114 – Giotto in Assisi

Giotto, The Institution of the Crib at Greccio, 1297-1300, Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi.

I’m thinking about Giotto again for a number of different reasons. The first is that Giotto is, quite simply, always worth thinking about. The second is that I am about to embark on a short course, a series of three lectures entitled The Scrovegni Chapel from top to bottom, which is the first project of a new venture, ARTscapades, which aims to raise money for museums and galleries – and you can contribute simply by booking tickets for their events. If you click on the title above it will take you to the page for the first of the talks, which is on Tuesday 17 November between 2pm and 3pm UK time. The 2nd and 3rd talks will be on the following Tuesdays at the same time (these and other upcoming events are listed in my diary). Another reason to think about Giotto is that I was delighted to receive a copy of Laura Jacobus’s Giotto and the Arena Chapel as an early Christmas present from my wonderful sister… thank you! Just in the nick of time, you could say. I might even have time to read it before Tuesday!

But for today I want to move away from Padua, and head to Assisi, the town in which St Francis was born, and where he died. There is a sequence of 28 frescoes in the Upper Church of San Francesco devoted to the life of the saint which run along the bottom of the walls, just above the fictive tapestries. At least 25 are believed to have been painted by Giotto himself – although not everyone is convinced, with some art historians identifying the hands of at least three different anonymous masters, the Master of the Legend of St Francis, the Master of the Obsequies of St Francis, and the Cecilia Master. Having said that, there are those who believe that they were all designed by Giotto, even if he didn’t paint them himself. It’s one of those art historical problems which may never be resolved – so let’s not worry about it too much, and look at the painting instead.

I’ve chosen this image as I have often used it to illustrate the way in which medieval churches ‘functioned’. You should always be careful about using paintings as source material, though, because the artist is trying to tell a story, and not to explain the nature of ecclesiastical architecture. However, for someone like Giotto, who may himself had a hand in the design of the Scrovegni Chapel, such details were important – and the more the viewers believed that the building depicted was real, the more they were likely to believe the story that was being told. This particular narrative takes place in a church, and we find ourselves in the chancel, with the high altar to our right. It is surrounded by four columns which support a canopy. The most famous example of this type of structure is Bernini’s baldachino in St Peter’s, with its twisted Solomonic columns, so called because it was believed that the temple of Solomon had columns like this – indeed, it was believed that St Peter’s had one of the originals. However, for most medieval churches standard cylindrical columns sufficed. The structure as a whole is called a ciborium – the same name that is given to the covered cup used to contain the host during the Eucharist. The baldachino is a ciborium, as it happens, but gets this name from its canopy, which imitates the fabric that all good baldachins should have. As well as ‘crowning’ the altar, a ciborium is there to frame it, and enhance its status. Like the covered cup, it effectively protects and ‘contains’ the host.

To the left of the altar we see a lectern, or reading desk, surrounded by a number of singing Franciscans. We know they are singing, as all of their mouths are open at the same time, and it seems unlikely that so many Franciscans would be so unruly as to talk at the same time as their brothers. Lecterns such as this would often be used for hymnals, with the music being as large as possible – with all books being written by hand there would only be one for the whole choir, although they would not all read it from a distance. Much of the music would have been learnt by heart, and a choirmaster could indicate the flow of the music through appropriate gestures. Gathered around the altar are a number of clerics – the officiating Priest, for example, who turns away from the altar to look down at a haloed cleric – St Francis – who has taken a baby – also with a halo – from a wooden box. Next to the box are two animals – a goat and a diminutive cow, it seems – and nearby are a number of laymen, who appear to be well-dressed: aristocrats and successful merchants, presumably. Behind these people is a wall, and peering through a hole in the wall are a group of women.

The nature of this ‘wall’ is made clear by the features which top it, most importantly a cross, leaning away from us, and hanging from a simple support – a vertical post, held up by two diagonals, with a chain, or rope, attached from its apex to the heart of the cross. The brown colour, and the shape of the batons, tell us that this is wood, and that we are looking at the back of a painted crucifix, the medieval English name for which was the Rood. Having identified this, we realise (if we hadn’t before) that this ‘wall’ is what in Britain would be called a ‘Rood Screen’ – or choir screen. You might assume that the space beyond the screen – the choir, or chancel – was only accessible to the clergy. But no, the screen was more ‘porous’, and certain people were granted privileged access. However, it is only men who are allowed beyond the screen – the women are excluded, which is why they are left peering through the door. The same situation prevails to this day in much of the Orthodox Church, which continues the use of a ‘screen’, called an iconostasis (‘stand for icons’) to enclose the Holy of Holies. If you want to know what the crucifix looks like from the front, it was almost certainly meant to resemble Giotto’s own painting in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, which probably dates from the same decade as the fresco. I’d love to show you a photo of the back of this painting, to show you that the wooden support was put together in the same way, but I cannot find an image online… Why is the back of a painting not interesting enough to warrant this? It was interesting enough for Giotto to paint in his fresco, after all!

At the top left of the fresco is a pulpit, the idea being that the clergy could preach to the congregation without leaving the chancel. There is a staircase leading up to it, visible above the heads of the men on the far left. The word ‘pulpit’ is derived from its location, coming from the word pulpitum, meaning a scaffold, or platform – a raised structure from which to speak (I discuss all the elements of church ‘furniture’ in my book The Secret Language of Churches and Cathedrals, by the way – I’ve just edited the link to go to the new bookshop.org – supporting local bookshops rather than corporate internationals). Now, although Giotto’s intention is to tell a particular story, part of his storytelling technique is to give the narrative a convincing location, and Italian churches really did look like this. Indeed, the Scrovegni Chapel originally had such a screen cutting across what now appears as a continuous nave, and this had a pulpit with a staircase leading up to it. However, do you remember ever seeing a choir screen, or rood screen, in an Italian church? Run through all the ones you’ve visited in your mind’s eye! I can only think of one, off the top of my head, and that is in the Frari in Venice. The fact is that most choir screens in Italian churches were removed as a result of the Counter Reformation, enabling the congregation to participate more fully, as they would have greater access to the liturgy. As a result, when new churches were built, starting with Palladio’s glorious Redentore (also, coincidentally, in Venice), the choir was constructed behind the altar, so that it wouldn’t be in the way. In several churches the choir, which was originally in front of the altar, was moved behind, after an extension had been built at the back of the church. I’ve never known why the choir in the Frari was not destroyed. It is a fantastic choir, though, and maybe that was reason enough.

You may be wondering what the curious structure between the back of the crucifix and the pulpit is. Quite simply, it is part of the church, the base of a corbel supporting one of the overlying structures. Of course, you may also be wondering what exactly is going on in this fresco.

The story dates back to Christmas 1223, and was first told in Thomas of Celano’s Life of St Francis. The Order of Friars Minor (‘Franciscans’) was founded by St Francis in 1209, and Thomas joined six years later: he would have known Francis, although probably not well. His ‘Life’ was commissioned by Pope Gregory IX in 1228, the year in which Francis was canonised. This was only two years after his death, a mark of the high regard with which he was held (by means of a contrast, although St Dominic died five years before St Francis, he was not canonised until six years after). Thomas completed his first version of the biography within a year, and wrote a second, fuller version, some 17 years later. Here is a link to a 1926 translation of the relevant section, Chapter 30, of the first text. However, it seems likely that Giotto relied on the Life of St Francis written in 1260 by St Bonaventure – also a Franciscan, but too young to have known the founder (the link is to a translation from 1904).

According to Bonaventure, “It happened in the third year before his death [i.e. 1223], that in order to excite the inhabitants of Greccio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, St. Francis determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed.” From this it is quite clear that we are not talking about a conventional Christmas Crib – these are real animals, not models. Back to Bonaventure: “The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise” – and indeed, we can see all the Franciscans singing.

The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem…

A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Greccio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.”

At this point, everything becomes hypothesis. Thomas of Celano mentions ‘a lifeless child’ – but not a doll – and both say that Francis acted as if to rouse him from sleep. This is not unlike a number of Renaissance paintings in which it is clear that the sleeping child is a premonition of the future dead Christ – and in the same way that sleep is followed by waking, Christ’s death is followed by his resurrection. The message is clear. By recreating the situation of the Nativity in all its humility, Francis enabled his followers to believe in the story – and to believe in it so entirely that they could see the Christ Child himself there among them. What Giotto is doing is essentially the same: painting the narrative with as much naturalism as he could muster, to make the miraculous appearance of the divine infant entirely natural. Such is the power of art.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “114 – Giotto in Assisi

  1. Richard,

    The ARTscapades site has your lecture publicised as being from 2-3pm and not as per your post 3-4pm.

    Hope you won’t get caught out napping!!

    Eric >


    1. Thank you! I realised this and am just about to let people know! At least I got the timings right on the diary page, and on other social media sites… but glad you spotted it too.


  2. Richard, What is the correct time of your lecture? You say it starts at 3pm but the reminder notice is 2pm? And when you book it also says 2pm GMT????

    Best wishes Lillian Ibbett


    1. Yes, sorry – it is at 2pm today. In my subsequent blog I corrected my mistake, and I have also corrected it on the website, although if you follow the originally link it will still have the wrong time…


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