Giotto turned the art of painting from Greek or Byzantine into latin and rendered it modern. Duccio brought the Byzantine style to a fresh late flowering, that stopped short of complete transition. Giotto’s achievement gave painting the direction it was to follow until the twentieth century. The finest of Duccio’s panels is probably The Three Mary’s at the Tomb, whereas Giotto’s consummate single expression is the Lamentation. The paintings are quite different and deserve to be discussed separately.
Duccio’s Three Mary’s follows a pattern for the subject that had been laid down for centuries, but departs from it by using the old stage directions as the basis for a fully developed psychological drama. The existing Byzantine traditions are faithfully observed in a beautiful, but undramatic, late twelth-century version of the scene in typical Italo-Byzantine style. The three Mary’s stand at the left bearing spices with which they had expected to anoint Christ’s body. The Angel, seated on the edge of the tomb, indicates, Christ has risen, and humanity has missed the hoped for rendez-vous. Duccio transforms this adequate charade into a drama. It is a moment too sacred to be treated as a melodrama. It must be invested with an air of miracle. We must know that we are in the presence of the supernatural, as are the three women who recoil slightly in the tense blank moment before realization.
”The subtlety of posture in the scene of the Three Marys at the Tomb is outstanding. The women are portrayed in attitudes of wonder and fear; their delicate backwards movement and gesticulating hands show their astonishment at the sudden apparition. For the design of the three figures it would seem that Duccio was inspired by the Sibyl carved by Giovanni Pisano on the facade of Siena Cathedral. Opposite, the angel is sitting quietly on the rolled-away stone and pointing to the empty tomb. His white robe (lighter than the shroud draped over the edge of the sarcophagus) wraps him in soft folds which show up well against the dark rocks and illuminate the whole composition.”
Duccio forgoes the Bible narrative of the women who ”fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed”. The atmosphere of enchantment would have been obliterated if Duccio had chosen to portray a moment of panic, hysteria, agitation, fluttering robes and abandoned spice canisters. Instead, Duccio plays nice and the Marys stand huddled against the far edge of the frame, confused and troubled, while the angel, graceful and assured in unrestricted space, is a pattern of ample gestures and gently eddying draperies. The whiteness of his robe further isolates him from the group of women, where the color is intense and tightly bound. His halo is played like a sun at the apex of a triangle made by his wings and the shadowed area of the rocks; the rocks serving as device to crystallize this supernatural moment forever within a few square inches of colour and lines.
In Duccio’s Kiss of Judas, the artist shows that he could also control a wider stage and set a larger cast into a balanced dynamic pattern. Several things are going on such as Judas’s kiss of betrayal, Simon Peter cutting off the ear of one of Christ’s captors and the fleeing of other disciples. The actors are not as convincing in their attitudes and facial expressions as Duccio wants them to be, and the problem of movement in the scene remains unreconciled. But then, the problem of creating the illusion of continuous rapid movement in the painted figure would stump artists for another three centuries. What counts is Duccio creating an explicit expression of flight. Quite, ingeniously, The split takes the form of a widening V of landscape, emphatically marked by a tree driven like a spike into the wedge.
This split is not sufficient to create the impression of movement. The forward leaning of the figures, emphasized by the nearest figure of the main group leaning in the opposite direction, gives part of the desired effect. The primary effect of movement is produced by line; specifically the stretched lines of the backward floating drapery terminated by the fluttering, jagged, broken shape of the crevice in the hill above their heads.
”One’s vision is instantaneously arrested by the brilliance of Christ’s cloak. The startling blue of this garment speaks directly to our primordial imagination of the sky above–infinite, unknowable. Symbolically this is the divine infinitude, the virginal plenitude from whence Christ is born and which remains constant as the mysterious substratum of existence. Around this blue burns the gold rimming at once both sunrise and sunset, simultaneously setting ablaze the horizon. This golden “sun” is both the phenomenal sun that speaks of the daily cycle and also the Divine Sun that remains always the Centre, its rays–none other than the Holy Spirit–reaching out to pluck forth existence from the Divine Substance….Duccio uses ultra marine as the colour of Christ’s cloak; this pigment, reserved for the colour of the Virgin’s cloak,is made from ground lapis lazuli, which, as Mircea Eliade has remarked, is ‘the cosmic symbol above all others (the starry night)’; this then recalls the Maris Stella, and in turn, the association between the symbolism of the sea and the sky. This web of symbolic homologues works to reinforce the primarily efficaciousness of the chromatic nature of ultra marine, which absorbs light, and thus vision, creating a depth that the viewer disappears into like a drop into the ocean. In the final analysis it is the chromatic effect of Duccio’s colours that holds the key to their symbolism, which is firstly and foremost, the intuitive feeling they evoke.” ( Timothy Scott )
The denseness of the central group around Christ has a natural explanation since the soldiers are closing in for the arrest, but its extreme compactness, its inward pressure, gives dramatic vividness to a mere factual circumstance. The artists problem was to focus attention on the two central characters while incorporating them within the mass. Christ,s halo is a first and conveneient device, something like a spotlight. Also, the figures of Judas and Christ are bound together in an oval that runs from their heads down along the curved back of Judas and is picked up by the golden edge of Christ’s robe, which snakes upward until the shape of the sinister trap has been clearly established.
Not much is known about Duccio as a person. There are records of heavy fines in his name, which may have been for political transgressions, the offense taken most seriously by the courts. He received a large sum for the ”Maesta”, but borrowed heavily and seems to have ended his life in bankruptcy. He is never celebrated as an important artist. But then, painters at that time before the Renaissance were considered as craftsmen who developed their methods of expression primarily as expert workmen and who enjoyed no exceptional status or worldly recognition. His ”Maesta” , celebrated as it may have been, was revered primarily as a votive object. Its aesthetic qualities may have been admired, but this was incidental to the spiritual affiliations.
Hans Belting is the scholarly master of the problem of the problem of holy images in the Christian world before 1500, in his book,”History of the Image Before the Era of Art”. In the late byzantine period, the image, was treated as a person; worshipped, despised, and carried from place to place in ritual processions. Images were conceived in relation to each other rather than with artists and as images they lacked any history of what we would term ”style” .
” Belting singles out Duccio because he sees him as apivotal artist who is responsible for a reformation of the maniera greca. The reform involves, among other things, an introduction of increased emotional content and Belting links this with contemporary love poetry written in the dolce stilnuovo. As a reformer, Belting says that Duccio “creates a need for explanations.” Unfortunately, the explanations that Belting provides are not always fully adequate. According to Belting,the changes in the maniera greca can be seen in a work such asthe Crevole Madonna (ca. 1290) where Duccio has newly and personally interpreted a conventional Byzantine image. The composition of his Madonna and Child has as its archetype animage of the Eastern Hodegetria, but Duccio has made certainchanges: the Child no longer holds a scroll in his left handwhile blessing with his right, but in a gesture which suggests amore intimate and loving relationship between Mother and Child…. Belting apparently believes thatDuccio’s “improvement” of Byzantine painting is the result of an artistic genius coming into direct contact with an itinerant Greek artist with whom he empathized aesthetically.
Belting’s lapse into biographical art history is puzzling,even though his discussion is a tantalizing corrective to Vasari’s assessment of Duccio’s artistic contribution. In any case, up to this point in Likeness and Presence (chapter 17), he has successfully argued that a history of medieval holy images can and should be written without referring to individual artistic styles. Belting himself expects that his readers will be surprised by his treatment of Duccio, which, he admits, “seems to fall outside the framework of a study not primarily concerned with artistic questions.” However Belting believes that Duccio’s aesthetic reform marks an important historical period of exchange between East and West which apparently warrants this exception to his own art-historical method.But Belting’s previous chapters have shown us that the style of an Italian religious image is a complex issue in the thirteenth century: style was not simply linked to aesthetics,but to perceived sacred power. If works in the new style ofDuccio were commissioned over strictly byzantinizing works, it isbecause they were seen as more religiously powerful.”
The study leaves out the central idea that Byzantine holy images lost their potency, through loss of archetypes they were modeled on,and an inherent limitation of the form. Duccio, and Giotto appeared unheralded and without precursors who could have taught them the rudiments of their innovations. It seems nearly true that they had completely and unexpectedly broken with a static tradition through a reinterpretation of narrative, space,line and figuration. The glory of the ”Maesta” came suddenly and appears unequaled in the rest of Duccio’s art.