8.1 The Marian road
THE MARIAN CULT AND CITY SHRINES
Siena’s relationship with the Virgin Mary has been and continues to be a common thread running through the history of the city. The significance of the profound devotion that has marked the life of this area since ancient times is linked to Mary’s role in the story of salvation. The civil population, which fully identified itself with the Church, saw in Mary the image of itself, the sign of a humanity loved by God and saved by him. Even before the 10th century, the site where the Cathedral stands today was named after Our Lady, recorded in medieval documents as the ‘Planum Sanctae Mariae‘ (St Mary’s Plain). From the 12th century on, Mary was the very symbol of the city’s nascent municipality, to the point that donations of land and the submission of castles to Siena were made in honor of the Virgin, as attested by the wording repeated in the documents of the time: ‘Ecclesiae S. Mariae et populo Civitatis Senensis’ (To the Church of Santa Maria and the people of the city of Siena). From the same documents, it is also clear that the Municipality made it obligatory for the lords of the subjugated lands to donate candles every year on the Feast of the Assumption, thus reaffirming their desire to entrust themselves to the Madonna, protectress of the city. This ceremony is still repeated today with the Procession of the Ceri and Censi, which takes place every year on 14 August, the eve of the Assumption, in which representatives of both the Municipality and the Contradas bring candles to the Cathedral to offer to the Heavenly Patroness.
The inseparable bond between Siena and the Virgin Mary was definitively consecrated in 1260, the year of the famous Battle of Montaperti, when the Sienese defeated the militarily superior Florentine troops. On the eve of the battle, the citizens gathered in the Duomo to pray to the Virgin, offering her the keys to the city and invoking her protection. The community’s calling upon the Virgin Mary should not be viewed as a sudden impulse caused by fear of the enemy troops, but rather as the natural evolution of a shared sentiment already rooted in the 13th-century urban population.
The day after the victory of Montaperti, the Florentine painter Coppo di Marcovaldo, taken prisoner by the Sienese after the battle, was forced to redeem himself by painting for Siena a panel depicting the Madonna on the Throne, now housed in the Basilica dei Servi, one of the city’s Marian institutions. In the meantime, the city’s statutes praised Mary as the Lady of Siena, and coins began to be minted bearing the inscription ‘Sena vetus civitas Virginis’ (Ancient Siena, city of the Virgin); the seals of the Republic affixed to every document presented the image of the Madonna and Child, accompanied by the words ‘Conservi la Vergine l’antica Siena che lei stessa rende bella’ (May the Virgin preserve ancient Siena, which she herself makes beautiful); devotion to Mary became a sign of cultural identity.
Over the centuries, the veneration of the Sienese for the Mother of God has never waned. Towards the end of the 16th century, during a period of plague and famine, city authorities went to one of Siena’s most infamous neighbourhoods and stood before a venerated terracotta image of the Madonna, vowing to build her a large church, the present-day Insigne Collegiata di Santa Maria in Provenzano. Since the mid-17th century, every 2 July, the titular feast day of the Collegiate Church, the Palio has been held in her honour in Piazza del Campo. At the end of the race, the victorious Contrada streams jubilantly into the church to sing the so-called ‘Te Deum’, which is actually the Marian poem ‘Maria Mater Gratiae’, in gratitude to the Virgin for the victory.
In 1944, at the time of the crossing of the front during World War II, the keys of Siena were again offered to the Virgin, renewing the consecration to Mary that had been sanctioned seven centuries earlier on the eve of the Battle of Montaperti and renewed on a number of occasions thereafter in times of imminent danger.
Walking along the streets of the city, one comes across numerous tabernacles dedicated to the Madonna. Every year on 8 September, the feast of her nativity, the children of the seventeen Contradas compete to decorate the tabernacle in their district with the most beautiful drawings and festoons. This is a tradition that is very dear to the people of Siena and which continues to keep alive the love and devotion for their Protectress.
THE CATHEDRAL OF SANTA MARIA ASSUNTA
The spiritual heart and fulcrum of the city, the Cathedral is a hymn of glory to its Queen. It is the mother church of the entire Sienese Archdiocese, the episcopal church where the ‘chair’ of the liturgical presidency of the Metropolitan Archbishop is located, which is why it is also called the ‘Metropolitan’.
At the entrance, on the floor, a Latin inscription reads: ‘Castissimum Virginis templum caste memento ingredi’ (Remember to enter with devotion this devout temple of the Virgin). Crossing the threshold of this building is therefore not a simple bodily passage, but the beginning of a spiritual journey. More than just an admirable work of art, the Cathedral is the home of God and his people, who celebrate the most important events in their lives here. This is where Mary Most Holy is venerated, the first woman to have experienced salvation: Immaculate and without sin, assumed into Heaven to share her Son’s glorious destiny, the Virgin is the image par excellence of the Church, the first temple of God, a human reality that ‘holds’ Christ and gives birth to him in time, offering him to men. The works housed in this temple, some of which are counted among the greatest masterpieces in the history of world art, are first and foremost instruments that for centuries have guided all who enter the building and helped them to retrace the course of salvation.
The lower part of the façade, designed by Giovanni Pisano between 1284 and 1297, signals to visitors that they are entering a unique space where the predictions of the ancient prophets, carved on the scrolls displayed by the magnificent statues, are fulfilled. Inspired by the Gothic cathedrals across the Alps, they are the most important element of the façade, constituting an absolute novelty in the history of Italian art; although religious architecture on the peninsula had often included sculpture before that time, it had been relegated to decorating capitals and, at most, reproducing short narrative cycles or individual statues in the architraves and lunettes of portals. Giovanni’s sculptures, on the other hand, constitute a true monumental cycle of statuary, which responds to a unitary concept and a precise iconographic programme, aimed at the exaltation and glorification of the Virgin: the characters represented are prophets, patriarchs, sybils, and philosophers, all figures who heralded the coming of the Madonna and her divine maternity in ancient times. Placed in front of niches/tabernacles or above shelves, they interact with the space in all their sculptural splendour while the architecture is designed to act as a backdrop. For conservation purposes, the original sculptures were replaced by copies during the 19th and 20th centuries and are now on display in the Museo dell’Opera della Metropolitana.
The only narrative relief on the façade, the architrave of the main doorway depicting Scenes from the Infancy of the Virgin by Tino di Camaino, dating from around 1297-1300, has remained in its original location. It was the latter’s father, Camaino di Crescentino, who had completed the upper part of the façade by 1317, giving it its present three-pinnacle appearance; in the centre is a rose window decorated with a 16th-century stained-glass window depicting the Last Supper and framed by niches containing busts of apostles and prophets. The three cusps contain three mosaics, made in 1878 to a design by Alessandro Franchi, depicting the Presentation of Mary in the Temple on the left, the Nativity of Jesus on the right, and the Coronation of the Virgin in the centre.
Lastly, the new main portal, cast in bronze by Enrico Manfrini, depicting the Glorification of Mary, was completed in 1958.
As soon as you enter the Cathedral, your gaze cannot help but be captivated by the circular stained glass window at the top of the apse, an extraordinary work created between 1287 and 1289–90 based on a design by Duccio di Buoninsegna (now replaced by a copy). The three central panels depict the Dormitio Virginis, or the passing of Mary from this earth, the Assumption, and the Coronation of the Virgin. The original stained-glass window was restored in 2003 and has since been housed in the Museo dell’Opera della Metropolitana. It is a work of absolute importance, due to its very high quality and exceptional state of preservation, making it one of the oldest examples of glass art known today. Duccio did not limit himself to the mere conception of the design (which was created by one or more master glassworkers) but, as was observed during the restoration, his hand must certainly be credited with the refined grisaille finishes applied with a brush to the stained-glass window, which give the figures wonderful chiaroscuro effects.
Anyone entering the Cathedral before 1506 would have been immediately struck not only by the stained-glass window but also by the stupendous Maestà made for the high altar by Duccio di Buoninsegna, which is also housed in the nearby Museo dell’Opera della Metropolitana. On 9 June 1311, after a solemn procession in which all the festive populace participated, the work was placed in the cathedral. The chroniclers of the time described it as ‘the most beautiful panel ever seen or made’, and the people of Siena all saw their identity expressed in it.
The front of the altarpiece, painted on both sides, is dominated by the depiction of the enthroned Madonna and Child, surrounded by a heavenly court of angels and saints. Among them are the four protectors of the local church: Ansanus, Savinus, Crescentius, and Victor. Kneeling in the foreground, they represent the intermediaries between the people of Siena and the Virgin, those who intercede with her for the benefit of the city. The relationship of the townspeople with their protectress is confirmed by the inscription on the step of the throne, imploring Mary to give peace to Siena and life to Duccio, who wanted to pay tribute to the Queen of Siena with this admirable work.
Imposing for its size, the polyptych captured the attention of the visitors right from the threshold of the entrance to the cathedral, thanks to the light that filtered through the many openings and made the gold of the background shine. In this way, the eye immediately went to the liturgical centre of the church, the altar where the divine Eucharist is celebrated. The Maestà is therefore an altarpiece in the full sense of the term: it guides the faithful to identify with the Mystery being celebrated. The front side portrays the Virgin and the Saints who are invoked in the Eucharistic prayer; the impressive figure of the Queen of Heaven, who looks on lovingly as she invites us to observe the Baby Jesus, is also marked by the pain of the passion for which her Son is destined.
In order to reach the altar, however, it is necessary to follow the human and divine path, illustrated by the marble floor, an extraordinary and unique work of art: no other grand church in Christendom can boast of an artistic creation comparable to this one in terms of complexity of layout and quality of execution. In accordance with the medieval vision, according to which every great church was a gateway to wisdom, even the area destined to be walked on was used to give shape to a ‘journey through images’ which, starting from pre-Christian times, guides the faithful to Revelation.
Although it was begun in the second half of the 14th century and completed nearly two centuries later, the floor exhibits a unified and organic design. Some of the greatest artists from or based in Siena took part in its creation: Domenico di Niccolò dei Cori, Domenico di Bartolo, Matteo di Giovanni, Neroccio di Bartolomeo, Pinturicchio, and Domenico Beccafumi. They provided the preparatory drawings for the fifty-six inlays that make up the floor, which were then made by master marble craftsmen using the technique of marble commesso and graffito. The floor has undergone many restorations and renovations over the years on account of the wear and tear to which, by its very nature, it has constantly been subjected. In order to protect the floor from deterioration, the decision was taken to cover most of it and to display it in its entirety to visitors only during certain periods of the year.
At the beginning of the right transept of the cathedral, there is a chapel which is a sanctuary within the sanctuary, the most important Marian place of worship in the city, where the most celebrated and significant icon for the Sienese is housed: the so-called “Madonna del Voto”, venerated under the name of Advocata Senensium (Advocate of the Sienese), an enigmatic and mysterious work, most likely part of a larger painting, attributed to the 13th-century artist Dietisalvi di Speme, who is said to have painted it in the 1260s . It is called “Madonna del Voto” since for centuries the Sienese have turned to her in times of difficulty, whether personal or communal, as evidenced by the many ex-votos hanging on the walls of the chapel, donated to the Virgin by the faithful as a sign of gratitude.
According to legend, the local people took a vow in front of this painting to consecrate themselves to Mary before the battle of Montaperti (1260), in which the Sienese prevailed over the superior Florentine troops, bringing the city to its peak. In truth, the vow was made before another, older panel depicting the Virgin and Child Enthroned, known as the Madonnna dagli Occhi Grossi (Madonna with Big Eyes), painted in the second quarter of the 13th century by the Maestro di Tressa and currently housed in the Museo dell’Opera della Metropolitana.
In the second half of the 17th century, the Sienese Pope Alexander VII, born Fabio Chigi, commissioned the great Roman Baroque genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini to build the present chapel. This same desire to give the image of the Madonna an increasingly noble context is a tangible sign of the Sienese people’s deep and abiding devotion to the Virgin.
Bernini designed a sumptuous circular space, characterised by a great profusion of marble. The focal point is the altar: in the centre, supported by gilded bronze angels standing out against a blue background of lapis lazuli, the colour of divinity, is the Madonna del Voto.
SPEDALE DI SANTA MARIA DELLA SCALA – CHURCH OF SANTA MARIA ASSUNTA
The place where the faith and charity of the Gospel were concretely expressed in the service of pilgrims, the sick, and orphans was the historic Sienese Spedale, also named for the Virgin. Standing opposite the cathedral, it has been called ‘della Scala’ (of the steps) since the 12th century, precisely because of its location in front of the steps of the city’s main church. First mentioned in the 11th century, it was established by the canons of the Cathedral of Siena and was one of the oldest hospitals in Europe as well as one of the first xenodochium for receiving wayfarers. Now that its medical role has been discontinued, it is one of the city’s most important cultural centres, covering a vast area in which it is possible to retrace a thousand-year long history.
Most of the façade of the Spedale facing Piazza del Duomo is occupied by the body of the church of Santissima Annunziata, built in the mid-13th century when the Bishop of the time granted the hospital community the right to have its own oratory. Also dedicated to the Virgin were the Scenes from the Life of the Virgin, frescoed along the external façade of the church by Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Simone Martini which have unfortunately been lost.
Behind the right side of the church is the Chapel of the Madonna, built at the end of the 17th century, which contains a cycle of frescoes depicting episodes from the life of Mary, the work of painter Giuseppe Nicola Nasini in collaboration with his son Apollonio. On the altar is a 15th-century cuspidate panel by Paolo di Giovanni Fei depicting the Madonna and Child surrounded by angels.
Another indication of the importance of the figure of the Virgin in the context of the Spedale is the 15th-century fresco by Domenico di Bartolo depicting the so-called ‘Madonna del Manto’ (Madonna of the Mantle); now removed and placed in the Old Sacristy, it was once located in the chapel that was part of the early reception area and the oldest nucleus of the complex, known as the Cappella del Manto (Chapel of the Mantle). The scene is dominated by the Madonna receiving under her mantle, borne by angels, a host of religious and lay figures kneeling at her sides, as a sign of protection and mercy.
COLLEGIATE CHURCH OF SANTA MARIA IN PROVENZANO
A key location for the cult of the Virgin Mary is the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria in Provenzano, one of the most cherished churches by the people of Siena, a 17th-century sanctuary erected to house the much-venerated terracotta half-bust of the Madonna, which still stands above the high altar. Originally placed in an open-air tabernacle along a street in the Provenzano district, miracles began to be attributed to the sacred image as early as the 16th century. The first of these began with a ‘misfortune’: during the period when Siena was under Spanish rule, a drunken soldier fired an arquebus at the sacred figure, leaving its face and head intact while the weapon exploded in the face of the soldier, who died instantly. Immediately after the episode, the image was defined as prodigious and believers began to come from all over the city and the surrounding countryside to receive the Virgin’s graces. Often the visit involved leaving an ex-voto, an object demonstrating the grace received or desired; candles and metal objects representing hearts were offered, but also flags and small images, which are still kept in the church today. For the believer, it became indispensable to take away a copy of the miraculous image to place on the facades of buildings and in rural areas as a sign of protection. Word of the miracles reached as far as Rome, where pilgrims came by way of the Via Francigena, and then spread throughout Europe. The depiction of Our Lady of Provenzano multiplied on banners and in engravings and paintings, often accompanied by the figures of St Catherine and St Bernardine, who together represented the essence of Sienese religiosity. Popular devotion and involvement were increased, above all by the Opera di Provenzano, a body set up to manage the patrimony of the Collegiate Church, which used the sacred image for important rural and civic events: the Rogations, propitiatory processions for successful sowing, and the processions for Domenica in Albis, the first Sunday after Easter. The first time the Madonna appeared in procession for this festivity was in 1681, the year in which the statue received the dono dell’Incoronazione (gift of Coronation), granted by the Capitolo di San Pietro (Chapter of St Peter) in exceptional cases of worship. To this day, as has been the custom since 1656, the Palio in honour of the Virgin of Provenzano, whose image is depicted on the silk banner awarded to the winning Contrada, is run every year on 2 July. On the days of the Palio, the collegiate church becomes the church of all the Sienese and all the Contradas. The evening before the race, the banner is carried in a procession inside the collegiate church, where it is blessed and exposed to candlelight all night. The following morning, the Archbishop, together with the priests of the seventeen Contradas, known as ‘correttori’, celebrate a solemn mass. On the evening of the long-awaited 2nd of July, following the race in Piazza del Campo, the festive procession of the victorious Contrada arrives in Provenzano and fills the church with its Contradaioli (members of the Contrada) who, along with the captain and jockey, stand at the foot of the high altar to offer up their thanks to the Virgin Mary with their ‘Maria Mater grazie’ (‘Mary, Mother of Grace’), one of the most moving moments in which the people of Siena express their religiousness.
The building has a simple, functional Latin-cross plan, with few architectural elements in relief and a travertine façade with a strong vertical thrust. Inside, the majestic high altar catches the eye with its decorative richness. The central section houses the sacred terracotta half-bust sculpture of the Virgin, covered with a 19th-century sheet of silver and precious stones. Below, the figures of St Bernardine and St Catherine invite the faithful to gather in prayer.
BASILICA DEI SERVI DI MARIA
Built in the 13th century, the Basilica dei Servi di Maria (Basilica of the Servants of Mary) is particularly dear to the Sienese on account of the Marian devotion shared by the Ordine dei Servi (Order of the Servants) and the city of Siena itself. The Order was founded by seven Florentine saints who, after leaving their possessions and their families, retired to Mount Senario, far from Florence, to devote themselves entirely to prayer and penance. Their example was so infectious that the Servite model of life began to spread, eventually reaching Siena in 1250, where it was immediately welcomed: in addition to the geographical proximity to Florence, its birthplace, the arrival of the Order was only natural given the city’s deep connection with the Virgin Mary. One of the Order’s main rules was that every church should be dedicated to Mary, except in cases of particular impediments. In the case of Siena, the construction of the sacred building on the site of the older Church of San Clemente meant that it did not need to comply with this rule, but the Servites nevertheless wished to name it in honour of Mary, leaving the name of San Clemente to the parish alone, in order to emphasise once again the central figure of the Virgin.
The exterior of the building is devoid of any decoration, thus meeting the new mendicant orders’ need for simplicity of message and form. Inside are works of great artistic and spiritual value, mostly dedicated to Mary, including the Madonna del Bordone, a Byzantine-style icon painted in 1261 by Coppo di Marcovaldo, which used to be located above the main altar.
By following the life of the Mother of God chronologically, we can chart a course through the paintings in this church, starting with the beautiful painting of the Birth of the Virgin, located in the second chapel on the right and painted in 1625 by the Sienese painter Rutilio Manetti. Mary lived a simple life until her early youth, marked by an event that would change her existence and the course of history forever: the announcement of the birth of Jesus, depicted by Francesco Vanni at the end of the 16th century in a painting in the first chapel on the left. The young woman, intent on reading, receives a visit from the Archangel Gabriel, who announces that she will soon conceive and give birth to a son, whom she will call Jesus. In the sky, the figure of God the Father emerges from the parted clouds. The artist also depicts the same subject in two other paintings, located in the transept on either side of the triumphal arch: The Announcing Angel on the left and the Virgin Annunciate on the right. The prophecy is fulfilled and Mary gives birth to Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. The angels announce the event to the shepherds in the surrounding countryside, who flock to adore the Messiah. The Adoration of the Shepherds is represented in the panel painted in 1404 by Taddeo di Bartolo and placed in the first chapel on the left of the transept. The Madonna presents her son to two shepherds in an attitude of prayer, while a goldfinch on a rock alludes to the Passion to which the child is destined to save mankind. Returning to Nazareth, Mary cared for her son until he began his preaching. She was then at his side during the dramatic sufferings of the Passion and experienced, together with the Apostles, the extraordinary moments following the Resurrection until Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit. The disciples accompany Our Lady up to the moment of her dormition; she is then welcomed into Paradise and crowned by Jesus, thus enabling her to share in his sovereignty. The Coronation, a frequent subject in Sienese painting, is celebrated in the monumental altarpiece painted by Bernardino Fungai in 1500, placed on the high altar, the focal point of the entire church.
PALAZZO PUBBLICO – THE MAESTA’ OF SIMONE MARTINI
To fully understand the depth of the Sienese people’s devotion to Mary, in addition to the places of worship, it is essential to visit the other domus Virginis (house of the Virgin): the Palazzo Pubblico, seat of the Municipality. Inside, you can admire a work considered one of the greatest masterpieces of European Gothic painting for the profound civic and religious meanings it conveys and for the extraordinary novelty of its formal language: The Maestà by Simone Martini.
Shortly after Duccio di Buoninsegna had completed the great Maestà for the high altar of the Duomo in 1311, the Municipality, then governed by nine members of the rich merchant bourgeoisie —hence the name Governo dei Nove (Government of the Nine)—commissioned Simone Martini to paint a fresco on a similar subject, which the painter completed by 1315. The fact that the city authorities wanted to create a Maestà in the rooms of the Palazzo Pubblico confirms the civic significance of Sienese devotion to the Virgin. The location chosen by the commissioners for the work is of absolute importance: the painting occupies an entire wall of the largest and most emblematic room in the Palazzo Pubblico; called ‘delle Balestre’ or ‘del Mappamondo’, it is where the meetings of the city’s Consiglio Generale were once held.
In comparison with the earlier Maestà by Duccio, this one features the same iconographic layout: the Virgin, seated on a throne with the Child, occupies the central part of the scene, while all around is a large heavenly court of angels and saints. The four saints in the foreground, shown kneeling, are the patron saints of Siena —Ansanus, Savinus, Crescentius, and Victor—intermediaries between the Virgin and the city. What elements, then, differentiate this work from Duccio’s and, above all, what is the message that the Nine intended to convey through it?
Looking at the fresco, you will see that the Baby Jesus, shown standing with his feet resting on his Mother’s knees, is holding a scroll bearing the opening words of the Book of Wisdom: Diligite Iustitiam qui iudicatis terram, which means ‘Love justice, you who govern’. In the depiction, therefore, the Virgin is literally the ‘seat of wisdom’, since her womb was the dwelling place of Christ, wisdom incarnate. She is thus not only the protectress of the city, but also a good counsellor for rulers and the advocate of the weak. What strongly reiterates this concept are the two extensive inscriptions found further down, on the throne step and along the inner contour of the frame, this time not in Latin but in the vernacular, so as to be understood by as many people as possible. In both cases, the words are pronounced by the Virgin and are addressed to those who govern and to all citizens, as if to explain the concept of justice enunciated in Jesus’ scroll. Through these words, Mary admonishes rulers not to close themselves off in the selfish pursuit of self-interest, but rather to open themselves up to promoting the common good through the exercise of justice. She becomes the personification of the values promoted by the Nine, a sort of ‘manifesto’ of their ideal of good governance. In this context, the four patron saints act as interlocutors of the Virgin and ambassadors of the city, bringing the Sienese people themselves into the representation.
The greatness of Simone Martini, the painter of the fresco, was that he succeeded in translating the intentions of the patrons with an absolutely innovative language, functional to the message that the work wanted to express. The Madonna is no longer the Byzantine icon of Duccio’s panel, still vaguely rigid and distant, but the sweetest and most human Mater (Mother) that the Sienese had ever known. Even the rigid symmetrical order of Duccio’s layout is broken by a more animated composition, which is articulated in perspective in space. All this contributes to the idea that the Virgin came down into the midst of the people of Siena: by following her admonitions and invoking her protection, the Sienese expressed the best part of their identity as citizens.
Further evidence of Marian devotion, also near the Palazzo Pubblico, is the so-called Cappella di Piazza (Chapel of the Square), built at the foot of the Torre del Mangia in 1353, in fulfilment of a public vow made to the Madonna during the terrible plague of 1348. The presence of this chapel made Piazza del Campo a true ‘open-air Marian church’, where Holy Mass was celebrated every morning and could be heard by all those who came to the square to do business on a daily basis.