Monday, December 1, 2014
MWA XXXI: Duccio's Madonna
This work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is rather diminutive in size, measuring about the size of a sheet of paper, and painted in tempera and gold on a wood panel. Unlike related works at this time, suggesting it should be part of an altarpiece, this panel in fact was intended to be an individual devotional piece. There is in fact evidence of candles burning the bottom edge, reinforcing its ecclesiastical intent. The gold surface and the subject of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child suggest the influence of Byzantine art and religious icons on Duccio. Gold, then as now, was not cheap, so the use of it suggests it likely was a commission from a wealthy, private donor. The gold would have reflected candlelight and made for a serene object for personal devotion. This emphasis on gold is, perhaps, appropriate considering the painting's afterlife. This small work cost the Met a reported $45 million when they purchased it in a private sale in 2004. It was (and still is) the most money that museum ever spent on an acquisition. When one considers other works of art in recent years that have sold for record high prices, such as $135m for a Klimt and $250m for a Cézanne, the Met's purchase seems rather minimal, but at the time it was shocking news. It was quickly reported on in the press, The New York Times breaking the news in a November 2004 article by Carol Vogel, followed by Michael Kimmelman's assessment of its worth as a work of art the day, appearing the day before it was first shown to the public on December 21, 2004. Perhaps not surprisingly, the painting was declared a fake in 2006 by Columbia Professor James Beck, who said the museum should get its money back. Few, however, believed his assertions, and this masterpiece is still recognized as one of the Met's most important acquisitions.
Ultimately, it is irrelevant what the painting is worth, or even if it is genuinely by a specific man named Duccio. What is most beautiful about the painting is how it transcends its religious context and shows a very human scene. The infant Jesus reaches up toward his mother's face and moves aside her veil to gaze into her eyes, a sign of recognition and awareness that arguably only an infant and his/her mother can understand. Rather than smile, however, Mary is sad, symbolically aware of the suffering her son will endure when he is crucified at a later age. But her sadness transcends the Biblical story. Her face reveals a sense of sadness that every mother understands, the awareness that this innocence of childhood is the beginning of an adult experience. The innocence she holds in her arms is, indeed, very, very brief. That humanistic touch and that existential awareness make this painting a profound work of art.