As years go, 1771 was not particularly memorable. Something, however, occurred that year which might also have been forgotten had it not involved one of the world’s great works of art. It happened in the lovely town of Siena, by then a sleepy provincial center in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. On one of the side altars of the magnificent gothic cathedral, built five centuries earlier at the height of the city’s wealth and splendor, was a painted and gilded altarpiece, exceptional for its immense size, beauty, and historic significance. Called Maestà, the central image pictured the Virgin and Child enthroned in majesty (maestà in Italian), surrounded by a teeming court of angels and saints—unmistakably the Queen of Heaven. The rest of the huge retable was studded with a profusion of scenes, large and small, illustrating the entire Christological cycle. This otherworldly vision was completed by a flamboyant frame...


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