panel (fig. 3).
When Alastair Smart published the present work for the first time in 1984, he paid special attention to the punchwork and tooling in its gold ground, and clearly demonstrated that it too boasts a close connection to the Rucellai Madonna (figs. 4, 5). More recently, Erling Skaug has noted that the gold tooling in the present work has “no rival” in its comparison to the monumental work in Florence (private communication, February 2016). Attributing the work to Duccio in full, Smart pointed out some of its exceptional qualities of execution, and noted that the Italian art historian Enzo Carli had also endorsed his hypothesis (Smart, op. cit., p. 232). Indeed, the refined painting technique remains clear in the picture surface, notwithstanding the obvious damage it has suffered, and the argument could be made that it is the most successful of all three versions of the composition. The modeling of the figural forms is particularly advanced, as evident in the meticulously applied paint strokes in the Madonna's face and neck which give shape and form to her physiognomy; in her beautifully modeled eyes and eyelids; and in both figures' hands, in which the tips of the fingers are dutifully swollen in imitation of a real human form. The assiduous application of chrysography (gold striations on the figures' robes) also reflects this attention to three-dimensionality: the gilt designs are employed by our artist not just as an element of surface decoration, but with a more advanced goal in mind – to assist with the viewer's understanding of how Mary's cloak twists and falls about her as if on a real, human woman. And although the Christ Child's face is damaged, one can still observe how its placement has been conceived – truly overlapping his mother's cheek to create a meaningful spatial relationship – which seems more sophisticated than the corresponding gesture in both the Louvre and Oberlin pictures. Regardless of how we attribute the present work, we must accept that its author had knowledge of Duccio's innovative technique and previously unrivaled depiction of the human body.
In January 2014, the present panel appeared in the catalogue of a Sotheby's auction (it was eventually not offered), where both Laurence Kanter and Andrea de Marchi were quoted as endorsing a Florentine origin for it. Andrea de Marchi contends, in fact, that all three versions of the composition are attributable to the same artist – a Florentine exposed to Sienese art and in particular to Duccio's Rucellai Madonna – at different stages of his career (private communication, February 2016). While Laurence Kanter agrees with a Florentine origin for the Louvre panel, he shares the more broadly accepted belief that the Oberlin picture is Sienese. According to Andria Derstine's entry in the Sanctity Pictured catalogue, Kanter has in fact proposed that the Oberlin picture could potentially be attributable to Duccio himself (A. Derstine in Sanctity Pictured, exhibition catalogue, Nashville, 2014, p. 116, n. 9, under no. 11). Given its connection to the Oberlin picture – with which the present work shares its closest affinities in terms of conception, format, and execution – as well as the innovative Ducciesque technique used by the present artist, a Sienese authorship for our panel seems clear. This conclusion is endorsed by Everett Fahy, to whom we are grateful, on the basis of firsthand examination. Given also the tentative attribution of the Oberlin picture to Duccio, and the exceptionally high quality of the present panel, it is tempting to see the hand of Duccio here, though given the condition of this panel and our lack of documented knowledge of Duccio's work in the 1280's any association with the master himself is conjecture. If an attribution to Duccio is to be supported, the present work would date to the years around 1280, before the Rucellai Madonna was painted and the artist's byzantinizing origins gave way to a wholly modern style. His so-called Crevole Madonna, for example, generally accepted in the scholarship as autograph and datable to the early 1280s, has already taken the Child's gesture of affection to a new level of naturalism not yet evident in the present composition -- though its tooled ground does invite close comparison, once more, to the present work (figs. 6, 7).
If the attribution of the present work to Duccio is to be accepted, its relationship to the two works with which it shares its design becomes increasingly interesting. True, they could all be based on a lost icon. But, as stated above, one of the works could itself be the prototype for all three. This is exactly what Smart argues, pointing out that the additions of a stigmatization scene and a diminutive figure of Saint Francis in the Louvre and Oberlin panels, respectively, suggest that they were later adaptations based on the present original work. The relative artistic refinement of the three works, also discussed above, would support such a hypothesis. Furthermore, even if we accept a Florentine origin for the Louvre panel, its chrsyography, applied with attention to the way that cloth falls, as well as the freehand tooling in the gold ground, connect it to a Sienese tradition. The theory that our panel is the prototype for the other two remains, therefore, a tempting one.
The Louvre panel was once the central element of a gabled triptych, and it has also been suggested that the Oberlin Madonna was once part of a larger construction. Both were certainly Franciscan commissions. There is no way to prove a mendicant connection for the present work, and also no evidence to suggest that it was itself ever part of a larger complex. It may have been conceived as an independent object for quiet devotion, perhaps installed in the chapel of a church or monastery.