Giotto – Assisi – The Upper Church

NOT only has it been the general opinion of writers and of critics since Vasari’s day that Giotto worked as an assistant of Cimabue in the Upper Church at Assisi, but all have unanimously agreed in considering the long series of paintings representing the Life and Miracles of the great Saint from whom the building takes its name, as being, either entirely or in part, the earliest independent creations of the master’s brush. Where, and at what exact period, this opinion first had its rise, it is difficult to discover ; but it has certainly grown to be regarded by modern students in the fixed light of an ancient and long-accepted tradition, and it is only during very recent years that a single critic has dared to question the correctness of what is still considered a proven and unquestionable theory.

Those few writers who have attempted to put forward any reasons of a critical nature in support of their views regarding the supposed early date of these paintings, have invariably sought to base their assertions upon certain resemblances between these works, as they now stand, and the older frescoes on the ceilings and the upper walls of the same church. As far as these comparisons appear to have extended, the conclusions arrived at by these writers have been to some degree both rational and excusable. Some such points of resemblance as they have happened to remark, do, to a certain limited extent, undoubtedly appear to exist—but it is in the comparative superficialityof their examination of the works in question that they have been at fault. In limiting themselves to a comparison of certain details, such as an occasional peculiar similarity of facial types and expression, a like hardness of colour and of outline, and a certain vague but noticeable outward affinity of technical execution, they have almost entirely overlooked or under-estimated the importance of such infinitely weightier criteria, necessary to a truly critical comparison of style, as form, composition and inner contents. Had they been less hastily content with the conclusions arrived at through a comparison of such purely outward technical analogies as they imagined themselves to see, these writers might possibly have been led to a deeper consideration of the more essentially characteristic features of the different paintings. Such a consideration would probably have led in turn to a closer examination of the possible causes of certain apparent similarities which, in the light of calm and reflective criticism, could not fail to appear as other than suspicious at the least. No one of these otherwise pains-taking and conscientious critics, however, appears ever for a single moment to have entertained the slightest doubts as to the genuineness of these paintings in their present state. To be sure, certain only too conspicuous blotches of quite recent repaint—far too evident to deceive the most casual observers—did not escape the notice of some of these, but the possibility of an older and more general restoration seems never to have occurred to them —or if so, to have been immediately dismissed.

It is not our intention here to enter into anything resembling a dissertation on Repaint ; nor is this in any way a subject fitted for verbal discussion, all knowledge in this technical branch of connoisseurship being of necessity acquired only by patient observation and practical experience ; and it would be little short of ludicrous for us to attempt to prove, in the pages of this book, what is only too often a matter of mere personal conviction, even on the part of the most practised of experts. When, therefore, we take it upon ourselves to state that we coincide throughout with the one critic whom we have already mentioned as being at variance with all others in his views regarding the frescoes at present under consideration, and give it as our personal conviction that the greater number of these paintings have not only been re-stored, but made entirely over, we do not look for the support of the majority of those who have taken the usual stand in regard to the question, and who deny the existence of anything beyond a slight retouching of certain parts.

To us it appears a matter of certainty that these works were entirely repainted at a comparatively early period, and that since that time they have suffered frequent lesser restorations—so that hardly an inch of the original surface now remains exposed.’ As is usually the case, the figures themselves have suffered most, the original features and expression of the heads having been entirely lost in the caricatures by which they have been replaced. The hands and feet also, have, in almost every case, been either changed or renewed. In the general conformation and movement of the bodies, however, and to a certain extent in the drapery as well, the restorer has by some strange chance, either purposely or unconsciously, retained no small amount of the original spirit of the work, enough in fact—as we shall find in the somewhat similar case of the master’s later works at Florence—to leave no possible doubt in the mind of any one really acquainted with Giotto’s style, as to the question of their authorship. Aside from their excellence as compositions, and their similarity in this respect to the later frescoes in the Bardi Chapel, none but Giotto could have been responsible for the powerful sense of form, the passionate energy of movement, and the simple directness of expression which these works still display, even under their present disguise of restoration and repaint.

Of the twenty-eight frescoes which occupy, continuously, the entire lower course of the walls inclosing the nave, the first nineteen, together with the medallion of the Madonna and Child above the entrance door, are—or rather were—without doubt works of Giotto’s hand ; the remaining scenes no longer show the characteristics of the master, and point to the work of one of his many pupils, of whom we shall have more to say in another place.

The commission to paint the principal events in the history of the great Saint of Assisi, the memory of whose life and deeds was still fresh throughout the greater part of Italy, and especially so in Umbria, was undoubtedly an honour appreciated to the utmost by Giotto, and one calculated to stimulate him to the exercise of his greatest powers. In taking up the subject of St. Francis he was enabled to treat a series of episodes closely connected with the life of his own day, and eminently adapted to the employment of that realistic simplicity of treatment so markedly characteristic of his genius. Here, too, he was called upon to create his own compositions as well as his own types. The story of St. Francis had not been sufficiently long the property of painters to have acquired the same conventional and set formulae of representation as was the case with the older Biblical subjects, and in this respect no small demand was made upon his inventive genius. How he fulfilled the task which was set before him is made evident in the frescoes themselves, and the compositions here for the first time designed by him were handed down through succeeding centuries and schools, as models incapable of improvement.

In the treatment of his various subjects, Giotto undoubtedly followed, more or less faithfully, the descriptions given us by St. Bonaventura in his ” Life of St. Francis,” written some thirty years after the Saint’s death, and based upon the earlier writings of the ” Three Companions ” and Tommaso da Celano. Strongly as we are tempted to quote at length from the interesting pages of these mediaeval records, the short space at our command renders this impossible, and we must content ourselves with a few words descriptive of each fresco in the order of its sequence. For those, however, who would more fully appreciate the beauty of St. Francis’ story, we recommend the reading of one or other of the various works more especially devoted to his life and deeds. > The series commences at the end of the North wall, nearest the High-Altar, and the first few frescoes refer to certain significant happenings during the more youthful period of the Saint’s life, previous to his final conversion.

I. “St. Francis honoured by a Citizen of Assisi.” (Pl. 12.)

The simplicity and directness of arrangement and of action, in this first fresco, give us the keynote to Giotto’s style throughout the series, and already show us a marked advance in conciseness and significance of representation over his work in the Lower Church. Less changed in its essential character than the majority of the paintings that follow, it still preserves a certain sense of its original appearance, despite the restoration of the heads and of the draperies. The expressive movement of the figures is Giottesque to a degree—natural and true, and sufficient to make up for the changed expression of the faces. In the background we recognize a free copy of the Temple of Minerva—still to be seen at the present day in the Piazza of Assisi—in the decoration of which, Giotto has given us an excellent example of that study of the antique so noticeable in all his later works.

II. ” St. Francis gives his Mantle to a Poor Man.”

The stiff figure and wooden lineaments of the soldier show the effect of the restorer’s work most clearly—the movement of the Saint and the realistic action of his horse have been better preserved. Full of interest, and of no slight charm, is the hilly landscape in the back-ground, with the walled town crowning the summit to the left.

III. “The Vision of St. Francis.”

Giotto has indulged his fancy to an unusual extent in his conception of the visionary palace. The figure of Christ is very truthful and natural in movement, but all idea of the original features and drapery has been lost. Again, the genius of the restorer is made most prominent in the sharp folds of the coverlet of the Saint’s bed—se unlike any of Giotto’s drapery.

IV. ” St. Francis before the Crucifix at San Damiano.”

This fresco is one of the most damaged and faded of the series, even the repaint having scaled away in parts. Very natural, and full of deep devotion, is the figure of the Saint, as he kneels in the quiet of the ruined building before the Crucifix above the altar.

V. ” St. Francis renounces his Father and the World.”

Not even the brutal repainting which this fresco has undergone can hide the dramatic energy of expression that has made it, not without reason, one of the most highly praised and best known of all these paintings. It would be difficult to find among all Giotto’s works a more striking example of realistic action than that shown us in the figure of the infuriated father. As usual, Giotto has chosen the most dramatic moment possible for the representation of his subject, and even in its present deplorable state we feel unconsciously drawn to share in the tense and excited interest of the spectators in the scene.

VI. “The Dream of Pope Innocent III.”

The attitude of the young Saint, as he supports the falling church, is most natural and easy, and it is evident that the restorer has here more carefully followed the original. The figures of the two attendant watchers, one of them overcome by sleep, are also very true to life, although quite repainted ; that of the Pope himself is not exempt from the stiffness common to almost all of Giotto’s representations of reclining figures.

VII. Pope Innocent sanctions the Rules of the Order.”

This composition strikes us not only by the fine arrangement of the figures, but by the deep truthfulness of expression which pervades the whole. The sense of earnest reverence and expectation, on the part of the kneeling Saint and of his brethren, contrasts most effectively with the wondering interest of the assembled prelates. Again, the heads have been rendered hard and hideous by the work of the restorer.

VIII. ” The Apparition of the Fiery Chariot.”

Giotto has perhaps done both wisely and well in here acknowledging the technical limitations of his art, and in representing this rather difficult subject in a perfectly literal manner. The figures of the horses betray the master’s study of classical models, and are at striking variance with his more realistic conceptions of animals in other of these frescoes.

IX. “The Vision of the Thrones.”

In its present repainted state the angel in this scene is quite unlike Giotto’s usual representation of such celestial beings. Very beautiful and quiet in expression is the figure of the Saint, as, lost in prayer, he kneels upon the step before the altar.

X. “The Expulsion of the Devils from Arezzo.”

Full, again, of the deepest devotion is the kneeling figure of St. Francis, and very powerful and noble that of his companion Fra Silvestro, as, with a gesture of command, he rids the city of the spirits of evil which infest it. To the left is an interesting Gothic church, and in the wall above the apse are three painted bas-reliefs, the finely modelled figures of which are clearly copied from the nude genii of classic times.

XI. “St. Francis before the Sultan.”

Ruined and changed as it is, we can still appreciate the original power of this painting. The noble and impressive figure of the Sultan, together with those of St. Francis and his companion, still retain no small amount of their former expressiveness of gesture.

XII. ” The Glory of St. Francis.”

This fresco has also suffered most severely. As was the case with No. VIII., Giotto did not attempt anything beyond a purely literal representation of his subject. The figure of Christ in the heavens is still most beautiful in movement and expression.

XIII. ” The Christmas night at Greccio.”

In the repainting of the faces the restorer has here outdone himself in his love of caricature, and has unconsciously tried his best to ruin what must once have been one of the most charming frescoes of the series. Fortunately, the movement of the various figures is still quite sufficient in itself to express what was in Giotto’s mind, and we cannot remain unaffected by this work, even in its present state.

XIV. “The Miracle of the Spring.” (Pl. 14.)

Vasari dwells enthusiastically upon the realistic qualities of the drinking figure in this scene, and we can quite understand his admiration of the original. But to us it is the feeling and conception of the entire work that strike us as most beautiful. Even the restorer himself seems to have felt a special reverence for this and the following fresco, and both still retain much of their former beauty of expression. Very fine, and full of the deepest feeling, is the praying figure of the Saint, and very true to life those of his companions with the ass. In the background Giotto has, with no small success, sought to express the wildness of the country through which the travellers pass.

XV. ” The Sermon to the Birds.”

This must once have been in many ways among the loveliest and most poetical of all Giotto’s frescoes, and even at the present day its charm is by no means lost. It is difficult to conceive of this beautiful subject—so deeply characteristic of St. Francis’ all-embracing love—ever receiving a more natural or sympathetic treatment ; and Giotto seems here to have entered on his work with a full appreciation of its deep significance. We might look far before finding a more simple, and at the same time a more truthful and touching, example of the expressiveness of movement, than that so apparent in the action of the Saint, as, with hands outstretched, he preaches his loving message to his little ” sister birds.” Giotto seems here to have lavished special pains upon the painting of his trees ; and in the varied forms and movements of the different birds themselves, we recognize to the full his careful observation of Nature’s models.

On the wall above the door, between these last two frescoes, is a painting of the Virgin and Child—now entirely ruined by successive restorations—in all probability one of the first examples of those more naturalistic representations of the Madonna and her Son, which Giotto was destined to create as models for the imitation of later schools and ages. Nothing of the original, however, now remains visible through the thick repaint.

XVI. “The Death of the Knight of Celano.” (Pl. 15.)

The subject of this fresco seems to have been eminently suited to the dramatic tendencies of Giotto’s genius, and, even in its present condition, the movements of the various figures are admirably suggestive of the surprise and grief occasioned by the sudden death of the host. With a total absence of all exaggeration, Giotto has fully succeeded in giving us a perfectly natural and deeply impressive representation of the tragic scene, remarkable alike for its sincerity of feeling and its simple truthfulness.

XVII. “St. Francis before Honorius III.”

Giotto has most effectively depicted the rapt attention of the Pope and of his followers, as they listen with varied feelings of deep interest and surprise to the eloquent words of the humble speaker. Worthy of re-mark is the arched Gothic interior, recalling as it does similar efforts in the frescoes of the Lower Church.

XVIII. “The Apparition at Arles.”

Here again the painter has well expressed the different feelings of an audience in the hooded figures of the friars. With the exception of the one brother seated to the left, all are unconscious of the tall figure of the Saint in the central doorway. Most interesting is the simple Gothic architecture of the building, with its delicate decorations of mosaic.

XIX. ” The Stigmata.”

It would be superfluous to dwell upon the direct simplicity with which Giotto has treated this crowning wonder of St. Francis’ life. Though artists without number have attempted since his day to paint the marvellous vision in many different ways, none can be said to have improved upon the simple force and effectiveness of Giotto’s characteristic representation of the scene.

With this fresco of the Stigmatization ends Giotto’s personal share in the great series, and the paintings which follow, representing the death and funeral of the Saint, together with some of his posthumous miracles, point unmistakably to the work of another hand, so marked is the difference in style between them and the frescoes which we have already examined. To us they appear most certainly to be the creations of a pupil of the master—one who, although unknown by name, was by no means the least gifted among Giotto’s followers, and who has left us further examples of his talents in other parts. The affinities which exist between these paintings and those relating to the life and miracles of St. Nicholas of Bari on the walls of the Cappella del SS. Sacramento, in the Lower Church, leave little doubt in our mind as to their being by the same artist, and Mr. Berenson has further traced his peculiar manner to a well-known picture now in the Uffizi Gallery at Florence, representative of certain scenes from the life of St. Cecilia, generally attributed to Cimabue. Although one of the most faithful imitators of Giotto’s style, his work still presents such visible differences as to render any confusion of the two impossible.

His figures lack Giotto’s solidity of form and justness of proportions ; his heads and extremities are smaller and more attenuated, and there is a general tendency to slimness and to height, especially in the high-waisted figures of his women. In his composition, also, we miss the concise simplicity of his master.

In this hasty and unsatisfactory review of Giotto’s paintings in the Upper Church, the reader will undoubtedly have missed the usual long descriptions accorded them by other writers. In their present ruined state, however, it would be as vain for us to dwell more at length upon their many merits—still so evident in themselves—as it would be unjust to judge them by what are seemingly their defects, so great have been the changes they have undergone at the restorer’s hand. Concerning this question of restoration we have already said enough, and it is to be hoped that the student may by this time, in his study of Giotto’s works, have acquired sufficient know-ledge of the master’s style to appreciate for himself the many beauties of form, composition, and expression with which these frescoes are so richly filled, and to discern between what is Giotto’s own and what has followed after.

What exact reasons Giotto may have had for the sudden discontinuation of his work in the Upper Church, we have no means of knowing ; nor do we possess any certain information regarding his movements at this particular period of his life. Nothing would be more natural than that he should have frequently returned to Florence during the years in which he was engaged upon his work at Assisi, especially as we know him to have looked upon that city as his home throughout his life. With the fame that was already his, invitations would certainly never have been lacking, both here and from other parts, for the demonstration of his skill, and it is by no means likely that all such opportunities should have been laid aside. However this may have been, we know of no visible records—with the exception of one or two panel-pictures, concerning which we will have more to say later—of any work carried out, either here at Florence or elsewhere, during this ” Assisan Period.”

The great majority of writers, even to the present day, have insisted in accrediting to Giotto, as a work of this particular period, the frescoes which adorn the Chapel of the Palazzo del Podestà—better known as the Bargello —at Florence. One or two of our more modern critics have, however, strongly combated the correctness of this attribution, and we certainly share the opinion of this small minority in according, not to Giotto himself, but to a pupil of the master, the execution of these works.’ In their present ruined and repainted condition, a just critical judgment of these frescoes is rendered quite impossible. Nevertheless, from the little of the original work that still remains visible, it is clearly apparent that they once possessed merits, which, although not such as to warrant their traditional attribution to Giotto’s own hand, certainly attest the work of one of the most gifted of his followers —one not only most signally successful in copying his master’s style, but who seems also to have made free use of his designs. Space forbids us from entering here into a closer examination of these very interesting works, and we must leave the reader to study them in detail for himself.

Whatever may have been the truth in regard to Giotto’s doings during the years immediately preceding his acceptance of the commission to decorate the Arena Chapel at Padua, it is certain that his labours at Assisi did not end with the frescoes of the Life of St. Francis ; for we come upon unmistakable proofs of his handiwork in the Cappella di Sta. Maria Maddalena, in the Lower Church, the walls of which chapel are entirely covered with scenes from the life of the saint to which it is dedicated, and with figures and medallions of various other holy person-ages. By one of those strange chances through which some of the greatest masterpieces are at times passed over with comparative neglect, these frescoes have always been spoken of by the generality of writers with a truly remarkable insensibility to their great and obvious merits. Indeed, they have come to be looked upon as works of quite inferior importance—hardly deserving of any serious consideration—and we know of but two living critics who have of late years accorded them anything approaching the recognition which they deserve, and who have stopped to question their attribution to that most ill-defined of all Giotto’s followers, Buffalmacco, to whom they are by general consent given.

To us Giotto’s personal share in these important paintings seems beyond all question certain, despite the strange lack of uniformity in their style and execution, which plainly points to the co-operation, upon no small scale, of several of the master’s pupils in the completion of these works, and which gives them an appearance of having been executed at different periods of time. This diversity of manner is so pronounced as to render it well-nigh impossible to clearly separate the work of Giotto himself from that of his followers and assistants. Nevertheless, the master’s hand is unmistakably apparent to a greater or less degree in almost every one of the principal frescoes in this chapel, and it is somewhat difficult to understand how any one at all intimately acquainted with Giotto’s work at Padua, to which they bear so close a resemblance, should fail to recognize the power and strength which lie in these much neglected paintings.

A glance at the first subject of the series—the Anointing of Christ’s Feet—is sufficient to dispel all doubts as to its authorship. None but Giotto could have been capable of such a simple, and at the same time, such a deeply felt treatment of the scene. But if in this first fresco we already clearly recognize the principal characteristics of the master’s Paduan style and manner, the same can be said with even greater reason of the Raising of Lazarus (Pl. 16),on the wall above it—perhaps the most powerfully effective work of Giotto’s genius up to this particular point in his career. Inferior only in matter of arrangement to the master’s later treatment of the same subject in the Paduan Arena, in its deep solemnity of expression, the grand dignity of its figures, and the sense of mystery and awe which overshadows the whole scene, it stands second to but few of the master’s later works.

In the ” Noli me Tangere,” on the opposite wall, Giotto’s hand is still unmistakably apparent in the exquisitely beautiful and expressive figure of the kneeling Magdalen. That of Christ is, however, inferior to the average of the master’s creations. Nevertheless, despite the evident assistance of his pupils in the execution of this work, its great beauty of sentiment and its excellence as a composition point clearly to Giotto’s own large share in it. Almost entirely the work of his pupils, on the contrary—at least in regard to execution—is the fresco on the wall above, representing the Voyage of the Magdalen from Palestine to Marseilles and the Miracle of the Prince of Marseilles.

The two lunette paintings which complete the series, although differing noticeably in certain details of drapery and type from the foregoing works—owing probably to the co-operation of assistants, or even to later touches of repaint—again most certainly betoken Giotto’s handiwork. Most impressive, and full of a strange attraction, is the first of these, in which the hermit priest is bringing a garment to the Penitent in the desert. In the Last Communion of the Saint (Pl. i7), on the west wall, the splendid drapery, the fine feeling for form, and the noble dignity of the figures, mark it as one of the most beautiful paintings of the series.

We again recognize the grandeur and dignity of Giotto’s style in the two smaller frescoes, representing, in all probability, the donor of the chapel at the feet of the Magdalen and St. Maximin (?). In the four medallions of the ceiling, are life-sized busts of Christ, Mary Magdalen, Martha, and Lazarus ; and the wall spaces on either side of the stained glass window, and in the entrance arches, are completely filled with heads and figures of various saints—works of uneven merit, in many cases betokening their execution by pupils and assistants, but one and all worthy of attention.