Pietro Lorenzetti, Birth of the Virgin

Pietro Lorenzetti, Birth of the Virgin, c. 1342, tempera on panel, 6′ 1″ x 5′ 11″, for the altar of St. Savinus, Siena Cathedral (now in Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena)

[0:00] [music]

[0:07] We’re in the museum of the Cathedral of Siena, and we’re looking at one of the great Sienese artists, Pietro Lorenzetti’s “The Birth of the Virgin.” This was painted by a man who was Duccio, the great Sienese master’s, student. Some scholars think that Pietro helped Duccio paint the “Maestà.”

[0:26] There’s a lot of paintings in the Maestà. I hope someone helped him.

[0:00] [laughter]

[0:27] That’s true. This is a painting that would have functioned as a secondary altarpiece in the Siena Cathedral. It is a three-part painting that actually shows one continuous space.

[0:00] Let’s remember that the Virgin Mary was the protector of the city of Siena.

[0:43] And so this is about the birth of the Virgin. Not the birth of Christ, but the birth of Mary herself. In the central scene, we have this beautiful medieval interior. I have to say that the Sienese pay attention, in the 14th century, to architecture in a way that nobody else does. There’s a love of the rendering of space and furnishings.

[1:04] We have the vaulting, and the ceiling, the windows, the painted moldings, the tiles on the floor, the chest next to Anne’s bed. We almost get a sense of what it was like in a household in 14th-century Siena.

[1:17] It’s true, even the fact that a bedroom was a kind of public space. You can see Anne reclining on the bed. She’s got a real sense of mass and volume. The bed doesn’t look all that comfortable. It doesn’t seem to be yielding to her…

[1:29] No.

[1:30] …but the body does seem to be under that drapery in the most emphatic way.

[1:37] I think Pietro has seen Giotto because his figures are really bulky and three-dimensional.

[1:41] Of course Duccio, his master, was already moving towards a sense of mass and volume using chiaroscuro, but perhaps not as emphatically as Giotto had.

[1:48] She’s big and chubby…

[0:00] She is big.

[0:00] …the way [laughs] that Giotto’s figures are.

[0:00] Almost like the “Ognissanti Madonna.”

[1:54] Exactly.

[1:55] If you look at the attendants who are washing Mary in the basin, they’re pretty substantial. The figure in green on the right looks like she could have come right out of the “Lamentation” from the Arena Chapel. There are more attendants coming in with fresh cloths, it looks like, on the right, and fresh water.

[2:11] The two scenes on the right are unified in their architecture, although Anne is separated out, the mother of Mary.

[2:17] In the left panel, we see a room outside, where it seems as if Joachim, Anna’s husband, is being told that the birth has taken place.

[2:27] I love his face. He’s like an expectant father who’s been worried about what’s going on and is now anxious to hear. The view outside must be Siena. As we walked around the streets of the city, I can recognize buildings that looked like this.

[2:45] It’s important to remember that the architecture that we’re seeing is 12th and 13th century. Of course, that’s 1,200 and 1,300 years after this event would have taken place, and so it’s completely out of chronology. The point was to create something that was familiar, something that the Sienese audience would recognize.

[3:01] I’m also taken with the attempt by Pietro Lorenzetti to create a sense of recession. Not only do you have an interior space that is architecturally detailed, but if you look at the vaulting, for example, you can see where the ribs in the vaulting come together in the central panel. The panels on the right and the left, they’re obscured, as they would be if we were looking at those ceilings.

[3:23] This is not linear perspective, but there is a real attention to the basic tenets of seeing space and rendering it on a two-dimensional surface. That’s also really evident in the bedspread.

[0:00] There are diagonal lines that appear to be receding into the space in the bedspread.

[3:40] Right, but I bet if we lined them up with a pencil, we would not reach a single vanishing point.

[0:00] No.

[3:44] Right, so it’s not linear perspective. There is a real sensitivity and a real attempt to create a sense of space. I think the Sienese were doing just amazing things in the 14th century.

[3:55] I know so often we pay attention to Florence and maybe we don’t give Siena quite as much attention as we should.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Pietro Lorenzetti, Birth of the Virgin," in Smarthistory, December 10, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/pietro-lorenzetti-birth-of-the-virgin/.