Masters Of Art – The First Of The Moderns

THE greatest of Cimabue’s achievements remains to be recorded, namely his discovery of Giotto. Whether it be true, as we are told, that he found him, a shepherd boy, drawing a picture of a sheep upon a stone, and asked him to come to his studio, we do not know, but it is very like unto the truth. It was from nature, from real sheep and real men, that Giotto received his impulse toward art, not from the fettered art of the past. It is certain, too, that he studied with Cimabue. Whether Cimabue greatly influenced him, we do not know, but if he did, the result is much to his credit. In any case, he seems never to have fettered Giotto with the traditions from which he himself had not been able wholly to escape. Some of Giotto’s early pictures smack of this mediæval symmetry and remind us of Cimabue, but these resemblances are few and slight. Giotto’s pictures have their limitations, but they are the limitations of a new art not perfectly mastered rather than the limitations of tradition. They may seem old-fashioned to us, now that the centuries have made old the fashion that he taught, but certainly to Cimabue and the people of his time the art was amazingly new. He does not take a traditional picture, symmetrical and formal, and timidly give it a few modern touches. He starts his pictures as though there had never been any symmetries, taking characters and actions direct from life. More than this, he is infinitely clever in suggesting incidents which the painter cannot fully express. It is very rare that a man in any field is able to wipe the past quite off the slate and start new, as though there had been no past, and yet with all the experience and skill which the past had accumulated. Something of this supreme newness Giotto brought into art. The fact that he did not master all the intricacies of drawing and perspective which the new art required is of very little consequence in our estimate of his genius. This detailed mastery is the work of the hack. It is as nothing compared with the formulating of a new program, a new ideal.

Giotto is one of the three greatest names in Italian art. The limitations of his technique are a barrier to the appreciation of his art by those familiar with the later finished style of Michelangelo or Titian. Yet Giotto is a greater spirit than Titian and worthy of a place in our honor, along-side of Michelangelo himself, the one the first, and the other the last great artist of the Italian Renaissance. His was a wholesome and tonic personality. Sanity and wholesome mirth followed him through the length of Italy. Even his name is significant. Christened Ambrose, or Ambrogio, as the Italians call it, the ending, otto, diminutive and endearing, was added while a child and retained when a man. And then because Ambrogiotto was too long for easy use, it was shortened to Giotto, precisely as a boy christened Albert may later be known as Bertie. But the Italians have, not one but many expressive endings, and it means much that this one was chosen rather than ino or accio which we find in the nicknames of other artists. It means that men liked the little Ambrose, and that they continued to like him after he became a man.

Giotto seems to have begun his career with the great works in the Lower Church of Assisi, close beside those of his master. There are first of all the frescoes in the central vault, over the high altar and the tomb of St. Francis. They form a group by themselves, less distinctive of the artist’s temperament, perhaps, than those of Padua or Florence, but not less admirable. He was not yet altogether free. First of all there was the architectural problem with which he had to reckon and to which he has made necessary but admirable concessions. And second, there seems to have been an intellectual environment, doubtless that of the monks, and the scholasticism of his time, which he is not altogether free to ignore. Doubtless, too, he has not wholly found himself. He was learning in this same time to scoff at the asceticism of the Franciscans, for the infinite health of Giotto’s nature had nothing in common with the morbidity which the successors of Francis so speedily manifested. But he had not yet won his spurs, and had almost certainly to follow in part the suggestions of others.

Such pictures as the Vows of Saint Francis are suggestive of this strange alliance. Let us take, for instance, the Vow of Obedience (B 55). It is a broad-spreading triangle that Giotto is called upon to fill, a triangle bounded on either side by mighty arches which Giotto has made doubly impressive by the rich borders with which he has bounded his space. In a space thus shaped, thus situated, and thus emphasized, an un-symmetrical picture was unthinkable. The center of the triangle is occupied by a quaint little architectural structure difficult to characterize. It is hardly a building, scarce more than a canopy supported by pillars the size of curtain poles — a device of which Giotto is fond. He wastes no time on pretentious architecture. It is fair to add perhaps that he could not have made a very artistic use of it if he had tried, architect though he was. Even in the fullness of the Renaissance more pictures were spoiled by architecture than by the lack of it. These flimsy, architectural constructions in Giotto’s picture serve on the one hand the simple purpose of dividing his space without wasting much of it, and, on the other, a symbolistic purpose. They suggest a temple or a palace, though they do not represent one.

This little canopy leaves a triangle in the top in which stands the figure of St. Francis, with an angel on either side. He turns his hands outward, and his feet are visible to show the famous stigmata. The angels, kneeling, fill out the space in a satisfactory manner. But sincerity compels us to admit that there is nothing very thrilling about this representation.

Below, under the canopy, which is divided into three compartments, we have in the center a very ill-favored female figure who holds one finger to her lips in token of silence, and with the other hand lays upon the neck of the kneeling monk, a yoke, such as was used by the Italians in harnessing a single animal for draught purposes. The kneeling monk accepts the yoke from the female figure, who represents the abstract idea of the Rules of the Order. Giotto, never a devotee of sensuous beauty as such, was, after all, able to represent beauty of a dignified and lofty type. Here he purposely avoids it. He would avoid the impression that the Rules of the Order are attractive. On the contrary, they are forbidding and austere.

In the left-hand compartment is a figure whose meaning we should never guess if we were not taught. She has a double face, one behind and one before, but duplicity is far from being the suggestion. It is the traditional way of representing Prudence, who looks backward as well as forward, studying consequences as well as prospects, a suggestive symbol when you know it, but one that few would ever guess. In the right-hand compartment is a strange, draped figure which we recognize finally as a centaur. The centaur was one of the three or four items from the repertory of pagan art which appealed sufficiently to the popular imagination to survive in Christian art. Inasmuch as the personnel of this pagan art, far from being non-existent to the Christian mind, was thought of as being jealous and hostile, the pagan divinities speedily became demons. Figures like Apollo did not long persist. There was nothing characteristic about them. But the streaming beard of Kronos with his scythe, the trident of Neptune, and the Centaur, stick fast and are turned to account. The Centaur represents evil in one form or another, and now in Giotto’s picture, draped in a long robe, he seems to try to enter this enclosure in disguise. But, to his consternation, as he enters, the robe stays behind. He throws up his hands in horror, realizing that his true character is revealed. The symbolism again is significant if not easy.

It is needless to go farther into detail. In every subject our symbolism is arbitrary, which means that it is but feebly artistic. A fundamental condition of a good picture is that it shall be self-interpreting. This the stilted symbolism of the middle ages did not permit. Men did not seem to think it necessary that symbols should explain themselves, because they were so educated in this symbolism that they scarce realized its artificiality. Who objects to writing, on the ground that the letters of our alphabet are arbitrary? We learn them so young and find them so serviceable that their arbitrariness is quite forgotten. So with mediæval art, and so with this first chapter in Giotto’s art.

The Vow of Chastity is similarly stilted and scholastic, if not quite so intricate. But as we come to the Vow of Poverty (B 56), Giotto was there freer to be himself or was indebted to a far better suggestion. It stirs our deepest feeling to see this vow of the Franciscans represented in the guise of the marriage of Saint Francis to Poverty, the ceremony being per-formed by Christ. Nor does it require much explanation to understand the figure of this haggard and woebegone bride, whose robes hang in tatters, whose face has lost all comeliness, and whose youth has long disappeared. But upon her unlovely countenance Saint Francis gazes with all the ardor of a lover. Nor can any fail to perceive the significance of the figures gathered about,— the dog that barks furiously at the bride while the ceremony is in progress, the youth below who throws a stone at her, the substantial burghers to the right who turn doubtfully away. The choice of Francis calls forth at once the jest of the frivolous and the skepticism of the thoughtful, as such a choice has ever done.

The immense advantage of this picture as compared with the others is that it is self-interpreting. The thoughtful observer would not fail to guess the essential meaning of it all. To some one, in all probability to Giotto himself, we owe this new departure. Here is still symbolism, but it is true pictorial symbolism, symbolism which carries its own label, and better still, symbolism which is richly charged with feeling. Symbols which are arbitrary, which acquire meaning only as the result of outside interpretation, and whose meaning when acquired is intellectual rather than emotional, may have great value in other connections, but they belong to the world of science rather than to the world of art. This is the sufficient condemnation of vast quantities of Christian art, and is in sharpest contrast with the self-explained art of the Greeks.

From this time on, and perhaps as the result of the picture last mentioned, Giotto seems to have been free. The adjacent vault ceilings are covered in part with his work, magnificent in color, for no artist of his time or any other, knew the value of color better than he, simple and natural and yet superbly appropriate in their grouping and, above all things, invariably charged with feeling of the straight-forward, childlike sort which appeals to unspoiled spirits.

The splendid Arena Chapel in Padua is one of the most successfully decorated buildings in the world. It has the advantage of being of moderate size, and seems to have been decorated by Giotto in a single period without interruption or diversion of thought. Our attention to this incomparable work must necessarily be brief. The long series of pictures represent the story of the Virgin and Christ. Take, for in-stance, the Presentation of the Virgin (B 58), grotesque in its architectural setting but magnificent in its truth to life and sentiment. The temple is a curious little sentinel box, ill-drawn, with faulty perspective, a symbol at best, for Giotto knew what a temple was like. Up the stairs walks the little Virgin, the loveliest and most unspoiled, unconscious creature imaginable, greeted by the benignant old priest and watched with just a touch of solicitude and pride by the mother and friends who stand below. Nothing strange about it except its complete lack of artificiality, and the easy confidence with which the artist rests his case upon the sentiments of the unspoiled heart.

To choose again at random, let us notice the Nativity. The mother, too noble to be merely pretty, too healthy to be sentimental, fondles the child, close wrapped in Italian fashion, while Joseph sits by, fast asleep. Giotto’s repertory of suggestion is limitless. He would have us understand that Joseph is not the father of the child, hence this lessened interest which, were he the father, would be inappropriate. In the heavens above appear the angels with their song of good will, while near by stand the shepherds with their flocks. Contrary to all the traditions of art, these shepherds turn their backs upon us, or nearly so, gazing at the angels in the sky above. Giotto is drawing for the first time now upon that psychic suggestion which is to play so large a part in the art of the later time. He wants us to see, and fully see, the angels which are so important a part of the story and yet are pictorially subordinated. To be sure that we see them, his shepherds look at them, knowing that we will look where they look, in deference to a universal habit.

The Flight into Egypt is suggestive of the resource and of the limitations of Giotto’s art. Nothing could exceed the naturalness of this group as they trudge along, more particularly of the donkey which Giotto alone among the artists of this time drew without any humanizing tendency. Notice a donkey by Ghirlandajo. He pricks up his ears and looks out of his eyes straight forward, with a lively curiosity at the new born babe, completely, though unintentionally, humanized by the unobservant artist. But Giotto has given us the unparticipating stolidity of the donkey which has given him his metaphorical character in human speech, and which here adds that touch of. nature that makes the whole world kin. The seriousness of the mother as she bears the sacred child, the homely loyalty of Joseph, and the gossiping frivolity of the attendants, all are true to life, of which Giotto is the obvious prophet. But the background is nothing less than amusing. Little hills that look as if carved out of beeswax, with trees like feather dusters stuck here and there, are Giotto’s way of telling us that the flight took place through a mountainous and wooded country. Yet Giotto was born in the mountains, and pastured his sheep among the hills of Mugello. No one knew better than he what mountains and woods were like. He simply does not try to represent them, believing that they surpass the limits of art, as indeed in so many pictures they have done. Giotto’s program is naturalism in living creatures and symbolism in their setting, where naturalism seems to him impossible, perhaps un-desirable.

The Baptism of Christ is similarly significant. Jesus stands in the water and John is pouring water upon his head. On the one side stand the angels, traditional guardians of the Saviour’s garments, beautiful figures, though of the quaint Giottesque type; and on the other stand witnesses of the event, only two, and these two different in a significant manner, for Giotto never uses an unnecessary figure. Of these witnesses one wears a halo and the other does not. They represent the two classes of witnesses without whose combined testimony the event would seem not fully accredited. The disciple of John, so soon to become the disciple of Jesus, wears the halo, as becomes a saint in the Church. The other, the casual spectator, sympathetic but not a follower, wears no halo. We thus have outside and unbiased testimony. A similar thoughtfulness is manifest in the representation of the hair, which, on all the figures, save that of Jesus, is curly, but the hair of Jesus hangs in straight flat masses as wet hair should. You can imagine the water dripping from the ends. Why not, says one? Yet it is to be noted that in the whole history of Christian art, no other artist bethought himself that hair when wet looked different from hair when dry. It is thinking about these things that makes the difference between naturalness and symbolism, and it is in this difference that the very essence of Giotto’s art consists.

The Corruption of Judas is a masterpiece, a simple group of three or four figures which is a study in psychology as well as in action. And the whole is supplemented by a marvellously suggestive symbolism, as in the case of the halo on Judas, which has half disappeared and is vanishing away, for it was in this moment that he lost his claim to sainthood. But notice these figures. Christian tradition has blackened the character of both Judas and his seducers ; on the one hand was treason, sometimes imagined as deliberate from the beginning; on the other hand was cold-blooded vindictiveness against righteousness. Little sympathy has been wasted upon these personalities that form the background of the great tragedy. Yet look at these representations of the priestly party. It is significant that they are identical in feature and in spirit with the benignant priest who welcomes the little virgin in the earlier painting. They are substantial, well-meaning men who are guarding the interests that they are set to guard by unwelcome but seemingly necessary means. And Judas, not the black-featured villain that Leonnardo makes him – his eye gleams with a strange and fanatical lustre, an unbalanced, misguided man, a fanatic who sees things in false perspective, a weakling who served the purpose of strength. How much more generously, how much more plausibly Giotto has told the story! It is interesting to note that the same sympathy is the basis of the marvellous interpretation which the whole world goes to Oberammergau to see. Without sympathy there is no understanding.

One remaining figure must not escape our notice. Back of Judas stands Satan, almost the only representation of this character in Giotto’s art. He is included here because the narrative required it, “Satan having entered into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray him.” Think what it means to have told the whole Bible story with scarce a reference to the diabolism that was so common in human thought. Centuries after this, a strong-minded man can throw his inkstand at the devil, and can speak of devils in Worms as numerous as chimneys upon the house tops. Only in our time has the devil faded out of human thought, the last remnant of the gross terrorism of an earlier faith. Think what it means that Giotto, six centuries ago, should have eliminated the devil from his thought ; that to him should have been revealed so surely the great truth that “out of the heart are the issues of life.” It is character that explains conduct, and it is human passions arid the familiar daily human interests that account for the events which he portrays. Giotto was indeed the first of the moderns.

The Entrance into Jerusalem suggests farther resource. Jesus rides upon the ass’s colt : the people wave palm branches and spread their garments in the way. So far all is familiar. But notice the figures climbing the palm trees to pluck the branches; more striking still, figures pulling their sweater like garments off over their heads. There is nothing improbable about this. Plainly the branches must be plucked and the garments must be taken off, although these facts are not mentioned in the story. To Giotto they are valuable as not only enriching the story but, in particular, giving it vividness by the introduction of the unhackneyed incident.

A glaze rests upon the story so often repeated. Add inevitable incidents not thus glazed and the-story has life again.

Notice again the Crucifixion, the swooning figure of the mother and the mourning friends, not very happily portrayed as regards this tragedy of feeling, for Giotto is but moderately a master of this phase of human expression. But notice the figures on the right. The centurion points toward the Christ with the words, “Verily this was a Son of God.” The sober but not malevolent priest looks and listens attentively. In the foreground are the three soldiers disputing over the seamless garment. One draws his knife, evidently to divide it, his companion opposite interrupts him with a spirited protest and a gesture that unmistakably betrays his interest, while a third stands as umpire, both listening, and by a turn of his head, throwing his weight plainly on the side of the protestant. The striking thing about this group is the absolute certainty with which we can tell what each man is doing, almost what he is saying. No artist ever lived who was able to suggest thoughts quite beyond the limits of direct pictorial expression so forcefully and certainly as Giotto.

The Mourning over the Body of Christ is again a master-piece despite certain obvious limitations, for here as else-where Giotto is unable to represent the tragic emotions in a subtle way. The grouping of the figures, however, the long diagonal line of the rocks, which seems to have acquired an unconscious symbolical meaning in the composition of Christian pictures, is excellent. But most striking of all is the treatment of the draperies. They fall, straight and heavy, as though they had lead in their hems. No breeze ruffles the stagnant air. Just imagine for a moment that these draperies were of the Botticelli sort, light and tossed by the wind. It is impossible to associate with them that deep grief which here is so evident. It is uncertain whether Giotto had any theories upon this point; like a true artist, he had intuitions which were more reliable. But that there is an analogy that is fairly constant in the human mind, between certain things spiritual and things material cannot be doubted. Our language is full of it. Heaviness is a synonym for sorrow, and in adjective and noun is continually drawn upon for spiritual purposes. “Their hearts were heavy within them,” and “They were sore (heavy) afraid.” Few will recognize the means that Giotto has used for this effect, but none will fail to recognize the effect. Here as elsewhere our artist’s instinct is unerring.

It may be worth while before we leave the Paduan Chapel to notice Giotto’s later symbolism. The series of small panels are decorated with figures representing the Virtues and the Vices. They are of unequal suggestiveness, but strikingly significant. Hope, with its upward movement, as characterized by attitude and draperies, is simple but to the point. Envy (Invidia) (B 70) is the masterpiece of them all. Here is a figure of a woman the ugliest imaginable. A serpent issues from her mouth, but with strange perversity turns and bites her in the face. A horn, suggestive of aggressive power, here turns and grows back into her head. The ear, enormously large, suggests that she hears altogether too much. The hands, one clutching a bag, suggestive of greed and selfishness (for envy is the most selfish of vices), and the other with claw-like fingers uncanny in its suggestion. And, finally, the figure stands in the midst of flames, — in hot water, as we should say, — for Envy is a characteristic most troublesome to its possessor. All this is fanciful, a thing for which nature gives no counterpart, but as contrasted with the Vow of Obedience, it has the great advantage that every-thing is self-interpreting. The novice could guess, if not the name, at least the spirit of the figure that is here represented.

It was the good fortune of Florence that the much-wandering artist should return in his prime to leave in grand old Santa Croce the ripest example of his art. In the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, commemorative of the mighty families who preceded the Medici and were wrecked by the earlier vicissitudes of banking, Giotto has given us the Story of Saint Francis and the Story of Saint John. No detailed study of these various scenes is possible here. Let us rather note the new elements that Giotto has called to his aid. The splendid composition of such a picture as the Death of Saint Francis, orderly yet free, has been admired in all ages, and was imitated to the point of absolute plagiarism by so facile a painter as Ghirlandajo in the near by church of Santa Trinità. Or, again, let us look at the Resurrection and Assumption of Saint John (B 75), so like what we have seen before, yet so much fuller in resource. The open grave in the left foreground, dark, and therefore not appealing to the eye, Giotto feels will pass unnoticed, and thus a part of the picture be lost. Hence a figure near by leans forward and peers into the grave. Psychic suggestion serves its purpose, and we notice inevitably the grave into which he is gazing. Other figures gaze upon the scene, one even shielding his eyes from the blazing rays of light, while another falls in absolute col-lapse, overcome by the startling apparition. Not only do we look where these bystanders look, impelled by suggestion, but we feel in a measure the excitement that overwhelms their fallen companion. He thus intensifies the impression which, necessarily weak in painting as compared with life itself, gains immense force from this suggestion.

The earthly scene takes place underneath the familiar canopy, through an opening in which passes the ascending figure to a little second story, small and flimsy. Here again we need help where once all was familiar. This is the device of the mediæval theatre, whose two or three storied stage represented earth and heaven, sometimes more. The ascending figure, met by the descending Christ and companions gone before, might possibly leave a doubt as to the ultimate destination of the group. Not so with this familiar device. The upper story is unmistakably heaven. It is difficult to be perfectly sure of Giotto’s detail in a work so carefully restored as is this painting, which has been but recently recovered from the concealing whitewash, but if this is anywise true of Giotto, he learned in his later days to represent the Christ with a beauty undreamed of before and seldom equaled since.

Most significant and masterly of all is the Trial by Fire (B 72) in which Saint Francis appears before the Sultan and challenges the Moslem faith to the test of fire. He will walk through the flames if a representative of the other faith will do the same. It is a familiar statement with regard to the art of this earlier time that it is objective, that we see the outward acts but that little attention is given to the minuter portrayal of the passions which accompanied and engendered those acts. Giotto’s art is not dramatic but anecdotal. The essence of the dramatic is the portrayal of situations and events in terms of the passions which are their explanation. This subjectivity in art we usually assign to Masaccio and, in fuller measure, to Leonardo. But notice these figures in Giotto’s ripest work. Saint Francis stands before the blazing fire invoking the ordeal with unmistakable confidence, while his companion, loyal, but of different nerve, shrinks with obvious cringing from a test that staggers his faith. The Sultan plainly accepts the ordeal and points the Muftis standing by, toward the fire. They are clearly otherwise minded. One is just disappearing through the open door; another is making his way as rapidly as possible toward it, while the third and last, also minded to escape, is laid hold of by the attendant, with obvious expostulation. Notice the expression upon his face. In it we can read the conflicting emotions of anger and fear. He protests against the whole affair with arguments born of the emergency, while mingled with his terror is unconcealed anger at the arresting hand of the attendant. Action and attitude are expressive, but so is countenance as well. We must wait a century and more to find another picture in which emotion reveals itself so significantly. Giotto at the last anticipates the centuries that are to come. He is the prophecy of the Renaissance, and at the best, almost its fulfillment.

As we pass briefly in review these varied scenes from the great book of life which Giotto knew so well, let us forget, if possible, their limitations, the imperfect drawing, the inadequate portrayal of the deeper passions, the shallow and faulty perspective, the meager and symbolistic setting. These things will pass, even with the plodding toil of little men. Let us rather see how utterly the mediaeval formalism, the life-repressing symmetries of the earlier art have been forgotten. Art is now servant unto life, and it is but a question of time when she shall enter into the fulness of that liberty wherewith Giotto made her free.