I was introduced to this painting in an undergraduate art history survey class and didn’t think much of it. My young self was unable to get excited about an awkward religious painting in a three by four inch reproduction in the fourth edition of a Stockstad art history book.
After college, I saw it in person for the first time. I traveled around Europe for three months with the soft goal to see, in the flesh, as many of the reproductions from that art history book as possible. I remember seeing this Duccio at the Uffizi then, but like a lot of the work I saw on that trip, I simply checked it off the list – I knew it was important, but I didn’t know how to spend time with it.
In summer 2013, I went back to the Uffizi. The first room I walked into had three epic mother and child paintings by Cimmabue, Giotto, and Duccio. This time the Duccio hit me. Its presence rooted me to the floor. There are times when a painting stops the world around me for a moment and all I can do is stare back in wonder at this thing that holds me. How could he make such a thing? I can’t imagine making that painting. I can’t imagine being in the mind of Duccio as he makes this immaculate thing – to have faith, to be enthralled by a religion and its icons and then to paint, immortalize them, giving the people who believe a little something to grasp onto beyond their faith.
Our time allows less of that. Or at least in my experience there is less to have faith in, to grasp, and to believe. Or maybe it’s more that there is choice, or the illusion of choice. The structures that help us feel human and make us feel like we have purpose have changed over time, perhaps giving more responsibility to the individual to decide how they find purpose.
Recently, in making my work, I’ve felt my own presence. The paintings hold me; my insides can flutter at those moments. I am present in making the painting and thus the painting gains presence. I imbue them with meaning as I give them my touch. Or at least I’d like to think so.
Rucellai Madonna (Detail)
Her hands are my favorite part of the Rucellai Madonna. They are alien, otherworldly. I am familiar with them, I know they are hands, but they confuse me. It intensifies what they symbolize. Her head is like this too, as if a ripe, full moon were rising under the hood of her robe; her face at that strange angle, staring back at us with a gentle awareness. The roundness of her head draws attention to her halo. Every figure in this painting has a halo. The angels are kneeling. The angels are in awe! Think of the gravity of that. Their gold-feathered wings tucked.
But those hands, Mary’s hands, they are tender. Warmhearted. They hold baby Jesus with the utmost care, with a sensitive touch. Those long tendrils love.
Although the memory of that painting remained when I left the Uffizi, I wanted a token to remember it by, a post card or print. I purchased one but felt unsatisfied. Nothing came close to reproducing the incredible deep blue of her robe.