Duccio’s Maestà altarpiece—completed in 1311 and carried in procession from the artist’s workshop to its new home in Siena’s cathedral—intertwined civic and religious significance. It reminds us how art can generate community by precipitating shared reflection on vital questions.
Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? Such questions can be approached in a variety of ways, consciously and subconsciously: in joy, love, fear, doubt, anger, hope. However they are approached, they are a fundamental dimension of the conversations that constitute human cultures, their evolution and their transformations.
One such conversation is portrayed in this panel—one of the twenty-six panels depicting the Passion and Resurrection of Christ on the back of the Maestà. It is a conversation about homecoming and, according to Christian tradition, an integral part of the founding of the Church. As recounted in John 16:16–24, the conversation is caught in a tension between the presence and absence of Christ, and is meant to prepare Jesus’s disciples for suffering and death in recognition of a deeper, eternal entry into joy. The inclusion of an open door behind the seated figure of Christ in Duccio’s panel is striking, and its darkness seems deliberately to suggest both uncertainty and future possibility (Rosser 2012: 489–90).
The drama in this panel of the Maestà might not be as apparent as that of the panels surrounding it. All we seem to have is conversation. Yet, as in the Gospel of John, the drama of this conversation offers an interpretative key for reflecting on the events surrounding it. Here the disciples are called, personally and directly, to recognize in the master they have chosen to follow a truth that transcends the distinction between absence and presence—life and death—as we normally conceive of them. And they are called to realize that they too can consciously partake in the same truth. Duccio’s panel challenges us to recognize in Christ, in art, and in each other the transforming power of conversation: through darkness into the possibility of light.
Rosser, Gervase. 2012. ‘Beyond Naturalism in Art and Poetry: Duccio and Dante on the Road to Emmaus’, Art History, 35.3: 474–497
16 “A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me.” 17Some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I go to the Father’?” 18They said, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he means.” 19Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him; so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’? 20Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. 21When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. 22So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name. 24Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.