Giotto – The Panel Pictures

TIME has left us but few panel pictures from the hand of Giotto, and none equalling in importance the great Stefaneschi altar-piece at Rome which, as we have already stated, is not only the earliest recognizable work of the master now in existence, but also the only one, the approximate date of whose execution is known to us. There are, however, a few examples of this branch of Giotto’s art still existing in public and private collections, as to whose authenticity no doubt need be expressed, and we have for reasons of comparison purposely reserved our notice of them to the present moment.

Earliest, in date of execution, is undoubtedly the little picture of the Presentation, now belonging to Mrs. J. L. Gardner, of Boston, U.S.A. As far as regards composition, this painting foreshadows Giotto’s fresco of the same subject at Padua, although the figures do not appear to have arrived at the fullness of form so conspicuous in the later work—a fact which would lead us to place it among the productions of the master’s later Assisan period.

Closely connected with the frescoes of the Life of St. Francis at Assisi, but in all probability painted at a somewhat later date, is the large altar-piece, once in the church of San Francesco at Pisa, now in the Louvre. Vasari tells us that this work was held in such veneration by the Pisans as to have been the direct cause of Giotto being called to paint in the Campo Santo of that city, where he executed the frescoes relating to the trials of Job, which works in turn led to his invitation to Rome by Pope Benedict IX (?) –a piece of fiction in Vasari’s most genial vein. In the arrangement of its principal subject, the Stigmatization of St. Francis, this work resembles very closely its predecessor at Assisi, even to the details of the background. For reasons, probably of space, Giotto has omitted the figure of the Saint’s companion, as in the later fresco above the Bardi Chapel. The pro-portions of the kneeling figure are slightly less heavy and compact than in the larger wall-painting at Assisi ; the attitude, however, is identical in both cases. In the predella below are represented the Dream of Innocent III., the Presentation of the Rules of the Order, and the Sermon to the Birds—all faithfully copied from the frescoes of the same scenes at Assisi. A comparison of this altar-piece with its different prototypes is at once instructive and of the greatest importance in revealing, to some ex-tent, the original strength and beauty of those works of which it is evidently so faithful a reflection ; for, although this painting has suffered severely from age and restoration—the original colour being almost entirely lost—much of Giotto’s handiwork still remains.

Belonging to the master’s Paduan period is the small painting of the Last Supper, No. 983 of the Munich Gallery. Slightly earlier in date is the Crucifixion (No. 981) in the same collection.

The beautiful Crucifix in the sacristy of the Arena Chapel at Padua is also an unmistakable production of Giotto’s brush. This work—the most exquisitely finished of all his panel pictures—is to our mind the only one of all the many Crucifixes attributed to the master that can be looked upon as a genuine work of his hand.

Not far removed from this same period of his Paduan activity, is the large painting of the Virgin and Child surrounded by Saints and Angels (Pl. 38), now in the Academy at Florence, originally in the church of Ognissanti in that city. Located as it now is, beside the great altar-piece attributed to Cimabue, this work affords the spectator an exceptional opportunity for the comparison of Giotto’s art with that of his Florentine contemporaries and predecessors. Indeed, we can hardly think but that it was painted by the master as a special challenge to the Florentine painters of the time, for, although holding closely to the conventional composition of the older school, he has thrown into this great picture of the Virgin all the force and power of his new ideals. Let those who will, carefully compare this work with the many older pictures of the Madonna still in existence—such a comparison will do far more than mere words toward accentuating the great differences between the art of Giotto and that of his predecessors.