The other Maestà


To understand fully the people of Siena’s devotion to Mary, besides looking at the Cathedral, the Collegiate Church of Provenzano and the Basilica di Santa Maria dei Servi, we cannot avoid another “domus Virginis,” the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s town hall. Inside is a work that is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of European Gothic paintings, because of the profound civic and religious meanings it communicates and its extraordinarily innovative formal language: the Maestà by Simone Martini.
Soon after Duccio painted his great Maestà for the high altar of Siena Cathedral, which was finished in 1311, the government of Siena, run at the time by nine members of the wealthy merchant class – hence the name “the Government of the Nine” – commissioned Simone Martini to paint a fresco on the same subject, which he finished in 1315. The fact that the city authorities wanted to have a Maestà right in the seat of government confirms the civic significance of Sienese devotion to the Virgin Mary. And the site chosen for the work is of primary importance: the painting occupies an entire room of the largest and most emblematic room in the Palazzo, known as the Sala delle Balestre (Room of the Crossbows) or del Mappamondo (of the Map), where meetings of the General Council were held.
Compared to Duccio’s painting, the fresco presents the same iconographical layout: the Virgin, seated on a throne and holding the Child, holds center stage, while all around her is a crowded heavenly court of angels and saints, with the four patron saints of Siena, Ansanus, Sabinus, Crescentius and Victor kneeling in the foreground as intercessors between the Virgin and the city. So what elements differentiate this work from Duccio’s and, above all, what is the message the Nine wanted to transmit to the city by means of this picture?
Looking closely at the fresco, you will see that the Baby Jesus, shown standing with his feet resting on his mother’s knees, holds a scroll with the beginning of the Book of Wisdom: “Diligite Iustitiam qui iudicatis terram,” which means “Love uprightness you who are rulers on earth.” In the picture, them, the Virgin Mother is literally the ‘seat of wisdom’ since her womb was the dwelling place of Christ, who is wisdom incarnate. She is thus presented not just as protector of the city, but also as a good councilor for the governors and the advocate of the weak. This concept is forcefully reiterated in the two long inscriptions lower down, on the step of the throne and along the inner border of the frame, this time not in Latin but in the vernacular so as to be understood by the greatest number of people possible. In both cases the words are said by the Virgin and are addressed to those who govern the city and to all the citizenry, as though to explain the concept of uprightness proclaimed on Jesus’ scroll. Through these words, Mary admonishes the governors not to close themselves up in selfishly seeking their own personal interests, but to open up to promoting the common good through the exercise of justice. In this sense she becomes the personification of the values carried forward by the Nine, a sort of ‘manifesto’ of their ideal of good government. In a similar context, the four patron saints are positioned as the Virgin’s interlocutors and the city’s ambassadors, bringing the very people of Siena inside the picture.
The greatness of Simone Martini, the actual painter of the fresco, was his success in translating the patrons’ intents using an absolutely innovative language which was functional to the message that the work wants to communicate. The Madonna is no longer the Byzantine-like icon of Duccio’s panel painting, still vaguely stiff and distant, but the sweetest and most human ‘Mater’ that the Sienese had ever seen. Even the rigid symmetry of Duccio’s composition is broken by a more relaxed and lively layout which takes depth of space into account. All of this helps suggest the idea that the Virgin has come down into the midst of the people of Siena; by following her admonitions and invoking her protection, the Sienese expressed the finest part of their local identity.
A further testimonial to Marian devotion, also at the Palazzo Pubblico, is the so-called Chapel on the Square, built at the foot of the Mangia tower in 1353 to fulfill a public vow made to Mary during the terrible plague of 1348. The presence of this chapel made the Piazza del Campo a veritable “open-air Marian church” where Holy Mass was celebrated every morning and could be attended by everyone who came into the square each day to buy and sell their wares.