In the late 13th and early 14th centuries the Italian practice of painting altarpieces in the Byzantine style began to make subtle moves toward a style that was more natural than anything that had come before. This time of transition was on the eve of the Renaissance when art would expand its subjects and its style to encompass more real world scenarios.
The purpose of Byzantine art was to translate theology into its visual expression and the important paintings during the late Medieval period were large altarpieces commissioned for, and often by, the cathedrals. The primary subjects were the Virgin Mary and Christ child with other Biblical and celestial figures. They were painted with elongated faces, especially their noses, and very long fingers that were all the same length. Poses were static, even stiff, and hieratic scale identified the important people. Most paintings involved extensive use of gold leaf.
As the Medieval period waned, artists like those in this exhibition began to experiment with faces and bodies that were still elongated but less angular and more filled out. Fingers were still quite long but gestures became more expressive. It began to be possible to see body structure as the clothing was painted with folds that clung to torsos. Poses became less rigid and less uniform, lending a sense of movement to the scenes. Hieratic scale gave way to the use of perspective to indicate importance. Gold leaf, however, was still used for backgrounds and halos.
The paintings in this exhibit represent the category of altarpieces called the Maestà, or Majesty. In these paintings, the Virgin Mary is seated on a throne and recognized as the Queen of Heaven; she holds her child on her lap as he offers a blessing to the other figures in the paintings and to the viewers.
Cimabue’s Madonna was a part of the altarpiece for Santa Trinità in Florence. As the earliest of the three, it is most clearly Byzantine in style but the new naturalism is also present. Thirty years later, Giotto painted his Madonna for the Ognissanti Church, also in Florence, and the advances toward even more naturalism are apparent. The Madonna Enthroned, painted by Duccio at about the same time, is a part of his great masterpiece known simply as the Maestà. It is a very large work made of up of multiple paintings and the Madonna is the centerpiece. As the latest in our series of Madonnas it moved painting irrevocably from Byzantine style to natural presentations of humans and landscapes that would become the style of the Renaissance.