Giotto – The Descent From The Cross

This mature work of the principal founder of modern painting is typical in its complex, strongly unified design of masses, and in the dramatic expressiveness of its attitudes and faces. The individual figures are not complex, but the extreme of simplicity, in the sense in which Egyptian sculpture is simple. They are built of broad, almost unbroken planes, flat curves, and straight edges, with practically no decorative ornament. The – two nearer figures, with backs to the observer, are especially massive — as rock-like and unshakable as Egyptian pyramids. The whole picture is simple in its lack of small details, applied decoration, elaborate costumes or background. Nothing is irrelevant to the basic design of masses: even the slight decorative border on some of the garments functions to accent the direction of principal con-tours. The arrangement of masses, on the other hand, is extremely complex by comparison with many pictures where a basic poverty is concealed by elaborate ornamentation. It produces a total effect of simplicity through its completely united cooperation of parts.

Dramatic interest centers in the head of Christ, and it is here that the organization of lines and masses also comes to a focus. This being off center, the whole design is made unsymmetrical, and therefore more dynamic and mobile than if exactly balanced. Smaller parts gather -about this focus, holding the attention: especially the other haloed head bent close, and the three supporting hands. Their fingers, the rays of the haloes, the hair and features of the two heads, all make a tight revolving cluster of small straight lines that-acts as a decorative climax to the whole design (analogous to a spot of concentrated color in Cezanne).

Looking outward in all directions, we see how the other forms converge toward it or circle around it. First there is an elliptical ring of six other heads bent toward these two, framing them in. The massively draped bodies lean forward like heavy supporting buttresses. This inner ring of heads and bodies is in turn supported by remoter figures: by the seated woman with long hair (Magdalen) holding Christ’s feet; by the bearded man behind her, standing erect as an immovable column; and by the other standing figures on both sides of the central group. A thick wall just beyond these figures holds them compactly in the foreground, and swerves diagonally down to meet the other converging masses at the head of Christ.

The design is so intricate that many other subordinate patterns and internal rhythms can be discerned. For example, the five figures seated or bending low, immediately around the body of Christ, can be regarded as a long flat elliptical group in themselves. Four of them (leaving out the one just behind and supporting Jesus) are more voluminous than the standing figures; their broad full draperies are more brightly illumined, and more smoothly unbroken. The taller, standing figures rise up from behind them like the super-structure on a foundation, their masses made more light and fragile (like Ionic columns) by many small vertical folds in their garments. Again, one can notice the rhythm of angles and triangles around the head of Christ. The two figures seated with backs to the spectator form the base of a triangle, whose apex is the head and shoulders of the figures standing above. The clasped hands and arms of this figure form an angle repeating this apex. Below the back of Christ there is a similar angle in the drapery; it recurs in the elbow resting on Christ’s arm; and, much smaller, in the zig-zag of drapery rising above his forehead. The curves and angles of these principal figures are echoed in some outlying objects not shown in the illustration (a dead tree on the rocky slope at right, and weeping angels in the sky) which serve to radiate and diffuse the rhythm gradually into the distance.