This talk examines the ostrich eggs suspended above Duccio’s Maestà at the late medieval main altar of Siena cathedral, through the lens of cultural exchange. In doing so, it sheds new light on such eggs, which it suggests were a material currency from Africa which served ritual purposes and which traversed expanding global arenas. By drawing on wide-ranging interdisciplinary evidence, extending from pre-Islamic Bedouin astronomical traditions to Sufi shrines in India, it maps the place of ostriches in the medieval imagination and explores how their perception was connected to pre-modern Afro-Eurasian concepts of vision, sanctity, and cosmology. This talk proposes that ostrich egg pendants ultimately operated as “spiritual beacons”, meditational devices which illuminated a passage towards salvation in places of worship across Christianity, Islam, and Judaism alike.
Dr Krisztina Ilko is an Affiliated Lecturer at the University of Cambridge and Academic Associate at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Her research has been supported by awards and fellowships from the Royal Historical Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Center of Medieval Art, the Italian Art Society, and the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies at the University of Toronto.