Origins of Medieval Tuscan Painting II. Giotto and the Frescoes of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

Detail of the fresco of Paradise with the oldest portrait of Dante Alighieri in red clothing, by Giotto (Chapel of the Magdalene, Palazzo of the Podestà, today the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). The fresco was discovered in 1840 behind layers of whitewash, and includes scenes from the lives of Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist (on the lateral walls), an image of Hell (on the entrance wall), and an image of Paradise (on the east wall). Of the numerous figures represented in Paradise, one is said to be Dante.

Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1267-8 January 1337) personified the new Dantesque style, with all that this word implies for the human feelings. The laws of desire and pain were portrayed in his compositions, and therefore his works had to please Dante himself, author of the Divine Comedy. Giotto could have had a close relation with Dante when the poet was exiled in Padua, but although for some biographers and scholars it is doubtful that Dante and Giotto coincided in Padua, there is no doubt about their friendship and mutual affection. In some of his verses Dante praised the painter, and in turn Giotto painted a portrait of the poet in the frescoes of the palace of the Podestá or Governor of Florence. The two also coincided in to let themselves be carried away by the passionate forces of Nature: Dante, relentless with the weak, expressed profound pity for those convicted of passion and thus in his writings he cried moved by the fraternal love felt towards his enemy Farinata in the Hell; Giotto is the painter of the Magdelene, of the Noli me tángere, of the melancholy of Joachim and Ana, and is the painter of Saint Francis.

View of the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi (Assisi) with the frescoes representing The Legend of Saint Francis.

Three details that serve to describe Giotto’s artistic sentiment are his dependence on Cimabue as a teacher, his love for the study of Nature and his friendship with Dante, which clearly indicates his interest in the living manifestations of human passion. Another peculiarity of this master, considered by some one of the greatest genius of painting of all time, is the abundance and ease of his artistic production: he worked in Assisi, in the ancient church of Saint Peter in Rome, in Padua, in Florence and in Naples, and everywhere he painted large series of original compositions, many of them fully narrative and filled with creativity and a passionate spirit.

The Legend of Saint Francis fresco cycle in the Upper Basilica of Assisi includes 28 frescoes painted between 1297-1300, thus contemporary to Giotto’s Florentine master, Cimabue frescoes painted on the walls of the transept. Pictured above are the panel No. 1 with the Homage of a Simple Man (left), and panel No. 2 representing St. Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man.
Frescoes of the Legend of St. Francis of Assisi: panel No. 3 or “Dream of the Palace” (left) and panel No. 5 with the “Renunciation of Worldly Goods” (right).

Giotto also had some strong personality traits typical of a rustic temperament. He came from the country and loved the country. His sharp speech was famous, apparently, for the ingenuity he revealed, treating authorities with unaffected familiarity typical of a peasant. It is said that the king of Naples, seeing him paint on a very hot day, said: “If I were Giotto, now I would rest for a while”. “Me too, if I were king”, Giotto replied, implying the different interest that art had for both.

Frescoes of the Legend of St. Francis of Assisi: panel No. 7. “Confirmation of the Rule” (left), and panel No. 14 with the  “Miracle of the Spring” (right).
Frescoes of the Legend of St. Francis of Assisi: panel No. 15 “Sermon to the Birds” (left) and panel No. 19 “Stigmatization of St Francis” (right).

We know little about Giotto’s first youth works; his oldest works must have been the frescoes of Assisi. This basilica, which Pietro Cavallini and Cimabue began to decorate and that later was enriched with the frescoes of Giotto, is the sanctuary of the origins of Italian painting, the true art museum of the Trecento. It has only one nave with high windows thus leaving vast open walls for painters to do their work. Pietro Cavallini had painted traditional scenes of the Old and New Testaments on the left wall. Cimabue painted the Virgin sitting among the angels on the crossing. Giotto breaking with tradition, ventured into a completely original repertoire, painting in the 28 big panels on the right wall the most culminating scenes of the life of the saint of Assisi: they constitute almost all the legend of the founder of the Franciscan Order, which by that time was being developed and had not yet been represented in art. It is easy that the frescoes of Giotto in Assisi were painted in the last years of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th (between 1297-1300), Saint Francis had died just over half a century ago (in 1226), the popular devotion to the apostle of poverty grew every day and people already claimed him on the holy altars. Giotto traced one by one, on the walls of the basilica built above his grave, the graphic scenes that form the series of the life of the poor of Assisi. The first scene represents the son of the opulent merchant, who was already beginning to depart from the frivolous life of a typical young man, being revered by an inhabitant of Assisi, who extends his cloak before him to serve as a carpet for the future saint to walk on; this is all represented in the middle of the city’s square while four bourgeois men from Assisi comment on the scene. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that Giotto himself, capable of reproducing so lively the living reality, fell short when representing the Roman temple located on the square of Assisi, since he draws it with five columns instead of six and decorates it with medieval mosaics as if it were a liturgical furniture.

Frescoes of the Legend of St. Francis of Assisi: panel No. 20 representing the “Death and Ascension of St Francis” (left), and panel No. 28 showing “The relief of the heretic Pietro” (right).

In the following panel, Francis gives his mantle to a poor man. Then there are scenes of his vocation, the dispute with his father Bondone, the dream in which Christ encourages him to sustain the Church, his miracles and preaching, his penance retreats, relations with his companions, and, finally, his death and the various miracles worked by his intercession. In all these scenes, the secondary figures express with impressive clarity the spiritual agitation produced by the immediate presence of Francis’ holiness.

The Franciscan Allegories fresco by Giotto (ca. 1320) in the Lower Church of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, painted on the ceiling of the crossing vault. The fresco represents the three Franciscan virtues: Poverty, Obedience and Chastity, pictured and explained by inscriptions on the arches of the wall. Since the work and the writings of St. Bonaventure, Francis has been conceived as the “angel of the sixth seal”. For this reason these scenes are bound within a framework whose figurative elements allude to the Apocalypse and whose central motif is the apocalyptic Christ on the keystone of the vault.

The authorship of the fresco cycle of the Life of St. Francis in the Upper Basilica of Assisi, traditionally attributed to Giotto, has been one of the most disputed by art historians since 1912. The documents of the Franciscan Friars that relate to artistic commissions during this period were destroyed by Napoleon’s troops around 1800, so scholars have debated the attribution to Giotto. Today it is generally accepted that four different hands are identifiable in the St. Francis frescoes of Assisi and that they came from Rome. But, still, tradition and many art historians have given Giotto, the best-known naturalistic painter of his period, the authorship of these works, or at the least, the credit for having designed them.

The Allegory of Poverty scene at the Franciscan Allegories fresco in the lower Basilica of Assisi.
The Allegory of Obedience scene at the Franciscan Allegories fresco (lower Basilica of Assisi).
The Allegory of Chastity scene at the Franciscan Allegories fresco in the lower Basilica of Assisi.
The Apotheosis of St Francis at the Franciscan Allegories fresco in the lower Basilica of Assisi.

Whether or not Giotto painted them, the frescoes of Assisi represented the complete creation of a new repertoire that the pious generations of artists will repeat throughout the 14th century. The Franciscan legend will be reproduced with few variations by Giotto’s disciples as it was created by their master. This only indicates the power of the artistic creation of the great Florentine painter, let us remember that in order to define the repertoire of Christian iconography, four centuries and several generations of trying different themes and iconography had to pass, from the frescoes of the catacombs, to the first illuminated Bibles and to the mosaics of the basilicas. The representation of the Franciscan legend was much more accessible: there wasn’t the great difficulty of imagining the divine figure of Christ, but as for the amount of images available, the legend of Saint Francis was also very fond of them. The first books of the saint’s life: the so-called Ancient legend, and that of The three companions, the Life of Saint Francis of Assisi written by St. Bonaventure and the so-called Fioretti or Little Flowers of Saint Francis that became the four Franciscan gospels, all popularized the unique circumstances of the saint’s life, scenes that common people were determined to see graphically represented as a parallel to the life of Christ. Giotto, the painter of those new generations, perpetuated the legend of the saint filled with love for Nature, preaching to the birds or talking in ecstasy with God himself. Dante dedicated his magnificent cantiche of Paradise to Saint Francis; Giotto, still young and somewhat inexperienced, also praised him with the same vividness in his Assisi compositions.

The Crucifixion of Rimini by Giotto (painted before 1309) in the Tempio Malatestiano or Church of St. Francis in Rimini, Italy.
The Badia polyptych by Giotto (ca. 1300), tempera on panel (Uffizi Gallery, Florence). The polyptych includes five framed paintings with a triangular cusp, and portrays the busts of the Virgin (center) and, starting from the left, Sts. Nicholas of Bari, John the Evangelist, Pieter and Benedict, identified by their names below and their traditional attributes.

To the left, Saint Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata by Giotto (1295–1300), tempera on panel (Louvre, Paris). The painting shows an episode from the life of Saint Francis when he is receiving the stigmata from a flying Christ who appears him as a seraphim during one of the Saint’s prayer on Mount Alverno. The depiction was innovative as it abandoned the Byzantine tradition of inexpressive, frontal figures. The chapels in the mount show an attempt to draw them following geometrical perspective. The scenes painted on the predella show three scenes from the saint’s life, the Dream of Pope Innocent III (left), The Approval of the Franciscan Rule (center), and the Sermon to the Birds (right). These depictions, as well as the main painting, are strongly tied to the frescoes in Assisi. The panel is signed OPUS IOCTI FLORENTINI (“the work of Giotto of Florence”).


Predella: In painting, the predella is the painting or sculpture along the frame at the bottom of an altarpiece. In later Christian medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, where the main panel consisted of a scene with large static figures, it was normal to include a predella below with a number of small-scale narrative paintings depicting events from the life of the dedicatee, whether the Life of Christ, the Life of the Virgin or a saint. Typically there would be three to five small scenes, in a horizontal format. They are significant in art history, as the artist had more freedom from iconographic conventions than in the main panel. As the main panels themselves became more dramatic, during Mannerism, predellas were no longer painted, and they are rare by the middle of the 16th century.

Seraph: (Also known as Seraphim, literally “the burning one”). A type of celestial or heavenly being originating in Ancient Judaism. The term is used in religious traditions in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Tradition places seraphim in the highest rank in Christian angelology and in the fifth rank of ten in the Jewish angelic hierarchy.