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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.

Many of the greatest medieval artists are anonymous.  Their actual names and personalities have been lost in the swirl of time and only their works remain.  In such cases the unknown masters come to be named after their region, or a distinctive trademark, or (as in this case) one famous painting.  This is how today’s featured gothic artist came to share a title with Lucifer himself.  The trecento Siennese master who painted this panel is known by two surviving works (which are both at the Louvre).  The more influential and dramatic of the pair is The Fall of the Rebel Angels which was painted between 1340 and 1345 AD.  The painter is therefore called the “Master of the Rebel Angels”.  Here is the best digital image I could find of the painting—itself a portion of a long lost poyptych (the other surviving portion is a picture of Saint Martin, the patron saint of France—which suggests the work was made for a French buyer).  This work had a deep influence on French Art and was often copied or imitated—most notably by the Limbourg brothers for the illuminated manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels (The Master of the Rebel Angels, ca. 1340, tempera and gold on panel)

In a world without quicksilver mirrors, abundant cheap plate glass, or artificial lighting there was only one substance that conveyed divine luster in a lasting manner—actual gold.  The majority of the The Fall of the Rebel Angels is pure elemental gold flattened out into sheets and affixed directly to the panel.  This precious but inhuman metallic background provides a perfect setting for the larger than life metaphysical battle portrayed in the painting. The story behind this artwork is immediately comprehensible to anyone who chafes under rules: the rebel angels come to believe they would be better off running their own affairs instead of submitting to the hegemony of heaven.  God and his hosts of loyal angels learn of their disloyalty and cast them down.  Without the naturalistic conventions of Renaissance art (which would come later) the war in heaven takes on an otherworldly almost science-fiction aspect.  The glowing armored hosts of heaven guard the welkin. Above them are the enthroned ranks of saints.  God towers at the pinnacle of the composition, serene on a living throne of flame-like angel wings.

The rebel angels have lost their heavenly beauty and their effulgence.  Blackened and monstrous, unable to bear their weight on corrupted wings, they fall from the skies and are swallowed by a mysterious drab gray orb. This dull circle represents life and the affairs of the world.  The artist meant us to understand that we too are its inhabitants, fallen like the rebel angels and cut off from what is numinous and ineffable. The painting starkly conveys the hierarchical philosophical outlook of the times, but strangely it also makes the rebel angels sympathetic.  They are the subjects of the work: their mutilation and defeat provides the drama. Christian art reversed the conventions of Greco/Roman art: the victim or acted-upon party is the protagonist (rather than the victorious aggressor).  I can’t imagine the Master of the Rebel Angels intended such a result, but, somehow he painted a work where the monsters are the protagonists and their transformation is the dominant mystery.

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