From today’s point of view, The unrealistic character  of Duccio’s style is evident. It can even be relished as an abstract aspect of aesthetic intention. However, a comparison of Duccio to the masters of the Byzantine tradition shows that he appealed to his contemporaries because he humanized a familiar tradition without diminishing its imperative and aristocratic elegance.Much that can be said of the Byzantine classics can also be true with Duccio; the regality and aristocratic reserve divorce it from the commonplace of life and the goldenness which is everywhere is a heavenly goldenness. The difference is that pieces like the ”Byzantine Madonna” are preponderantly symbolic images, somewhat removed, and fenced off by the nonrealism of the conventions of the Byzantine formulas for votive art, which were inherited from early Christian times when the realism of early pagan art was unacceptable to the church.

Duccio, Madonna Enthroned 1285

Duccio, Madonna Enthroned 1285

To the fathers of the Church, an abstract symbolic representation seemed more appropriate and more respectful in treating the mystical Christian story. Still, the times had outgrown the formula. Saint Francis had celebrated nature as a manifestation of God,s love. The corollary was that the artist should look at nature with new interest.The inherent problem was that the techniques for representing things naturally, including in particular, the human figure, had fallen into neglect. Ducco and Giotto, in their different ways, initiated the forms that expressed the new relationship between things human and things divine.

Duccio sticks closely enough to certain inviolable conventions, but the occupant of the throne in his ”Madonna Enthroned” , while no less an aristocrat, has become, by comparison, more a mother tenderly showing us her child than a distant, aloof and hieratic image. The transformation is produced by a general rounding, softening, and sweetening of the forms. ”Sweetening” is deroagatory if it indicates unnecessary excess, but in Duccio it reveals only a gentling of severity and a humanization through a more realistic manner of representation. The robes fall more naturally and the gilded and enameled Byzantine mannequins are brought to life as sensate beings or, more accurately, as super beings.  Duccio accepts and reveals their kinship to us without denying the transcendental position of these beings, who once existed on earth and whose love for us who remain there is our promise of salvation. Compared to Duccio’s Madonna, the Byzantine painting remains a diagram, although a magnificent one.

Giotto, Madonna Enthroned ( Madonna d'Ognissanti ) 1310

Giotto, Madonna Enthroned ( Madonna d'Ognissanti ) 1310

Yet, if the comparison is shifted between Duccio’s Madonna and ”Madonna Enthroned” by Giotto, it is Duccio who appears as an exemplar of the old tradition, and Giotto is shown as the tru innovator. If Duccio’s madonna is a Queen, the Giotto’s is a peasant. The Giotto seems cumbersome though, because its realism leads one to look at it in terms of much later work that had a more refined technique. Still, Giotto’s efforts to create solid,if flawed, three dimensional forms on the direct model of nature was a total rejection of the byzantine formulas for drawing that he inherited equally with Duccio. Duccio’s Madonna can be compared with the Byzantine while Giotto’s can only be contrasted with it. Giotto,s lines appear to exist only as the boundaries of forms that are as natural as Giotto can make them, while Duccio’s seem to exist as much for their inherent abstract beauty as for their delineating function.

Byzantine School. Enthroned Madonna and Child. 13 th Century. Wood

Byzantine School. Enthroned Madonna and Child. 13 th Century. Wood

Giotto’s Madonna has a unique and well defined human face. This type of representation was considered heretical at the time, and subject to debate among orthodox scholars since individual complexity could be subject to question. And questions to lead to other questions. Giotto,s work in the Arena Chapel in Padua challenged viewers for the first time to develop the heretofore unknown skill of reading human faces:  ”Sloterdijk criticizes Deleuze and Guattari for the particualar way they use the idea of faciality. …whatever the evolution may be Sloterdijk is convinced that it is also a facial genetic process ultimately leading to the threshold of ‘portrayability’ …as instruments of evolution, Sloterdijk contends, faces are more important than brains or hands. …faces call each other into being. They flourish in an interfacial circle of mutual openness. To summarise, Giotto was among the first to understand that faces are ‘sculptures of attentiveness’ ”

Giotto, The Lamentation, 1305-1306

Giotto, The Lamentation, 1305-1306

Much earlier than Giotto, people knew that interfacial ”hot houses” could become sites of terror. masks and mask painting were ways to evade such sites. Byzantine art figuration is a form of mask. The logic being that interfaced catastrophe could be avoided if one was able to ban the face from the sphere of intimacy. The vision of Giotto was to make the face flourish in an interfacial circle of human openness. In sum, Giotto was one of the first to understand, and act upon the idea, that faces are ”sculptures of attentiveness”; a necessary condition of humanity, thus haunted by a sense of mystery who interfacial spaces are by consequence filled with the enigmatic and contorted.

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  1. mason mckibben says:

    Uncanny, how synchronised i feel with this meditation. My February 9th has been like this, right down to the lines, shapes, the spaces, the contagions. The icons ceased to function as such. The experience rendered was a pure denotative sense of function.

    Some very good neighbors put their sweet dog to sleep this 1st summerlike afternoon in months. This evening, i was unable to see my daughter’s face as i knelt by her bed listening to her reflections, but her gentle sorrow was contagious.

    So much is there in the interstice. Alas, how eager humanity is to map it, mediate it, even market it but how unable or unwilling, really, to experience it. Perhaps we are (as previous investigations of yours have offered) afraid?

    But, for the sake of heaven, it is everywhere on every face! Hearing Blake’s “London” now. This is one of your most tender pieces i’ve read to date. Very light and even handed.

    I began this year envisioning the wedding of Solomon and still can, but now, beside this, i have also to regard the marriage-hearse. It is with some dismay i hold them in my mind together. It’s rare for me and oddly peaceful. I’m smiling.

    Did you catch the halftime show of our big game? They should have played Odorono.


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