The great Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence was a scandal. It was the largest and most lavish Franciscan church in Italy. It had close ties to the major Florentine banking families who paid for its construction. Other Franciscans (including some who lived at Santa Croce) pointed out that Francis embraced poverty, not wealthy patronage. Francis believed that he and his followers should have no permanent roof over their heads, let alone one of the major churches of Europe. Arnolfo di Cambio compounded the scandal when he incorporated into his design of the church, ten chapels in the transepts intended to belong to wealthy families. Families could effectively purchase a chapel with a legacy to the monastery for perpetual memorial masses for their ancestors and for themselves. The most powerful banking families in Florence did just that, and continued their patronage of the monastery as leverage over local church and civic affairs.
Among the most powerful of all banking families in Europe were the Bardi. They owned the first chapel to the right of the high altar in Santa Croce.
The Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels in Santa Croce.
Still standing on the altar of that chapel is an Italo-Byzantine painting of Saint Francis (to whom the chapel is dedicated) by an anonymous master from the mid 13th century.
Anonymous Italo-Byzantine master, The Bardi Chapel Altarpiece, mid 13th century.
The altarpiece shows Saint Francis not as he was, but as he is now, in heaven. In true Italo-Byzantine fashion, he is a flat figure composed out of patterns. The chiaroscuro, the light and dark, do little to describe anything like mass and volume. He does not stand on any kind of ground plane. Francis is surrounded entirely by gold leaf that reflects back the dim light of the church interior, throwing Francis’ form into a vivid silhouette. Francis does not need mass and volume anymore. He dwells forever in the realms of light. The events of his life surround Francis in an eternal present tense, bearing witness to his sanctity. The anti-naturalistic forms of this painting, as in all Italo-Byzantine painting, remind us that where Francis is, we cannot follow. The world of the spirit is not our world. The five senses that we use to find our way through this world have no meaning where Francis dwells now.
At the beginning of the 14th century, the Bardi family commissioned the most famous artist in Italy, and in Europe, to fresco the walls of their chapel with scenes from Francis’ life.
Giotto's frescoes of the Life of Saint Francis on the wall of the Bardi Chapel, circa 1315 - 1320
Santa Croce was still under construction when Giotto painted the walls of the Bardi Chapel. I’m sure the noise and dust of the construction of the nave constantly irritated the artist as he worked. Giotto presents Francis’ life one episode at a time. There is no single point in the chapel where we can see the whole cycle laid out for us, as we can in the altarpiece. Indeed, we experience our lives and other’s lives one episode at a time.
In the altarpiece, Francis’ death is one episode among many down on the right, third up from the bottom. Giotto shows Francis’ death in the way that we all experience death no matter what we believe about it.
Giotto, Death of Saint Francis, from the Bardi Chapel, c. 1315 - 1320. The damage is from a wall sarcophagus placed there in the early 18th century. Giotto's frescoes were plastered over in the 17th century, and recovered in the early 19th century.
We all experience death as grief and loss. Giotto shows Francis going up into glory in the top, but the Christian apotheosis is minimized. Giotto dwells on the human experience of Francis’ death, on the saint’s final weakness, and on the grief of his followers. A wealthy merchant who doubted the reality of the stigmata experienced by Francis takes advantage of the saint’s greatest weakness to satisfy his curiosity.
Giotto, Death of Saint Francis, detail.
He jabs his fingers into the wound in Francis’ right side in a gesture that could almost be Giotto’s manifesto. Giotto seeks to overcome our skepticism by appealing to our experience of the world. Giotto applies to form what Franciscan preachers are already doing, appealing to our experience. We experience the world as a place of mass, of things with substance and weight, and as a place of volume, of space occupied by things with mass. We experience the world emotionally. We feel grief, fear, and a host of other emotions around death. Giotto wanted to bring Francis’ biography to life and make it seem to happen right in front of us. Giotto encourages us to reach in and to see and touch for ourselves, as the wealthy merchant did at Francis’ deathbed.
Giotto di Bondone was the first artist to achieve international fame since ancient times. His fame was equal to that of his contemporary, Dante. Dante makes a nod at Giotto’s rising fame in a famous passage about ephemeral renown in the Purgatorio, Canto XI:
In painting Cimabue thought he held the field
but now it's Giotto has the cry,
so that the other's fame is dimmed.
Giotto became wealthy from his work investing his money in the rising textile industry by buying up looms and shops. He became wealthier still from his investments. He was apparently a very capable businessman.
He was also very short, almost dwarfish according to accounts. Restorers recently opened his modest tomb in Florence Cathedral to find the bones of a man who stood barely more than 4 feet tall.
Giotto’s career announces a major change in art toward the direction of modernity in two respects. The first is his very individual and humanistic approach to form and content. The second is a change in patronage. The Renaissance is a bourgeois creation, the work of self-made men and women in business and the professions. Almost all of Giotto’s patrons were bankers. Most of the major initiatives for building construction and for the creation of works of art came from Florence’s plutocracy. Some of those great works built on the initiative of Florence’s business nobility would be for the public, such as Santa Croce, and soon after, the cathedral. Others would be for the bankers and manufacturers themselves and for their families. After about 1300, the Church would no longer be the driving force for patronage and construction.
Those two major changes come together in Giotto’s greatest surviving work, which is not in Florence, but in Padua, near Venice. It is the Arena Chapel.
The Arena Chapel, Padua
The Arena Chapel today is an unremarkable little building that sits in the middle of a beautiful little park on the north side of town not too far from the railroad station. Originally, it was attached to the great palazzo of the Scrovegni family. The palazzo was built on the remains of a Roman arena. The palazzo is gone, but the ruins of the arena are still there within yards of the chapel, thus its name.
Detail from Giotto's Last Judgment in the Arena Chapel, Enrico Scrovegni presents the chapel to God.
Enrico Scrovegni built the chapel to be a semi-private chapel for his own use, and for that of his family. The Scrovegnis were very rich and successful bankers (Dante put Enrico’s father, Reginaldo, in the seventh circle of hell, the circle of usurers, in the Inferno). Enrico built the chapel in expiation for the sinful means by which the family fortune was created, usury. He also had it built to announce to God, Padua, and to all the world how rich he was. No expense was spared. Giotto was the most famous (and expensive) artist in Italy, and Enrico had him fresco the entire chapel. It is likely that he built the chapel with Giotto in mind. It is a building designed for painting with almost no ornament inside and windows kept narrow on the south wall, while omitted entirely on the north wall.
Interior of the Arena Chapel, frescoes by Giotto painted between 1304 and 1313.
Ultramarine blue dominates the interior of the chapel in the ceiling vault and throughout the fresco cycle. Blues in general were very difficult and expensive to make, and ultramarine blue was the most difficult and expensive. Artists made ultramarine blue from ground up lapis lazuli imported from Egypt or Central Asia (“ultramarine” or from “over the sea”). The process for making the color was long and very involved and difficult (today, the exact same color can be mass-produced cheaply from a derivative of coal tar). Ultramarine blue was once worth its weight in gold, and Enrico Scrovegni had Giotto use it lavishly throughout the interior of the chapel.
The walls are frescoed with two cycles of stories, the Life of the Virgin on the top, and the bottom two rows are the Life of Christ. Giotto appears to have been inspired by a major work of art that he would have known since his childhood, the mosaics in the dome of the Florence Baptistery.
Dome mosaics, Florence Baptistery, 13th century.
Giotto's frescoes on a wall of the Arena Chapel.
. Like the Baptistery mosaic, his subject is salvation history. Like the mosaic, episodes are in narrative order, and in a kind of vertical order so that they are linked by a common theme. For example, the Resurrection panel on the bottom of the wall sets up a theme for the episodes above it. Immediately above is the Raising of Lazarus, and above that is an episode from the Life of the Virgin when a host of eligible bachelors watch to see if any of the rods they laid upon the Temple altar will sprout. Joseph’s will blossom. The sequence sets up the theme of New Life out of death, life out of non-life.
We can see all the narratives in the Baptistery mosaic in a glance as we look up into the dome. The whole grand cycle of salvation history spreads out before us in a magnificent cosmic spectacle. It is only later that we look at the individual narratives and episodes. Giotto reverses that order. As in the Bardi chapel in Santa Croce, there is no single point in the Arena chapel where we can see all of the narratives spread out before us. We are compelled to view each episode one at a time. What is more, there is a clear distinction between images and ornament, with images dominating. The biggest difference is where each cycle is located. The cycles of the Florence Baptistery mosaic take place in Heaven in the eternal present tense of the realms of light. Giotto sets salvation history on the earth. Giotto shows this history lived out by men and women in time and space instead of acted out by spiritual beings in eternity.
For the first time since ancient times, Giotto tries to paint three-dimensional experience on a flat surface. He places the Nativity of Christ in the physical world of things with mass and volume, the world we live in.
Giotto, Nativity from the Arena Chapel
We can almost feel the heavy weight of sad cuckolded Joseph as he sits weeping in the foreground, refusing to help out with the childbirth. Giotto uses chiaroscuro, the play of light and dark, to describe Joseph as a physical presence. The proximity of other physical presences creates a sense of three-dimensional space. What is not ancient or medieval about this work is our awareness throughout that we are looking at the story through a very individual imagination. For the first time, an artist presents a story in a manner not dictated by tradition and convention, but by his individual imagination. Giotto, like all artists of that era, used religious texts for a guide and inspiration. In this case, the text is probably the once very popular Meditations on the Life of Christ by several anonymous authors under the name of Saint Bonaventure (the “Pseudo-Bonaventure"). These are a collection of holy folk tales, almost Midrashic tales, embellishing the Gospel narrative, probably collected by Franciscan preachers. The narrative in the Meditations is very unsqueamish about the circumstances of Christ’s birth. Joseph plays the role of miserable cuckold in the Meditations and in Giotto’s painting.
What is new is that Giotto uses the text as a point of departure for his own conception of the story. Giotto announces that to us immediately in the organization of his picture. A Byzantine icon or mosaic, or a Gothic stained glass window, would place the most important part of the story, the dramatic center, in the physical center of the picture. In the Nativity, Giotto pushes the dramatic center way over to the left, almost off the edge. In the physical center of his panel is nothing but rocks. The shepherds on the right do something for the first time in art that is the bane of every high school drama teacher. They turn their backs on us while on stage. In doing so, they direct our attention to the angels above announcing the divine birth. Giotto uses the framing edge in a way that is very modern. Figures and animals are cut off by the framing edge. This almost never happens in Byzantine art or in Western medieval art. The framing edge cuts the poor shepherd on the right in half. Giotto transforms the frame into a window or a stage proscenium implying a larger world beyond what we see in the picture.
Giotto was one of the greatest dramatists in art. He was sometimes equaled, but never excelled. He had an amazingly fine sense of emotional calibration. It is always just right, never muted to the point of chilliness, and never melodramatic. It is always convincing and in character. Giotto is the great master of the meaningful gaze.
Giotto, Nativity, detail.
The Virgin Mary lies upon the ground exhausted with the pain of childbirth, gazing into the wide open eyes of her remarkably precocious newborn. The child looks right back into his Mother’s eyes. Another woman, presumably a kind neighbor, also looks at the Child as she helps lay Him in the manger crib. The animals also look at the Child. The ox’s eye looks directly at Him.
In the Adoration of the Magi, Giotto made Halley’s comet play the role of the guiding star.
Giotto, Adoration of the Magi, from the Arena Chapel.
The comet made an appearance around the time Giotto worked on the chapel. The Child and His family look impoverished in their rude little stable, and yet regal in their bearing. The camel on the left reacts with joyous surprise, creating a dramatic foil for the nobility of the Magi and the Holy Family.
Giotto uses the meaningful gaze to great effect across a great distance in the Wedding at Cana, Christ’s first miracle.
Giotto, The Wedding at Cana, from the Arena Chapel
The wine steward takes a sip of what he anticipates will be cold water, and tastes the best wine of the whole evening. Giotto beautifully paints that moment of discovery on the wine steward’s face as he gazes across the room toward Christ.
Giotto, The Wedding at Cana, detail.
Christ returns his gaze, looking right past the servants He is instructing. In a brilliant stroke of imagination, Giotto shows the steward as a fat gourmand who clearly has enjoyed many a fine glass of wine over the course of his life.
Giotto pulls out all the stops for the Passion episodes.
Judas, whose name has become synonymous with treason, throws his cloak around Christ as he kisses him.
Giotto, The Arrest of Christ from the Arena Chapel.
That gesture repeats itself formally throughout the picture. Treason goes eye to eye with Goodness in a drama that is so intense it is almost unbearable to watch. Another figure with his back to us reaches out to grab the hem of the garment of one of the fleeing Apostles, cut off in a brilliant dramatic use of the framing edge. Peter turns around to cut off the ear of the servant of the High Priest. Another figure on the right points in the direction of Christ as if to say, “Aha!” He cringes in disgust at the betrayal. The soldiers and the mob crowd around Judas and Christ making the space between them almost claustrophobic. None of the torches or cudgels stands vertically. Most of them point to the dramatic center of the picture, the encounter between Christ and Judas.
Giotto, The Arrest of Christ, detail.
Cimabue’s great ruined Crucifixion at Assisi inspired Giotto’s version in the Arena chapel.
Giotto, The Crucifixion, from the Arena Chapel
The chorus of weeping angels flies around a figure who is not Cimabue’s giant dying God-Man linking Heaven and Earth, but a thin dying man hanging on the cross. The most striking part of the picture is the episode of the soldiers quarreling over Christ’s discarded garment. That garment has more tragic pathos than the figure of Christ Himself in the painting.
Giotto, The Crucifixion, detail.
The Gospels nowhere mention the subject known as the Pieta. Franciscan preachers made it up. It has no real theological significance. It’s there because of its popular appeal.
Giotto, The Pieta, from the Arena Chapel
The Virgin Mary holds the body of her Son as she once held Him as a child. It is wrenchingly tragic and ironic. Giotto shows Christ as a corpse, as quite dead and completely limp toward the bottom of the picture. His family and friends surround him and hold him. Two more figures turn their backs on us, shutting us out and bringing us in at the same time. Mary Magadalen with torn hair holds His feet like two small doves. John gives way to his grief. The dramatic focus of the painting is in the lower left. The contour of the hillside in the background takes us straight to it. Mary gazes into the lifeless eyes of her dead Son in a tragic inversion of their first encounter in the Nativity scene.
Giotto, The Pieta, detail
One of the women seated with their backs to us must hold up His head for her to see His face. His eyes roll up into their sockets, His mouth opens in death. He is completely lifeless and unresponsive. Her face contorts with pain, the worst pain of all, the pain of seeing one’s children die. Like Mary Magadalen, she too has torn her hair.
Giotto may be using actual experience to inform his telling of this story. It was hard to avoid the spectacle of mothers grieving over the bodies of dead sons in that violent age. In an age where law enforcement was either uncertain or brutal and capricious, where grudges were frequently settled by vendetta, mothers grieving over dead sons were a too common sight.
Giotto applies the techniques of Franciscan preaching to form. Out of that application, a new and important religious idea emerges in art, one that has been exceptional in previous art, sympathy. The Franciscan preachers, for all the vulgarity and sensationalism of their preaching, introduced into the popular imagination Gospel values of sympathy and compassion. Religious communities could be built, not only around common ideas and allegiances, but around fellow feeling. Giotto speaks to us as the best preachers did, not as members of a congregation, but to each of us individually. Giotto wants to bring the events of salvation history to life right in front of us. He presents them to us in terms of our own experience of the world. Giotto reverses the old medieval hierarchy of thought that began with the big grand scheme of salvation and gradually worked its way down to particular details. Giotto starts with the particular details and gradually works our way back up the cosmic hierarchy.
We return to that hierarchy in the two end walls of the chapel.
The top of the apse wall shows the conference in Heaven, God’s decision to intervene in history.
Apse wall of the Arena Chapel
Giotto painted God the Father on a separate wooden panel, a small door out of which would fly a mechanical dove on a wire on certain holy days.
Below that is the God’s first act in the redemption of humankind, the Annunciation. Giotto separates the angel from Mary with the arch over the altar. Clergy of the time considered the Annunciation an appropriate subject for altars, reminding congregants of the Word made flesh in the bread and wine of the Mass.
Below each of those two panels are two more panels appropriate for a devout banker. On the left is the subject of the priests paying Judas the thirty pieces of silver for his betrayal of his Master. On the right, the pregnant Virgin Mary meets the pregnant Elizabeth. At this meeting, Mary recites her most important lines in the Gospels, the Magnificat. Enrico Scrovegni would have said these lines in this chapel every evening:
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts;
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the holy;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
Below those two panels are two remarkable trompe l’oeil chapels, painted extensions of the actual chapel space.
Giotto, Judas Collects the Thirty Pieces of Silver, and a trompe l'oeil chapel from the Arena Chapel
Giotto may have intended them to ease the transition from nave to apse. It is also likely that he is showing off the possibilities of this new painting. These are among the earliest surviving attempts at what will eventually become linear perspective.
On the opposite wall around the entrance is the Last Judgment.
Giotto, The Last Judgment, from the Arena Chapel.
Salvation history ends here. The Magnificat panel faces across to the ordered ranks of the Blessed. The Judas panel faces the chaos of hell. For transcendent subject matter, Giotto looks back to tradition, to the Baptistery mosaics, and possibly to Cavalini’s work in Rome. However, these cosmic events take place against the blue of the sky rather than the gold light of Heaven.
Giotto’s success ended the long Italo-Byzantine tradition. There were few hold-outs against the new style and its popularity. As Saint Francis brought the Gospels down out of the realm of theological abstraction and made them accessible to people, so Giotto brought Christian stories back down to earth and set them among men and women.
Giotto’s great painted cross in Santa Maria Novella proclaims the new regime of human sympathy with its very human Christ hanging with painful physical weight from the cross. It reinvents a traditional Italo-Byzantine form for new uses and to meet new expectations.
Giotto, Painted Cross from Santa Maria Novella in Florence hanging in the church today near it's original position atop the now vanished tramezzo.
Giotto, Painted Cross from Santa Maria Novella, circa 1310