Frescoes by Giotto. Between Icon and Renaissance Realism

Giotto. Adoration of the Magi. Fragment. 1303-1305.
Giotto. Adoration of the Magi. Fragment. 1303-1305. Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.

You’ve probably heard that Giotto (1266-1337) is considered the father of the Renaissance.

This is true. And even more. Modern European Art begins with Giotto. Before him there were icons. After him, a completely new art that lasted until Impressionism in the late 19th century.

It is difficult for a modern person to understand what is unusual about his frescoes. But when you see artworks of his predecessors and contemporaries, you are amazed. How did he manage to create this? Just from scratch!

At the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries, it was like a miracle. Crowds of people began to walk into the Scrovegni Chapel, painted by Giotto. They couldn’t believe their eyes. They saw something completely new.

Let’s try to look at Giotto’s frescoes through the eyes of his contemporaries in order to feel all its revolutionary character.

Before Giotto

Giotto lived and worked in Italy. The country was heavily influenced by Byzantium.

Byzantine Art is icons with strict canons. They echoed very well the worldview of medieval man. The main thing is spiritual qualities. Ascetic lifestyle. Fight against earthly temptations.

All this is reflected in painting. Please look at the 13th century fresco.

Unknown Italian master. Donations of Constantine. 13th century.
Unknown Italian master. Donations of Constantine. 13th century. Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome.

Flat, symbolic faces. Shapes are static. Folds of the clothes are unnatural. The horse and rider are suspended in the air. Toy architecture. After all, the spiritual component for the medieval person is more important than the bodily one. So it makes no sense for the master to depict the physical world realistically.

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Giotto’s innovation

Giotto’s innovation is best understood in his main masterpiece: the cycle of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

These are plots from the life of Mary and Jesus Christ. Size 2.5 x 2 m. 39 images.

Let’s take a look at few of them. This is enough to understand why Giotto is a genius.

1. Annunciation to Saint Anne

Giotto. Annunciation to Saint Anne. 1303-1305.
Giotto. Annunciation to Saint Anne. 1303-1305. Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.

On the fresco “Annunciation to St. Anne” the heroine receives good news from an angel. An elderly woman will be able to conceive and give birth to a girl. The future saint Mary.

For the first time, people of the Middle Ages saw an aging face. Before that, saints over 50 were depicted schematically, without any special signs of old age. Giotto approaches the truthfulness of life. Departing from icon-writing symbolism.

Left: unknown Serbian master. Icon "Saint Anne with the baby Mary". 14th century. Zagorsk Museum, Sergiev-Posad, Russia. Right: Giotto. Annunciation to Saint Anne. 1303-1305. Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.
Left: unknown Serbian master. Icon “Saint Anne with the baby Mary”. 14th century. Zagorsk Museum, Sergiev-Posad, Russia. Right: Giotto. Annunciation to Saint Anne. 1303-1305. Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.

Giotto was one of the first to overcome the flatness of figures. He gives his characters volume and weight.

Please, look at the servant figure spinning under the stairs. This is already an image of a living person. We see her volume. The woman pushed one knee aside. And folds of the clothes echo this movement.

It’s incredibly realistic. Compare her at least with St. Mary in the icon of Guido da Siena. How symbolic her folds are. How flat the figure of the saint is. Although these works are separated from each other by only a couple of decades.

Left: Giotto. Annunciation to Saint Anne. Fragment. Right: Guido da Siena (Italian master). Adoration of the Magi. 1275-1280.
Left: Giotto. Annunciation to Saint Anne. Fragment. Right: Guido da Siena (Italian master). Adoration of the Magi. 1275-1280. Altenburg, Lindenau Museum, Germany.

Another interesting point. The heroes are depicted in the interior. We see the everyday details of their lives. Shelf, chest, bench. Before Giotto, people were not depicted in the interior. But this makes the image even more realistic.

2. Meeting at the Golden Gate

Giotto. Meeting at the Golden Gate. 1303-1305.
Giotto. Meeting at the Golden Gate. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.

The future parents of Saint Mary, Joachim and Anna, met at the golden gate. The husband understood without a word what his wife wanted to tell him. In a fit of tender feelings, two already elderly people kiss.

Giotto showed the tender intimate feelings of people very expressively. Until Giotto, you will not find such sincerity of feelings. The hugs of the spouses are so tender. Their kiss is so touching.

Giotto. Meeting at the Golden Gate. Fragment. 1303-1305.
Giotto. Meeting at the Golden Gate. Fragment. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.

Note that Joachim and Anna are off-center. They are shifted to the left. In the center are women in black and white. Perhaps they are symbolic. Like, next to happiness, grief always walks. After all, we all know what a painful loss their daughter Mary will have to endure.

Here we can safely say that Giotto was the first who created the composition. He saw this scene just like that. He put a certain meaning in placing minor figures in the center.

Before Giotto, the concept of composition simply did not exist. And a medieval master would have placed the spouses exactly in the middle.

Miniature "Meeting at the Golden Gates". Minology of Vasily II. 10th century.
Miniature “Meeting at the Golden Gates”. Minology of Vasily II. 10th century. Stored in the Vatican Library, Vatican.

3. Adoration of the Magi

Giotto. Adoration of the Magi. 1303-1305.
Giotto. Adoration of the Magi. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.

Giotto departs from the gold background adopted at the time. He paints his frescoes with blue skies. This is already a real three-dimensional space. Not an abstract gold background.

His heroes are firmly on their feet. Remember how this was neglected by the masters before him. Horses and humans could “hover” above the ground.

Giotto’s heroes are also full of inner dignity. They are sincere people. Living people. Unlike the faces-masks of Byzantium.

The master makes the well-known biblical stories true, life-like. As if it happens in reality with real people.

Giotto. Adoration of the Magi. 1303-1305.
Giotto. Adoration of the Magi. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Compare “The Adoration of the Magi” by two contemporary masters. And you will understand all the amazement of people who first saw the artwork of Giotto. After all, the master seemed to explain the transcendental biblical stories in a simple, understandable language.

Left: Guido da Siena (Italian master). Adoration of the Magi. 1275-1280. Altenburg, Lindenau Museum, Germany. Right: Giotto. Adoration of the Magi. 1303-1305.
Left: Guido da Siena (Italian master). Adoration of the Magi. 1275-1280. Altenburg, Lindenau Museum, Germany. Right: Giotto. Adoration of the Magi. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

By the way, the star depicted in the sky is unusual. It is believed that Giotto depicted the comet Halley, which was visible to the naked eye in 1301.

4. Kiss of Judas

Giotto. Kiss of Judas. 1303-1305.
Giotto. Kiss of Judas. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The fresco depicts a scene of betrayal. The bribed Judas must give the guard a sign. So that they understand which of those standing is Jesus. Judas must kiss him.

Giotto. Kiss of Judas. 1303-1305.
Giotto. Kiss of Judas. 1303-1305. Fragment of a fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

In the center we see two faces. The noble, beautiful face of Christ with the correct features. High forehead. The developed neck of a healthy man. And the ape-like, ugly face of Judas. Highlighted brow ridges. Sloping chin. Small, shifty eyes.

Moral beauty is combined with physical beauty. And physical ugliness with moral ugliness. This is exactly what will be done after Giotto in the Renaissance. The beauty of the faces of noble people and the ugliness of traitors.

Remember how terrible Leonardo da Vinci depicts Judas in his famous fresco “The Last Supper”.

Works by Leonardo da Vinci 1498. Left: fragment of the “Last Supper” fresco. Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Right: The Head of Judas. Preparatory drawing for the fresco "The Last Supper".
Works by Leonardo da Vinci 1498. Left: fragment of the “Last Supper” fresco. Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Right: The Head of Judas. Preparatory drawing for the fresco “The Last Supper”. Windsor Castle, England. Wikimedia Commons.

5. Flagellation of Christ

Giotto. Flagellation of Christ. 1303-1305.
Giotto. Flagellation of Christ. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The three-dimensional figures are especially noticeable in the “Flagellation of Christ” fresco. They are heavy. Even lumpy. This is not surprising. Giotto, of course, did not know human anatomy. But he did his best to show people voluminous, and therefore real.

This fresco is also notable for something else. Please see how different the torturers of Christ are. Both in appearance and in facial expressions. Before Giotto, such an individuality was never found among medieval masters.

Giotto. The Flagellation of Christ. Fragment. 1303-1305.
Giotto. The Flagellation of Christ. Fragment. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

6. Mourning for Christ

Giotto. Mourning for Christ. 1303-1305.
Giotto. Mourning for Christ. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Drama. The grief is depicted incredibly believable. These are no longer conventional gestures, but real emotions.

Giotto. Mourning for Christ. Fragment. 1303-1305.
Giotto. Mourning for Christ. Fragment. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

It is enough just to compare it with a fresco of the same 14th century. The difference is enormous. It is not for nothing that Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian writer, said of Giotto: “He brought to light an art that had been buried for many centuries”.

Left: Unknown master. Mourning for Christ. Fresco in the church of St. Panteleimon in Nerezi (former Byzantine territory), Macedonia. Second floor. 12th century Right: Giotto. Mourning for Christ. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.
Left: Unknown master. Mourning for Christ. Fresco in the church of St. Panteleimon in Nerezi (former Byzantine territory), Macedonia. Second floor. 12th century Right: Giotto. Mourning for Christ. 1303-1305. Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

After Giotto

Giotto’s students took up his innovations. It would seem that the Renaissance is about to come. But the revolution in art did not happen. For a whole century after Giotto, Gothic dominated art.

Please take a look at the Gothic painting by Fabriano

Gentile da Fabriano. Adoration of the Magi. 1423.
Gentile da Fabriano. Adoration of the Magi. 1423. Uffizzi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Thin pattern. The nobility of persons. Exquisite costumes. Lots of characters. The picture is very entertaining. But this is a fairy tale. This is an entertaining painting. Collage of impressions. It is very far from Giotto. And very far from the realism of the Renaissance.

Only after a whole century, Giotto’s ideas continued their development in the work of Masaccio. The same veracity and vitality of emotions. Three-dimensional space. And even already knowledge of the anatomy of the human body.

Frescoes by Masaccio in Brancacci Chapel, Florence. 1426-1427. Left: Expulsion from Paradise. Right: Baptism of the neophytes.
Frescoes by Masaccio in Brancacci Chapel, Florence. 1426-1427. Left: Expulsion from Paradise. Right: Baptism of the neophytes.

P.S. Giotto was ahead of his time. He was a Renaissance man. But he worked almost 2 centuries earlier.

It can be assumed that because of his innovation, Giotto was an incomprehensible, impoverished genius. This is not true. People came in droves to look at his frescoes. Contemporaries appreciated and respected him. And they paid him generously.

They just could not yet fully understand his reforms and continue his work. This will be done by their descendants. You could read about them in the article “Artists of the Renaissance. 6 Great Italian Masters”.

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Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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