Giotto – The Resurrection Of Lazarus

A second picture by Giotto is included, in order to suggest the variety of his designs, and also some of their limitations. One cannot look over his frescoes, here or at Assisi, without being impressed by their extraordinary inventiveness. Far from repeating a formula, they present in every case some surprising new arrangement of masses, each fitted together with unerring architecture. Here, for example, there is no converging to a single focus, either of shapes or of dramatic interest. The eye is at once drawn to the striking figure of the risen man, swathed, cadaverous, but unmistakably alive within his shroud. Yet the flow of lines does not rest there, but carries one on, over long diagonals and undulating waves, left to the figure of Christ and around the elliptical group.

Among the limitations, which are often overlooked in the present worship of Giotto, is the flat blue background which cuts off space just behind the figures on the left and the hill on the right. This is characteristic of Giotto, and is a surviving medieval trait. It means that the space in which he works is shallow, not genuinely deep as in the ancient Roman Odyssey frescoes, or as in Masaccio. Blue as a background has this advantage over gold, however, that it cuts off space less decisively: it recedes quietly, and suggests in an abstract way the infinite depth of the sky. It also serves to render the design of nearby masses more compact, walling them in from the rear. Gold haloes in relief, another medieval survival, further weaken the illusion of depth, by bringing supposedly distant heads forward to the surface of the wall. As in Duccio, Martini and others of the time, there are still groups of figures huddled tightly together (e.g., above the man with hand to chin) with practically no spatial intervals between them. The individual figures are still rigid by comparison with the ancient Roman or with Masaccio; though expressive dramatically, they are frozen into tableaux vivants, with little illusion of movement in process. Their voluminous draperies, coming almost to the ground, make them rather block-like, heavy; rarely do they stand on their own feet even as lightly as the two boys lifting the slab in this picture. About color and facial expression one can only surmise, in most cases. Six centuries of damage and repeated restoration have left many successive coats of paint beside the vestiges of Giotto’s. The arrangement of different colors into patterns, one may hope, still follows his; but hardly their intrinsic surface quality. Around many of the expressive faces, heavy-handed retouchers have left thick, inflexible, exaggerating lines.

Most of these limitations, it will be noted, are faults chiefly from the standpoint of realistic representation. As pure designs of masses, Giotto’s pictures far outrank the Romans’ or Masaccio’s, and stand among the greatest of all time.