Between about 1290 and 1310 Western art was redefined by two towering geniuses: Giotto (1266/67–1337), from Florence, and Duccio (act. by 1278, d. 1318), from Siena. Both artists explored different but complementary ways in which art could involve the viewer's experience of the everyday world without losing a sense of the sacred. Giotto—first at Assisi in the 1290s and then in the Arena Chapel in Padua (ca. 1305)—emphasized a rigorously constructed space with three-dimensional figures in gravely meaningful poses. By contrast, Duccio emphasized color and delicately articulated figures to achieve a more lyrical but no less human effect. His art was more influenced by Byzantine than contemporary Roman practice. Like Giotto's fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel in Padua, his magnificent Maestà altarpiece for the cathedral of Siena (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena) became a point of reference for the next generation of artists.
Although small in size, the Metropolitan's newly acquired Madonna and Child is a landmark of European painting. The Madonna is shown as though standing behind a parapet—a device that simultaneously connects and separates the timeless, hieratic realm of the divine figures and the real space and time of the viewer. The gestures of Mary and Jesus are recognizably human yet imbued with sacred meaning. As in the contemporary poetry of Dante, so in Duccio's art a naturalistic impulse enriches the religious theme. Because this picture was intended for private devotion (there are two candle burns along the bottom of the original frame), Duccio may have felt encouraged to explore a new, more intimate visual language. Painted about 1300, the picture marks the transition from Medieval to Renaissance image making and sets the stage for the achievement of such artists as Simone Martini, Fra Filippo Lippi, and Giovanni Bellini.
Our knowledge of Duccio's life comes entirely from documents relating to his activity as a painter, his ownership of property, and fines for misdemeanors. For example, in 1279 and 1302 he was fined for trespassing. There are records in 1302 of his refusal to fulfill his military obligations and of a further misdemeanor. Like all painters of the day, Duccio undertook a wide variety of tasks, ranging from decorating the account books of the fiscal branch (the Biccherna) of Sienese government to designing the enormous stained glass window in the apse of the cathedral of Siena (1287–88), to painting major altarpieces and small panels for private devotion. Only about a dozen independent works by the artist survive. Of his seven children, three became painters.
Duccio's early paintings are still strongly indebted to the visual and iconographic traditions we associate with Byzantine art. He was in touch with the two leading Florentine painters, Cimabue and Giotto, and also knew northern Gothic art. Together with Giotto, his later works set the stage for the early Renaissance by endowing figures and objects with a physical and emotional dimension that, in retrospect, made earlier paintings seem mere images. The Metropolitan's painting is among his first works in the new style, and its unknown owner must have appreciated the privileged access to the sacred figures that Duccio's innovations gave him.
About 1280: Duccio's earliest surviving painting, the Crevole Madonna (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena)
1285: The enormous panel of the Madonna and Child with angels for a religious confraternity in Santa Maria Novella, Florence (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)
1287–88: Design of the great circular window for Siena Cathedral
About 1300: The Metropolitan's Madonna and Child
About 1308–11: The Maestà for the Siena Cathedral (Museo dellíOpera del Duomo, Siena)