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The Philippe de Montebello Years: Duccio di Buoninsegna's Madonna and Child

Philippe de Montebello discusses Duccio di Buoninsegna's Madonna and Child—one of the masterworks in the Museum's collection—with curator Keith Christiansen. Recorded on the occasion of The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions, on view from October 24, 2008, through February 1, 2009.


Helen Evans: I'm Helen Evans, and I served as curator for The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions. In July 2008, Philippe de Montebello recorded this discussion with curator Keith Christiansen about one of the Museum's masterworks: Duccio's Madonna and Child.

Philippe de Montebello: I'm standing with Keith Christiansen, curator in the Department of European Paintings. And the first thought that comes to my mind when I look at this divine picture is that very few things do tip the scale in favor of man, and this is certainly one of them.

This is a picture that compels one to rapt attention and from which I have found, since I had the opportunity to hold it in my hands I think for two solid hours when it was being offered for sale, that I couldn't let go of, not just as a physical object, but my eyes couldn't pull away from that extraordinary image of the Virgin, the Child, just the whole divine and yet human communication between these two figures. And what also compelled me to consider the acquisition absolutely mandatory is the assurance that Keith, who knows so much about pictures of this period, had—and communicated to me—as he will to you. Keith?

Keith Christiansen: Well, you know, all of us respond in different ways to different pictures. There's those pictures that speak to one directly and immediately, and you're not really sure why this is so. But this was certainly my experience with Duccio. I can remember very clearly the first time I visited Siena, 1968, and went to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo and saw the Maestà, and it is one of those pictures that you practically lose consciousness in front of. It absorbs you—the tenderness, the quality of humanity—and it's at the same time something that seems to belong to another world, something that belongs to a sacred sphere that you are a participant in. And when we went to London to look at this picture for acquisition, I thought, "I'm having the same experience before this picture," an ineffable presence—physically present and yet a messenger from another world.

There are two great monuments in the years around 1300 that redefined Western art: Giotto's cycle of frescos in the Arena Chapel in Padua, and the Maestà of Duccio in Siena. These are the two poles. They are the Sistine ceiling and the Stanze of Raphael in the sixteenth century; they are Picasso and Matisse in the early twentieth century.

So, I shared completely, Philippe, your love of this picture and your response to it. And it would be very difficult for me to articulate why this is so, but in front of this picture I have a magic moment. But if you were to say, "What is a transforming work of art?" I would say it's this: you seem to be aware of something intangible that you need to be in touch with. It's like a great piece of music.

Philippe de Montebello: I think the way that you speak about it and when you say "great piece of music," I'm instantly wanting to say it's that inner vibrato in the painting that touches us so. And I could ask you—and perhaps you could say a word or two—about its art historical place, the significance of the parapet. But what you, who are standing here with us, you listening to us, I think get out of this is that, in a sense, any art historical explanation that we can give you would simply cement your knowledge of the fact that it plays an enormous role in the birth of Western art. But it is that the art historical apparatus that would come from us is secondary to the effect that the picture has on us, as do very few, but this—a consummate work of art.

Keith Christiansen: This, of course, is a fantastic step forward. Somebody's who's working within the heritage of Byzantine painting—Byzantine painting which represents figures primarily as hieroglyphs through a series of conventions that have been passed down, very beautiful conventions that are meant in the Platonic sense to represent things not as they appear but as ideas.

Duccio and Giotto, in different ways, moved painting from the realm of the idea to the realm of the felt, to the real. Duccio achieves this in two ways. There's this funny little parapet in the foreground with the little corbels—that he sets up an illusionistic basis that separates the pictorial fiction from the realm that we're living in. And then there's the tenderness of the action of the child pushing up the veil of the Virgin so he can get a better view. There's the emotional realm that opens up in this extraordinary—I don't want to say a sad face, but a melancholic face. She obviously has foreknowledge of what's going on, and it seems to well up from some other world. And then there's extraordinary modeling of the draping. Of course, blue is the crucial thing in early Italian paintings. It so frequently has changed, flattened, but here you have the beautiful modeling over her hand, over her arm. And I've always felt that Duccio was looking at Roman sculpture in this. As we know, both Duccio and Giotto looked upon themselves as reviving the Classical period, the great Roman period of painting.

So it's a picture that hovers between these two realms of the idea and the real that speaks both to our own personal experience—it's a mother and a child—but it's also the Mother of God and Jesus. And this is this extraordinary realm that Duccio explores: how do you maintain the sacred, but make it approachable and appreciable by ordinary people?

Philippe de Montebello: Thank you, Keith. I think this was a wonderful explanation. And you, the visitor and the viewer, I think you will find that although from the point of view of the numbers of inches or centimeters this is a small picture, that it will grow to immense proportions in your imagination. Thank you.

Helen Evans: This recorded conversation was produced in conjunction with The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions, on view at the Met through February 1, 2009. The exhibition was organized in tribute to Philippe deMontebello's thirty-one years as director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Come to the Museum to take an audio tour of the galleries with Philippe and many of the Met's curators.

This has been an Antenna Audio production.

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