Madonna col Bambino, San Domenico e Sant’Aurea, Patriarchi e Profeti (c.1312-1315)

Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-c.1319)

Madonna col Bambino, San Domenico e Sant’Aurea, Patriarchi e Profeti (The Virgin and Child with Saint Dominic and Saint Aurea, and Patriarchs and Prophets)
Egg tempera on wood, 61.4 x 39.3 cm
National GalleryLondon

Duccio was the leading artist in the Tuscan city of Siena. He developed a style known for its grace, fluid lines and harmonious colouring. He is one of the most significant artists of the fourteenth century, who animated Byzantine models to create humane depictions of holy figures.

This is a triptych, a painting made up of three sections. The two smaller panels – Saint Dominic on the left and Saint Aurea on the right – can fold inwards to cover and protect the central image of the Virgin and Child. This was essential as the triptych was most probably designed as a portable altarpiece for private prayer while travelling.

The Virgin Mary’s long, slim fingers frame the Christ Child’s tiny feet. Here Christ, still an infant, plays with his mother’s veil which is bordered with decorative gold lettering. His robe is purple, a colour reserved for the ruling elite from the time of Christ’s birth, used here to emphasise his divinity and importance for Christians. The delicately decorated haloes have been made by using a sharp tool to indent the soft gold leaf of the background. The four angels who enter the scene on either side emphasise the devotional nature of the image: the lower two clasp their hands in prayer, while the upper two waft the holy figures with incense contained within thuribles – perfume burners swung on chains.

Saint Dominic wears the white robe and black cape worn by the preaching friars of the religious order that he founded in the thirteenth century. The star above his left shoulder may refer to the legend that at his baptism his godmother saw a bright star appear on his forehead. Saint Aurea is dressed in a gold-edged pink cloak over a green dress; her right hand is raised in blessing and in her left she carries a blue cross.

Once the two side panels were closed, the only clue to how the triptych was used was the pointed gable which remained uncovered. Its central focus is King David, regarded as the greatest King of Israel. He is surrounded by key figures and prophets of the Old Testament including Abraham, Moses, Jacob and Isaiah, who carry scrolls inscribed with extracts of their prophecies. Their presence offers a clue to the image of the Virgin and Child within: the prophets foretold that a king greater than David would emerge in Israel. New Testament writers associated Christ – a spiritual, rather than earthly king – with this figure.

It is likely that Duccio made this triptych for Niccolò degli Albertini da Prato, who became Cardinal Bishop of the Roman port city of Ostia in 1303. Records show that he owned three such portable altarpieces. The Cardinal was probably involved in choosing the images, which explains the inclusion of Saint Aurea, the patron saint of Ostia, and Saint Dominic, since he himself belonged to the Dominican order. X-ray images show that a leather strap once held the triptych closed for travelling and that the reverse of the side panels bore the Cardinal’s coat of arms. (NG)