Giotto di Bondone, the fabled pre-Renaissance painter, has had a problem. Being so famous, he is a big target. His fame has engendered a cadre of critics who have, over the years, both praised his work and doubted the attributions. There are arguments about where he painted, what he painted, how he painted and who he was. Is he the “grandfather of modern painting?” Did he paint in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi? We might almost be tempted to think him a ghost if we could not meet Giotto and his beautiful mind in his frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy.
This small church, commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, the heir to a banking family’s wealth, was completed around 1305. There is enough in this chapel to charge the imagination of any artist who is seeking to know what art is supposed to do. These frescoes provide two important instructions for sacred artists (and I would say all artists): incarnate the story and make the natural meet the supernatural. Giotto’s objective was to make the mystery of the Incarnation and the story of Salvation come alive before our eyes. That is an important task; there is no bigger story out there.
By the 13th century, Roman naturalism was bubbling like an artesian spring in the artwork at Assisi. But the strong drink that Giotto hands to us is found more at Padua than Assisi. That beautiful gift he gave to the history of art is believable narrative—not just making down-to-earth, naturalistic forms, but making them do more than stand around in an ethereal moment. These persons, his characters, finally get to unfreeze and engage each other as we might expect in the emotional drama of Salvation. This new thinking is not so much style as it is ideation. For an artist, ideation is the thing that is behind and above and beyond all the space, forms, technique and style. The ideation guides the work and must be visible in the work. And Giotto’s ideation went someplace new.
Painting in the 13th century is populated by figures built in the forms of the middle ages: flat, hierarchical, and sober to the extent of sometimes appearing bored. Typically these figures stare with a meditative insistence. Rightly so. These devotional aids guide the prayerful into a place that is outside of time. Giotto turned the antenna toward a renewed transmission. Yes, God is ultimate and eternal, but God also walks as a Man and dies as the Lamb. This simple, humble, and direct experience of Christ is the paradoxical fountain inside Giotto’s art. He puts the emphasis on the Person of Christ, his entry into time, and how this relationship with the world transforms relationships everywhere.
Where would Giotto get such an ideation? In advance of the Renaissance, before receiving the full effect of the recovered antique models of humanism and classical art forms, we find St. Francis of Assisi, transforming Christian thought across Italy and elsewhere. The actions of Francis—tramping, gesturing, preaching, giving, encountering, singing, and embracing—exemplify the pure instructions of Jesus—live the Beatitudes. These very human, but God-inspired activities are the incarnate soul on the true walk of life. They are found in both the life of Francis and the art of Giotto. Facial expressions blossom in Giotto’s work, with drama, piety, and also humor. And the characters seem to ‘get it.’ It is almost as though they know they are being watched, like actors in a medieval mystery play, which is another suggested source for the stage-like presentations and gestures found in the images of Giotto. Again the reference is back to Francis in his bringing of his ‘repraesentatio’ of the stable at Bethlehem: a foundational experience for an Italian audience ready to feast on theatre.
Almost all of the square fresco panels in the Arena Chapel exemplify this down-to-earth action. Joachim embraces Anna in a depiction of a tender kiss as her hand caresses a lock of his hair; Jesus receives the ugly puckering mouth of Judas as bedlam ensues in Gethsemane; the portly wine steward at Cana guzzles down some of the ‘new wine’. Much like Breughel in the Northern Renaissance, Giotto likes to include some side-action subplots in the characters on the sidelines—the angels around the throne, and the onlookers at the Pact of Judas and the Presentation of Mary—we see them not only being at the main event but also being with each other, seemingly saying,“can you believe this is happening?”
But deeper than that is something more: the meeting of nature and super-nature. His consternation in depicting the entrance of the supernatural realm into our natural world is evident in his image of annunciation to Anna of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. As the servant spins wool on the drop spindle just outside the door, the angel appears to Anna. But Giotto makes this angel enter through a window, as though he wants us to dwell on the difficulty in traversing the chasm between heaven and earth. Giotto was not befuddled; he just wanted to get it right; you can almost hear the gears turning in his head: ‘The angel must be a person to Anna, not a wraith.’
His depiction of the Annunciation to Mary is a rare and transcendent visual design. Gabriel is not even in the same room as Mary. He and Mary kneel in two chambers on either side of the chancel arch in front of the apse. God, depicted above, reigns over this moment as we witness an ultimate experience. It cannot be an accident that Giotto places his image of the Incarnation soaring above the altar, where Christ is incarnated in the Eucharist. As the cosmic message to Mary is delivered, we follow the pathway over the arch. Think of watching a fly ball to the outfield: we stand with mouths agape in anticipation. Mary says yes and receives the Holy Spirit. It is time to cheer.
Even more penetrating is Giotto’s focused thinking about the end of time. In his depiction of the Last Judgment, which covers the entire entrance wall of the chapel, Giotto moves past history into what is yet to come. Here he can really use his inventive imagination to give us a glimpse of the advent of eternity. It is a crowded scene with many details, some begging for and receiving mercy, some of them making their way into Hell. But the focal point is the re-entry of Christ into our world. He is announced with a warning—two soldier angels at top are ‘peeling away’ the wall which contains the Sun and the Moon—our fragile reality is no more; there is a new reality about to be revealed in fullness. And Christ Himself in glory with His cohort enters through a distinctive portal. No coming through a window for Him; He creates His own doorway. And what a doorway it is. Unlike anything else in the chapel, it is the depiction of pure light. Rainbow-like and geometrical, it is a thing that is not a thing. It may not be unique in design—there are numerous examples of radiant and geometric aureoles in this and previous periods, but here it is not just a glowing backstop; it is God’s passageway. Christ, the Man who is God, who is not geometric and is not pure light, enters our world and touches that impossible opening with His hand and foot; He is the Person who can manipulate reality like a sculptor. He can do the impossible; He can be in realms both natural and supernatural, this world and the next. God’s power and glory is revealed in a concrete starkness in this image.
Giotto’s work was no shockwave. Even with the admiration of Dante, it took a hundred years before other painters understood his message. Giotto’s influence can be seen in Masaccio and Fra Angelico. To the extent that the Dominican friar’s vision of Satan in Hell in his Last Judgment is a near copy of Giotto’s, he must have seen it. By most accounts, Giotto was no starving artist; it is said his studio was well-established. He owned property and had employees and ended his career in Florence by designing the Campanile for Santa Maria del Fiore, an icon of architecture. Giotto sits in time like a storytelling hinge, joining the Medieval and Renaissance art periods and the Franciscan humanscape with the City of God. Thank you, Giotto, for showing us how it is to be done.