Ok, I confess. Whenever I return to St. Francis’s hometown, Assisi, in central Italy, it is not easy to feel it’s deep, spiritual roots. Walking along the main street that leads to the center of town, there are so many tourist shops selling cheap figurines of the saint that it is an embarrassment to the saint’s legacy of non-materialism. But fortunately, there is a simple antidote to this particular disconnect. Turning down into one of the many quiet streets or alleys of the beautiful town, the soothing pink stone of the medieval buildings can quickly reconnect and prepare the spirit for a visit to Assisi’s most famous destination—The Basilica of San Francesco.
Assisi Skyline with the Basilica di San Francesco
By Roberto Ferrari from Campogalliano (Modena), Italy (Assisi Uploaded by Grifomaniacs) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
There are many reasons why tourists from all over the world flock to this grandiose and historic church. There are those who are seeking true inspiration for their spiritual journey, and others who are just checking it off their bucket list. But for the art lover, this famous basilica houses one of Italy’s most important fresco cycles, painted by Giotto. Unfortunately, many busy visitors will pass through and not fully appreciate the beauty and significance of this 13th century masterpiece. After having been exposed to some of the greatest artists in western art, such as Michelangelo and Raphael, it is easy to look at Giotto’s paintings and say, “so, what’s the big deal”?
Giotto (1266-1337) is considered the “father of modern painting”. To understand why, we must first take a step back into the medieval art of his time, characterized by symbols (icons) and lines, with no sense of spatial depth. Although medieval art may be considered spiritually rich, to those of us in the modern world, it is perceived as flat, both from a pictorial and a humanistic point of view. Giotto, brought a new artistic vision of form, space and naturalism, which laid down the foundation for the incredible blossoming of a new art form, the Renaissance.
Palazzo Pitti, Florence
To appreciate the miracle of the Renaissance, we only need to compare two paintings of the Madonna and Child. When we look at Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola (above), we literally feel that we can put our hand around the baby Jesus. How was is that Raphael could create such an amazing tactile sense of form, when only a few hundred years earlier, the great medieval artists were creating images of this religious symbol in the flat, emotionless style shown in the painting below?
Louvre Museum, France
Certainly, Raphael was a brilliant painter. But Raphael was not born in a vacuum, he was the final link in the long chain of development of form that began with Giotto. If we look at Giotto’s “Miracle of Spring” below in the St. Francis frescoes, we can see the giant step that Giotto took towards the representation of form. The kneeling figure, although maybe not as perfectly drawn as Raphael may have done, is as solid and weighty as the rocky landscape background. The figure is no longer a flat image confined by lines, but a form that actually stimulates our sense of touch.
"Miracle of Spring"
Basilica of San Francesco
Giotto also dramatically broke away from the medieval style with his advancement of the visual representation of three-dimensional space in his paintings. In his painting, the “Meeting at the Golden Gate” from the frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, there is space felt between, in front and behind the figures. For comparison, you can see how there is none of this sense of the third dimension in the painting “Virgin Enthroned by Angels”, by master medieval artist Cimabue, who was Giotto’s teacher. Although Cimabue began to make some breaks from tradition, Giotto truly stood on the shoulders of his master!
"Virgin Enthroned With Angels"
Louvre Museum, France
"Meeting At The Golden Gate", Arena Chapel, Padua
Looking again at Cimabue’s painting, we can see another defining characteristic of the medieval art language. The faces are all standardized, they all look the same, unnatural, and with no sense of the individual expression that makes us so very human. But we need look no further than the detail below from “Meeting at the Golden Gate” to see how Giotto had crossed the bridge from the world of spiritual symbolism and brought western art in the new direction of human emotion and naturalism.
Giotto put the development of art in the Western world on a whole new track, and his achievements in painting were no less remarkable than the greatest accomplishments of our favorite Renaissance artists. But this is not the only lesson that we can learn from Giotto. It is a reminder that giant leaps, not only in art, but also in all creative endeavors, begin with small steps. Can you think of other creatives who by their innovative thinking have led others into a completely new direction? We would love it if you would share your thoughts in the comments below!
If you would like to take a short virtual tour of the basilica, check out this video: