Giotto – Assisi – The Lower Church

THE limits of this little work render it impossible for us to enter into any historical description, how-ever interesting, of the great church of San Francesco at Assisi—far less into a critical examination of the earlier paintings with which it is adorned—and the reader must rest satisfied with the few words of mention already ac-corded these works in a previous portion of this volume. Pages upon pages have been written concerning the traditional share of Giotto in these same early frescoes, but the futility of the discussion is so apparent, that we may pass at once to an examination of such of the paintings in this vast edifice as leave no doubts within our mind as to their correct attribution to the master forming the present subject of our studies. And, although our chronological arrangement of these works may differ absolutely from that generally held to be correct by the majority of writers and of students, we may state that any such arrangement on our part has been founded—as is the case with our consideration of all of Giotto’s work—upon a purely critical basis, in absolute independence of all traditional opinion ; and we shall attempt to give our reasons for such a disposition in our review of the works themselves.

Without further preliminary remarks, therefore, we may commence at once with the frescoes which cover the walls of the right transept in the Lower Church, as being without doubt the earliest independent works of Giotto’s brush of which the building can at present boast. Here, on the ceilings and the lateral walls, the master painted a series of ten scenes from the life of Christ, and of the Virgin Mary, which, if not the most perfect, are certainly to be classed among the most poetic and charming of all his creations.

Giotto begins the series with the The Annunciation of the Virgin, on the wall space above the arched entrance to the Cappella del Sacramento. Incredible as it may seem, this truly beautiful work has, by some unaccountable chance, up to the present day escaped the notice of the majority of writers, and we have searched in vain for even a passing mention of it on the part of any one of the many critics who have occupied themselves with descriptions of Giotto’s paintings. Such silence, how-ever, can only be attributed to careless oversight, as it is difficult to believe that any serious student of Giotto’s work could possibly have failed to appreciate the beauty and importance of this great fresco, artistically one of the most lovely of his earlier creations. In force of movement, as in beauty of expression, it stands pro-claimed a masterpiece of the first rank, and it would be hard to decide as to which of the two figures in the composition is deserving of the greater need of praise.

Next in order to The Annunciation comes the fresco of The Visitation (Pl. 3), high up on the vaulted ceiling to the right. Here we enter at once into that simplicity and conciseness of composition which later becomes so salient a feature of the master’s peculiar genius, and which we find at the highest stage of its development in the Arena Chapel at Padua. Giotto has told the story of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth with a truth and depth of sentiment that could with difficulty be surpassed. No-thing could be more natural, or more deeply felt, than the action of the elder of the two women, as she reverently bends forward to gaze into the face of Mary, who so quietly returns the look and the embrace. There is an infinity of love and tenderness in the expression of Elizabeth’s face and figure—in the bend of her head and in the movement of her body. Here we touch again upon another most noticeable characteristic of Giotto’s art, and one which leads us in a way to compare it with that of classic times—the significance of the body and its movements as a means of expression. We shall find, as we progress in our review of Giotto’s works, that all of his creations are stamped with this same sense of the significance of movement, and that often, by the merest motion of a hand or attitude of the body, he succeeds in realizing far more than he could possibly have done by relying merely upon facial expression—indeed we find him at times neglecting this latter quality almost entirely. Behind the Virgin come two matronly figures, impressively statuesque in form and in the splendid sweep of their drapery, followed by two maid-servants bearing bundles and a basket. To the right stands Elizabeth’s house, a charmingly fanciful structure of semi-Gothic. style; a vase of flowers adorns the terrace, and a grape-vine spreads its leaves above the courtyard wall. In the portico beneath, a maid awaits the coming of the guest. Already, in this one fresco, we have gained a true idea of Giotto’s style and manner at this period of his career, and the paintings that follow are different but in subjects and degree of attainment.

In the composition of The Nativity, Giotto has followed, more closely than in any other fresco of the series, the traditional Byzantine treatment of the subject, but, despite the formality and almost too evident symmetry of arrangement, he has contrived to endow it with a charm entirely his own. In the centre of the fresco the Virgin sits upright on a mattress, gazing upon the swathed figure of her newborn Son. Beyond is the manger, and above, four choirs of adoring angels sweep through the air, their garments fading into mist—already those bird-like beings which we learn so to love in Giotto’s later works. Below the shelf of rock on which the Virgin’s bed is laid, Giotto has, according to the custom -of the time, represented another episode of the scene ; two women, very lifelike in action and expression, are engaged in washing and swaddling the Divine Infant. St. Joseph sits in deep thought close by, and to the right, a flying angel appears to the two shepherds, who receive the heavenly messenger with well depicted surprise. In the background, a conical hill sweeps up-ward into the night, flanked by a flowing stream shining in the starlight, and crowned by the Star of Bethlehem.

The Adoration of the Kings is remarkable for the harmony of arrangement between the figures them-selves, and the background of buildings and nobly formed mountain. St. Joseph is, strange to say, conspicuous by his absence—an unusual circumstance. Very realistic and finely carried out, and showing to the full Giotto’s deep study of natural movement, is the figure of the furthermost of the two grooms.

The next fresco has for its subject The Presentation in the Temple. Some of the heads of the bystanders are here of unusual beauty, especially the striking profile of the woman in the group to the left. By no means the least important feature of this work is the beautiful Gothic interior in which the ceremony is taking place—one of the finest architectural settings which we possess from Giotto’s hand, and one in which the master not only shows himself as a careful student of architecture, but as one possessed of no slight knowledge of perspective as well.

In The Flight into Egypt, Giotto has attempted, by means of the hilly background, the, for him, unusual number of trees, and the two distant fortified castles eyeing each other from their respective heights, to give an idea of the wildness of the country through which the travellers are passing. St. Joseph heads the procession, holding the bridle of the ass, which bears lightly its precious burden. Two servants bring up the rear ; one of them encourages the animal, and the other, an impressive figure of a woman, bears a bundle upon her head. In the air above, two angels, the easy motion of whose flight is most beautifully rendered, point out the way. Most characteristic of Giotto is the drawing of the trees, so typically and distinctly represented by a few bold strokes and touches.

Although violence of action was never a condition under which Giotto was entirely at home—despite his deeply dramatic tendencies—and although he seems to have avoided, on every possible occasion, any subject calling for exaggerated movement, he has been surprisingly successful in his representation of the next scene, The Massacre of the Innocents. Excellent as a composition, this fresco exhibits a sense of form by no means slight, especially in the carefully modelled bodies of the dead infants. Again, in the matter of action, it ranks higher than Giotto’s later representation of the same subject at Padua. Calling for particular attention is the finely expressive little group of horsemen to the right.

The next subject, that of Christ Disputing with the Doctors, hardly holds its own with the others in interest, although some of the figures are most expressive in form and action. Noteworthy again is the perspective of the Gothic interior.

In the following fresco, lower down on the left wall, Giotto has evidently intended to depict the Return of Christ with His parents from the Temple, and not the Return from Egypt, as some writers appear to believe. There is something almost classic in the splendid figure of the Virgin, so majestic and graceful in pose and drapery ; and the artist has here fully realized his ideas of plasticity and form. Of the greatest interest, also, are the varied buildings within the city wall, and the quaint Gothic palace to the right.

We now come to the last scene of all— The Crucifixion (Pl. 4)—one of the most perfect of Giotto’s works. In this representation of the culminating scene of the Divine Tragedy, the painter arrives at a depth of power and feeling, added to a nobility of expression and perfection of composition, which raise it at once to a foremost place in the list of his greatest masterpieces. Not only is it one of the most perfect representations of the Crucifixion that Christian art had known up to the time, but it can safely be added without fear of exaggeration, that no subsequent attempt on the part of any artist has ever succeeded in surpassing it in dignity and expressiveness. Even Giotto himself, when he painted another version of the tragic episode years later, and at the height of his powers, in the Arena Chapel at Padua, failed to equal this previous effort, either in force or effect, and certainly not in the matter of design. Judged as a composition, this flawless work is worthy of ranking with such artistic triumphs as The Funeral of St. Francis, in the Bardi Chapel in Santa Croce, and other like works of the master’s ripest years. In the painting of this Crucifixion, Giotto undoubtedly had before his mind the—for its period—equally wonderful representation of the same subject in the transept of the Upper Church, attributed by tradition to Cimabue. But, while the main effect of that work is due to the delineation of the passionate frenzy to which the majority of the participants are given over, Giotto has raised his conception of the scene to a higher spiritual plane, tempering the outward expressions of grief and emotion on the part of the followers of Christ with a certain nobility and calm restraint which serves but to accentuate the depths of feeling to which the different actors in the tragedy are evidently moved. The strange sense of quietness and suppressed passion which pervades almost the entire work, is broken only by the violent grief of the fluttering angels. Giotto has introduced the figures of St. Francis and four other brethren of his order as contemplative participants in the scene, but in so perfect a manner as in no way to detract from the dramatic representation of the subject. The figure of the Lord Himself hangs quietly upon the Cross, unmoved by the painful physical contortions common to the majority of the crucifixions of the time ; the proportions are at once just and pleasing—the expression of the head and the entire body denoting a peaceful calm. The standing figures of St. John and the two women behind him, as well as that of the Magdalen, express most strongly the grief and pain by which they are shaken. The look of wonder and reverence on the face of the officer in profile is no less strongly depicted, while the kneeling figure of St. Francis is most beautiful in its expression of ecstatic adoration. The group with the fainting Virgin is very natural in action ; and the contending passions of the priests, to the extreme right, are clearly expressed in their faces and movements. In draughtsmanship, in the sense of plastic form, and in the beautiful arrangement of the drapery, Giotto has here surpassed_ all his previous works, and the entire fresco shows clearly the care and attention lavished upon it by the master.

To all who are in the least acquainted with Giotto’s style, or in any measure gifted with critical sense, it must remain a matter of no small surprise that the authenticity of these works, deeply stamped as they are with the most characteristic qualities of the master’s manner, should ever have been questioned. Nevertheless, such is the case, and even at the present day we meet with certain writers who would lead us to believe that these truly beautiful paintings are but creations of Giotto’s school. We may pass over all such unaccountable criticism, however, with the silence which it deserves, and turn our attention for a moment to a comparison of these frescoes with the Stefaneschi altar-piece. Although possessing much in common, it will require no very great insight on the part of the observer to recognize the superiority, both technical and otherwise, of these paintings at Assisi. In addition to a greater freedom and precision of design, we find here a far higher development of that most characteristic of Giotto’s qualities—form. Upon the importance of this feeling for the plastic in Giotto’s art we have already touched at length, and we shall become more and more convinced, as we proceed in our review of Giotto’s works, that it is to this predominant idea of form that we must look for a correct critical classification of the master’s paintings. In the matter of movement and expression also, there is a noticeable advance upon the Roman work and, allowing for the difference of medium, the colouring has here gained both in softness and in harmony. In regard to composition, enough has already been said. Summarily, the marked improvement of technique and style which we meet within these frescoes, leaves no possible doubt in our mind as to their being subsequent in execution to the altar-piece at Rome, despite the prevalent opinion to the contrary.

Before ending our examination of these frescoes, we must call attention to the architectural features which they contain. Nowhere in the list of works that Giotto has left us, do we find the master more charming in the detail of his architectural backgrounds than is here the case, and nowhere do we find his evident love for that art more pronouncedly asserted. Here we already find him giving pictorial form to those architectural dreams—often fantastic though they be—to which he was destined to give a permanent and lasting expression, years later on, in that fairy-like Tower which still bears his name.

Leaving, for the present, the remaining three frescoes in the transept, illustrative of certain miracles of St. Francis, we may pass to a consideration of the great paintings on the ceiling above the high-altar–the next in order of succession to those which we have already examined, and perhaps the most famous of all Giotto’s works. Of the four frescoes which cover the arched compartments of the vaulting, three are allegorically representative of the vows of the Franciscan Order—Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience—the fourth depicts the Glory of St. Francis. Much has been said and written regarding the original conception of these works, and many writers are of the opinion that Giotto was especially indebted to Dante Alighieri for the arrangement of his subjects. Such an opinion, however, is devoid of any reasonable grounds for support ; and in all probability, in the general representation of his subject matter, Giotto followed the suggestions of his employers, who had in turn enlarged upon the writings of the earlier Franciscans. However this may have been, the master has succeeded in handing down to posterity three of the most perfect allegorical pictures that the Christian world has ever known—works which, in their clear conciseness of conception and of thought, are broadly characteristic of the painter’s spirit.

Taking the frescoes in their usual order, we may begin with that in which Giotto has represented the allegorical marriage of St. Francis with his ” Lady Poverty (Pl. 5). The master has, principally as an aid to the symmetry of the composition, represented the mystic ceremony as taking place upon the summit of a bare and shelving hill. Upon the highest and central ledge of rock, Christ Himself blesses the union of the Saint with his chosen Bride. Dignified and noble is the figure of the Redeemer, and full of calm- expression. That of Poverty is tall and emaciated, clad in a patched and ragged gown supported about her waist by the Franciscan girdle ; over her head she wears a tattered scarf held by a hempen fillet. She stands amid briars and thorns, but roses and tall lilies flower behind her and about her head. Faith, Charity, and Hope stand in attendance at her left ; the last-named seems to answer for the bride, and with her bears the hexagonal nimbus distinctive of the Virtues. Charity holds in her hand a heart, and from her head, garlanded with roses, spring flames of living fire. St. Francis stands in profile to the left, beardless and comparatively young, clad in the habit of his order, and about to place the ring upon the finger of his Lady. Below, a boy casts stones at the ragged bride ; another smites her with a rod, and a dog, following their example, barks savagely at the gaunt apparition on the rock above, so unconscious of them all in the absorbing solemnity of the moment. On each side of the principal group stands a glorious choir of angels, tall and splendid beings, rapt witnesses of the mysterious celebration. Lower down, to the extreme left, a youth is in the act of divesting himself of his outer garment, and about to give it to an aged beggar ; an angel holds him by the arm and points upward to the central figures in the scene. In the opposite foreground, three men, symbolic of earthly greed and pleasure, turn from the gentle admonishments of another angel, who seeks to draw their attention to the main event that is taking place above. One of the a, grasping a bag of gold, appears not to disregard the angel’s words, but the spirit of avarice seems to gain a painful victory over his heart ; a second, cloaked and covered in his hood, appears to be less moved ; and the third, with a falcon on his wrist, openly spurns, with a scoffing gesture, the advice of his angelic counsellor. In the space above, two angels float upwards, one of them bearing a garment and a bag of gold, the other a miniature palace with an inclosed garden, both of which gifts, representative of the worldly goods given up in charity, are received with outstretched arms by the figure of the Almighty, leaning from the clouds of Heaven.

No less concise and clearly rendered is the allegory of Chastity (P1. 6), which fills the following fresco. On the summit, again, of a bare and fissured hill, rises a tall and stately tower, protected by a battlemented fortress from all outward danger of attack. The white banner of Purity flies above the building, and below it hangs the bell of constant Vigilance. Through the open window of the tower can be seen the veiled figure of Chastity herself, engaged in prayer. Toward her two angels fly, bearing in their hands a book and vase of palm-leaves. In the fore-ground before the fortress, two others are baptizing a youth in a quadrangular marble font ; two more stand in attendance, bearing the convert’s garments; Purity and Fortitude lean from the walls and present him with a banner and a shield. Stately bearded warriors, winged and armoured, carrying bucklers and the symbol of Penitence, the scourge, guard the precincts of the castle. To the right, three beautiful angelic figures, clad in monk-like garments, and armed with the symbols of the Passion, beat back a hoard of evil spirits into the depths below. Near them, hooded Penitence drives off, with his scourge, the monstrous figure of Earthly Love—a creature with the body of a youth and the talons of a harpy, blindfolded and crowned with roses, with a string of human hearts hanging from the belt which holds his quiver. To the left, a more peaceful scene is taking place, where St. Francis, accompanied by two angels, is welcoming a monk, a nun, and a lay-brother—evidently representative of the three divisions of his order.

Next comes the allegory of Obedience (Pl. 7). Seated in an open Romanesque loggia, Giotto has represented the winged figure of Obedience, dressed in the Franciscan garb, a yoke about his neck, about to place a second upon the shoulders of a kneeling friar, who bends his head devoutly to receive it. To the right sits the double-headed figure of Prudence, crowned, and holding in her hands a compass and a small round mirror. Under the corresponding arch to the right is the charming figure of Humility, bareheaded, with flowing hair, clad in a simple gown, and holding in her outstretched hand a lighted taper. In the foreground before her, a centaur-like monstrosity, with the body of a man, the fore-legs of a horse, the hind-quarters of a dog, and a serpent-like tail, starts back upon its haunches as it struck by a ray of light from the mirror held by Prudence, towards whom the angel near by points. This weird being is probably symbolic of the vices contrary to the virtues here represented. Opposite, a second angel draws the attention of two kneeling youths to the figure of Humility. To either side is a group of kneeling angels, vying in loveliness with those in the preceding fresco. In the upper part of the painting, St. Francis stands upon the roof of the loggia, a cross in his left hand, a yoke upon his shoulders. The hands of the Almighty appear from out of the clouds, grasping the end of the saint’s girdle, as if to draw him by it up to Heaven. Two angels kneel beside him, bearing open scrolls symbolic of the rules of the Franciscan Order.

Of a less allegorical nature is the fresco in the fourth division of the ceiling, representing as it does the Glory of St. Francis (Pl. 8). The Saint—a strangely impressive figure in his gown of black and gold—sits in majestic dignity upon a marble throne, covered by a baldacchino and surmounted by a banner bearing a cross and seven stars. All about, the scene is one of joy and jubilation. A swaying multitude of angels surrounds the throne on every side, some dancing, some playing, others bearing lilies—all joining in the loud hymn of joyful praise.

In the ornamental borders which divide the frescoes, are medallions containing busts and figures of angels, the symbols of the Evangelists, and various other allegorical subjects, executed with an exceptional delicacy and care some of them of unusual beauty.

Although we recognize in these great frescoes a direct continuation of the manner with which we have already become acquainted in the adjoining transept, in technical execution and in general development of form they mark a decided and unmistakable advance over the majority of these earlier works. The occasional unevenness, noticeable in the preceding frescoes, has here entirely disappeared, and in its stead we find a uniformity of style which hitherto we have not met with to any like extent ; there is no longer the least sense of hesitation or of weakness, but all is carried out with a decision and security, and a sure control of means, that clearly show Giotto in the full command of all his powers. In composition and in form, in movement and expression, his later works are but superior in degree to these deservedly famous master-pieces.

In lightness and beauty of colour, these allegories show no falling off from the frescoes in the transept, and Giotto undoubtedly took well into consideration, in painting all these works, the dark interior of the building which they were to adorn. Never during the remaining years of his career did he equal the bright loveliness of colour in these two series of frescoes—or, if he may have done so, the restorer’s brush has long since destroyed its former beauty. Here, however, we may gaze upon the master’s handiwork in all its virgin purity, for no later brush has to any visible extent left its mark upon the original surface. Look well—for once outside this Lower Church, we shall search in vain for any unspoiled fresco of Giotto’s hand—not even in the treasure-house at Padua have his creations escaped the doom of ” restoration.”

Giotto appears to have continued and completed the decoration of the north transept soon after the execution of the allegories, and the three frescoes which cover the lower courses of the northern and western walls certainly date from this period of his activity. Opinion is divided regarding the exact subjects which these paintings are intended to represent. According to some writers, the first of them (Pl. 9) depicts the resuscitation of a child by a Franciscan friar—a certain Raho—at Rome ; according to others, it represents the resurrection of a child of the Spini family, killed by a fall from a window in Florence. In answer to the prayers of his family, St. Francis himself is said to have appeared upon the scene and restored the boy to life. The second and third frescoes (Pls. Io, II) probably refer to another somewhat similar miracle per-formed by St. Francis in the town of Suessa, where a young man, killed by the falling of a house, was once more brought to life through the intercession of the Saint.

In these three frescoes Giotto has transported us, at a single step, from the world of allegory and of Biblical History, to the contemporary life of his own day ; and has given us a set of pictures in which the realistic tendencies of his genius have had full play. A comparison of these works with those near by will show the difference of spirit in which they were conceived and carried out, and, although the word naturalistic may be truly and rightly applied to all Giotto ever did, the distinctions between them are not slight. Few faces or figures here exist that are not, to all appearances, contemporary portraits or studies taken more or less directly from life, strongly drawn and individualized ; whereas, in the pre-ceding frescoes, the heads are, almost without exception, purely ideal types. The same difference holds good in regard to costume, and in both cases we have an admirable example of Giotto’s keen sense of fitness and propriety.

We have already noticed these same realistic tendencies toward contemporary representation and portraiture in the fragmentary fresco of Pope Boniface, in the Lateran at Rome,’ and it may well be said together with these present works from which it cannot be far removed in date, to form the beginning of what we may term Giotto’s more distinctly realistic manner—the beginning of a style which must have arrived at the height of its expression in the frescoes illustrating the life of St. Francis in the Upper Church here at Assisi, and in the Bardi Chapel at Florence ; and it is to the consideration of the first-named of these works that we must shortly turn.

In their comparative sobriety of colour, these paintings in the transept show a perceptible change from the gaiety and brightness of the Allegories and the earlier frescoes, although they have not lost in harmony and shading, or in the clearness of their tone. In outline they show an advance both in decision and security of touch, and in drapery and the rendering of form there is a noticeable progress towards simplicity of effect and increased economy of means. With these fine works Giotto may be said to have closed a lengthy period of activity in the Lower Church, and they may well be considered the connecting link between what may aptly be termed—speaking independently of the minor differences of realistic treatment already dwelt upon above—his first and second manner. What this second manner was we will attempt to show in the following pages.

Before passing to an examination of the frescoes in the Upper Church, we must pause to mention two smaller works painted by Giotto in this same transept—the medal-lion of Christ, in the vaulting of the window opening out upon the cloisters ; and the fresco of St. Francis standing with his hand upon the shoulder of a crowned skeleton, on the same wall above the staircase, symbolic of the passing glory of this world—both of which works appear to date from the same period as the Allegories.