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The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (Duccio di Buoninsegna ca. 1308-1311,
tempera on poplar panel)

In a previous post we analyzed how the devil gradually became red and goatlike in popular imagination (even though scripture does not mention such details).  Here is a stunningly dramatic gothic painting by the Sienese master Duccio which shows how the devil was conceived of at the beginning the 14th century.  The painting illustrates one of the narrative high points of the New Testament:  the devil tempting Jesus by offering him power over all the nations of Earth.  Here is how Matthew relates the story in the fourth chapter of his gospel:

8Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; 9And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. 10Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. 11Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.

Duccio illustrates the very end of the episode as the bird-footed, spiky-haired gray devil waves his hand in disgust and prepares to fly off.  Additionally Satan has gnome ears, bat wings, and seems to be cast in a permanent shadow of decay. Androgynous angels in voluminous robes approach Christ from beyond the horizon to tend to him after his forty days and nights of fasting in the desert. The head of Jesus is naturally at the apex of the composition.  All around him, the architecture of the world is represented in miniature:  the crenellations and towers of the delicate pink and cream colored buildings look like dollhouses beneath the feet of Christ.  The pomp and power of the world’s cities is empty and small compared with divinity.

 

Announcement of Death to the Virgin (Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310, tempera on panel)

Duccio di Buoninsegna was born in the middle of Sienna in the 13th century.  Before his death in 1319 or 1320, Duccio combined the stiff formal conventions of Byzantine and Romanesque art with newfound Italian interests in modeled forms, three dimensional architectural interiors, and naturalistic emotions.   Along with Cimabue, Giotto, and Pietro Cavallini he is regarded as one of the progenitors of Western art (and the sole father of Siennese gothic art).

Detail of “Announcement of Death to the Virgin” (Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310, tempera on panel)

Duccio’s painting Announcement of Death to the Virgin is one of only thirteen surviving works by the master.  A beautiful gothic angel has materialized before Mary as she reads from a psalter. The heavenly visitor silently presents Christ’s mother with a palm frond to symbolize the coming death of her son.  Mary gestures in resolute horror at the message.  Beyond the three-dimensional room delicate arches lead to a background of blackness.

Detail of “Announcement of Death to the Virgin” (Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310, tempera on panel)

Little is known of Duccio’s life, but we know that it was a disorganized mess.  He had seven children and thanks to an inability to manage money he was frequently in trouble with debts and fines.  Fortunately his gifts as an artist outshone his problems with organization.  By the beginning of the 14th century he was the most famous (and revolutionary) painter in Sienna and he managed to solve his financial problems by painting numerous commissions around the thriving communal republic.

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