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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Giotto's St. Francis


St. Francis, painted during his
lifetime by an unknown artist.
It is unfortunate, but even among artists, what we know about the history of painting usually begins with Michelangelo and the Renaissance. One would almost think the man must have had to invent the paint brush before he could do his Sistine ceiling. Somewhere in the back of our minds we recall that cavemen daubed around a little, as did the Egyptians, and that a few Roman Frescoes survived Mt. Vesuvius. Then came the so-called Dark Ages, probably so named because we're largely in the dark regarding the events of this era. Of course painters were merely anonymous craftsmen during much of this time and even those whose names we know are mere vague memories from boring art history classes--Cimabue, Duccio, Giotto, Masaccio, etc.

The Homage of a Simple Man, 1290, Giotto
Probably the greatest name from this period was not at artist at all, though his life certainly came to inspire several of them. He was born in 1181 and died some 45 years later near his hometown of Assisi, in central Italy, never having traveled further than Rome in his entire lifetime. Since the year 1280, we have known him as St. Francis, founder of the Franciscan Order of friars; and what we know about him today is largely through the work of two men, a Franciscan monk known by the name, St. Bonaventure, and an artist by the name of Angiolotto, eventually shortened to Giotto. St. Bonaventure (below) wrote the book, The Greater Life of St. Francis, and Giotto illustrated it, not on parchment pages but in fresco on the walls of the church dedicated to the most beloved saint of all times.

St. Bonaventure, 1650-60, Francois Claude
The Church of St. Francis of Assisi is actually two churches, one built atop the other, the lower one, containing the crypt, used by the clergy, while the upper, newer sanctuary is used by the public. It is there where Giotto painted his extensive, 28 fresco panels, preserving in pigment and plaster the highlights of the saint's life. The figures are life-size, each space about fifteen feet square. They depict in chronological order, based on St. Bonaventure's telling, scenes as inspirational as The Homage of a Simple Man (above, right), the first in the series, to the last, miraculous Liberation of Peter the Heretic (bottom). The work began in 1290 and was finished by 1296. Giotto didn't paint every stroke. He had a large, active workshop which traveled with him. The figures are stylized, but more natural than was common for the time. The perspective is awkward, and in general quality of the work from panel to panel is uneven, giving rise to speculation that Giotto may have actually painted only a small part of the series, but the overall design as ones focus moves the length of one wall, around the back, and up the length of the opposite wall, is breathtaking in its scope, obviously the creation of a master artist. One has to wonder who is most responsible for the veneration of St. Francis down through the ages since his death, Bonaventure, Giotto, or the saint himself.
Liberation of Peter the Heretic, 1296, Giotto


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