The Subject Is Francis

by theresamoritz

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Entry 4 March 20, 2013. My last post was about Cimabue and his painting of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus surrounded by angels. This week I’m going to write about his pupil, Giotto (1265-1337), described by the Louvre book as one of the founders of the Italian Renaissance and the artist whom Dante identifies in the Purgatorio as eclipsing his teacher’s reputation. Giotto is an exception to my provisional rule for the blog that I must write only about artists with one painting in the Louvre’s collection; two of Giotto’s works are there, a painting of the Crucifixion from ca. 1330 and a panel that combines four vignettes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226), dating from ca. 1295-1300. The Louvre book places great emphasis on the St. Francis panel; a sign of this emphasis is that three of four large reproductions of sections of the panel are accompanied by commentaries. The panel contains a large image of Francis kneeling before a vision of Christ on the cross and receiving a miraculous sign of holiness: the stigmata, that is, marks on his hands, feet and side that mirrors the wounds on Christ’s body. The three small images arranged along the bottom of the panel depict other events from Francis’s life: Pope Innocent III’s dream that determined him to grant Francis’s followers the status of an official religious order, the Order of Friars Minor; the official ceremony in which the pope announced his decision; and a much less formal portrayal of Francis’s work and spirituality, with Francis, revered by many today for his love of nature, preaching to a flock of birds.

The commentaries in the Louvre book emphasize qualities of imagery—naturalistic depictions of objects, individualized portraits of many bird species, beginnings of perspective—as Giotto’s contribution to Western art. There is less said about Giotto as a practitioner of medieval painting techniques or as a transmitter of Christian teaching. Even Francis is presented as something of a pioneer against a conservative church: it takes a miracle for Innocent III to decide to allow the Franciscan Order to be formed. The editors seem to me too eager to identify Giotto’s technique with the qualities they associate with the Renaissance. In pages 12 through 28, the Louvre book presents works from the 13th and 14th centuries, that is, the period bridging the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy; every painting on these pages has a religious subject. In most instances, the paintings present scenes from the life of Christ, particularly his birth, his death on the cross, and, as in Cimabue, the Virgin and Child in glory.

Francis is a notable subject in that he appears more than once in these pages, both in images like Giotto’s in which Francis’s own life story is depicted and in others in which he is one of a group of saints, or saints and donors, who are included in scenes centering on an event from Christ’s life, such as the crucifixion. Francis died only 29 years, one generation, before the birth of Giotto, and his canonization as a Christian saint came in 1228, that is, 27 years before Giotto’s birth. His appearance in the paintings could represent that advances in painting craft are not exclusively secular in origin but also reflect a desire to demonstrate the living presence of Christianity in the artist’s own time.

Giotto himself is depicted in another work from the Louvre’s collection entitled Five Masters of the Florentine Renaissance, ca. 1500, attributed to an Anonymous Florentine Painter of the late 15th or early 16th century. Of the five artists depicted, only two—Giotto and Paolo Uccello—are represented in the Louvre’s collection. Giotto is the first of the five; he is clean-shaven and wearing a headdress that reminds me of one I have seen in portraits of Dante.

Although the Louvre book presents no information along with the painting—this is the first work from the book I have commented on that is not accompanied by a commentary, there is a small amount of information on the painting on the Louvre’s website, in what is called the Atlas Database of artists, the source I am using for reproductions of the paintings I write about. The Database says that the anonymous artist might have had earlier portraits to work from. After centuries in which there was no reasonable expectation that art contained accurate images of historical characters and events, Giotto as artist and as subject is linked clearly to an awakening interest in delivering accuracy. Even here, though, I don’t see this as necessarily due to a secular impulse only. After all, one way in which artists were already including images from life in their paintings was in the practice of including in devotional images portraits of the donors who commissioned the images for private use or for display in church buildings.  

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