Anyone who entered the cathedral before 1506 would have been able to admire on the high altar the astounding Maestà, the popular name for The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints and Angels, painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna and now housed in the nearby Museo dell’Opera. On 9 June 1311, after a solemn procession in which all the people of Siena festively took part, the work was placed on the high altar of the cathedral. Chroniclers of the time called it “the most beautiful painting that was ever seen or made,” and the Sienese saw in it the expression of their identity.
The altarpiece, painted on both sides, originally standing on a predella and topped with a crown, the panels of which are now dismantled and in part on display in the same room in the museum, is dominated frontally by the picture of the Virgin and Child sitting on a throne, surrounded by the heavenly court of angels and saints. The figure of Mary is significantly larger than the others and stands out against the gold background thanks to the deep blue of her cloak.
Majestic in size, the altarpiece captured attention from the very door of the cathedral because of the light streaming through the cathedral windows that made the gold ground shine brightly. The eye immediately went to the liturgical center of the church, the high altar, where Christ’s sacrifice is perpetuated in the celebration of the Eucharist.
The Maestà is an altarpiece in the fullest sense of the term. It leads the faithful to immerse themselves in the Mystery that is being celebrated. The front side shows the Virgin and Saints who are invoked in the Eucharistic prayer, because Heaven and Earth touch during the liturgy. Nonetheless, the imposing figure of the Queen of Heaven, who looks lovingly at the Child and invites us to look too, is marked also by her grief because of the Passion to which her Son is destined. Thanks to the gift of Christ on the cross, which is the dominant theme and the culmination of the stories depicted on the back of the altarpiece, the gates of Heaven were opened to mankind, first and foremost to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Thus on this painted panel is masterfully illustrated the Mystery which the celebration of the Holy Mass offers throughout time.
The Queen with her court showed to the faithful the destiny won by Jesus Christ for all mankind: to become children of God and enjoy the divine glory for blessed eternity.
All around the Virgin and Child is arrayed the heavenly court made up of angels and saints. The six standing saints, three on the right and three on the left of the throne, are the ones invoked with Mary in the Eucharistic prayer: Saint John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ; Saint John the Evangelist, Jesus’ beloved disciple; Saint Peter, the apostle charged by Jesus Christ himself with the dignity of head of the college of apostles; Saint Paul, the greatest missionary of all time; and finally Saint Agnes and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, virgin martyrs whose lives were imprinted with faith and love for Christ. Next to these saints venerated by the universal Church are the four protectors of the local Church: Ansanus, Sabinus, Crescentius and Victor. Kneeling in front, they are the intermediaries between the people of Siena and the Virgin Mary, the ones who intercede with her in favor of the city. The relationship of the townspeople with their protector is reiterated by the inscription on the step of the throne which implores from Mary peace for Siena and life for Duccio who, painting her like this, rendered her glory.
The front side of the Maestà was completed by the predella showing stories from the life of Mary and the infancy of Christ, and the crown with episodes from the Dormition of the Virgin.
While the front part of the altarpiece is focused on the figure of Mary, the back is devoted to the Paschal mystery of Christ: the central section, made up of fourteen frames, holds twenty-six beautiful illustrations of the Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus, in which Duccio may have reached the apex of his art. The predella presented events from the public life of the Savior, while the crown showed some episodes of Christ’s appearances to the apostles after the Resurrection, up to the Pentecost.
These pictures complete the profound meaning of the Maestà: the vision of Mary on the front welcomes the observer and prepares him or her for the vision of Christ.