Realism in Early Trecento Religious Painting

In and out of this world with Duccio and Giotto

Final assignment essay for the Undergraduate Art History Course Painting in Trecento Italy: The Age of Giotto, at Birkbeck University, London, submitted March 2016 by Glennis McGregor.

In early Trecento Italy, religious painting became increasingly infused with a sense of realism in the portrayal of the Christian story. Realism did not emerge at this time as one uniform style, but rather as a theme which shaped different artistic styles, notably those of Siena and Florence. This theme can be fruitfully explored through the painting of Duccio di Buoninsegna of Siena and Giotto di Bondone of Florence. They took distinct paths in their approach to realism, in accordance with their unique training and vision.


Realism and the mendicant movements

The rise of the mendicant orders had a significant impact on the development of artistic realism in Italy. Both the Dominican and Franciscan movements were devoted to Christ’s humanity. (ref 1) St Bonaventure, the influential Franciscan theologian who lived a generation before Duccio and Giotto, wrote that salvation required a love of the human Christ. (ref 2) To help their followers feel this love, the Franciscans in particular influenced artists to produce imagery that felt relatable on a human level, whilst retaining a sacred quality.

Duccio, Madonna and Child, tempera and gold on wood, c. 1290–1300. New York, Metropolitan Museum

Duccio’s Madonna and Child, now in New York, is an example of this combination (Figure 1). It appears to be a Franciscan commission, as the Trompe-l'œil ledge closely resembles the illusionistic architectural surrounds found in the Assisi life of St Francis fresco cycle. (ref 3)


The gold background and Mary’s solemnity retain a sense of Byzantine authority. The elegant lines of drapery and elongated features are also Byzantine qualities present in Duccio’s Sienese style. At the same time, there is an informality of touch between mother and child, stirring feelings of familial love and personal affection for the Christ child.


Love for the adult Christ was encouraged through images of his suffering, especially the crucifixion. Bonaventure believed, it is ‘because of Christ’s descent to misery, humans are able to love him.’ (ref 4)


Whereas earlier crucifixions followed eastern prototypes depicting Christ with his eyes open, triumphant over death, the Franciscans propagated a new slumped and suffering Christ on the cross, with his eyes closed. (ref 5)


Duccio’s Triptych: Crucifixion and other Scenes, is a small work for domestic devotion, and illustrates this trend (Figure 2). In the central crucifixion panel, Christ’s eyes are closed as if overwhelmed by pain, while blood gushes from his wounds, beneath piercing black nails. His body is realistically shaded, although Duccio preserves a linear grace in his elongated limbs.


Duccio, Triptych: Crucifixion and other Scenes, tempera and gold on wood, c.1302-08. Hampton Court Palace, Royal Collection

Christ’s nudity is barely covered with a skilfully rendered transparent cloth, resonating with St Francis’ renunciation of worldly goods. Christ’s shocking depiction in this artwork would serve to inflame the private imaginings of the patron. Vernacular guides to visualising Christ’s Passion in vivid detail, known as Meditationes Vitae Christi, were being distributed to lay people by mendicant orders at this time. (ref 6)

Giotto, St Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, tempera and gold on wood, c.1295-1300. Paris, the Louvre

Spectators familiar with the mental exercise of such visualisation whether friar or nun, mystic or merchant, might thus be peculiarly receptive to an image of the crucified Christ that used techniques of illusionism to present a body with convincing weight and texture. (ref 7)


As Charles Harrison explained, figures in late medieval iconography served as aide– mémoire to well known Biblical stories. If they could now be created more expressively, occupying ‘worlds of their own’, they could now express human content that the narratives contain.

(ref 8)


St Francis can be found occupying his own narrative world in Giotto’s panel painting St Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, originally made for the Church of San Francesco in Pisa.


Giotto illustrates the supernatural concept of a celestial being penetrating St Francis with the wounds of Christ. His pose, collapsed on one knee, expresses both shock and surrender. In his drapery and form, Giotto rejects Duccio’s Byzantine grace in favour of concrete volume. The lower scenes are rich in realistic detail including the coffered ceiling and Cosmati trim of a Roman papal interior, in which figures occupy a credible three-dimensional space.


Outdoors, Giotto assembles a flock of birds which appear to be carefully observed from nature. The fact that St Francis was a near contemporary person encouraged artists to include authentic details in depicting his life story. (ref 9)

Giotto, detail of St Francis Preaching to the Birds, from the predella of St Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, tempera and gold on wood, c.1295-1300. Paris, the Louvre

Narrative scenes of religious figures served not only to aid devotion, but also to instruct followers. Thomas Aquinas, an influential Dominican theologian, believed art communicated doctrine to simple people. He felt this doctrine was most effectively received when an emotional connection could be established. (ref 10) To this end, mendicant preachers often strove to inject flair into their sermons with ‘vivid tales and gestures. Colourful images would add to the spoken word’s drama, spectacle, and effectiveness.’(ref 11) For example, scenes on the front of Duccio’s Maestà relating to the Eucharist would have brought to life the concept of transubstantiation during High Mass, which took place directly under the painting on feast days. Specifically, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple is an allegory of the wafer becoming the body of Christ during Mass. (ref 12) Duccio had reason therefore, to include familiar details such as the striped architecture characteristic of Siena cathedral, blurring the division between the present moment and the Christian story).


The light of antiquity

Duccio’s use of directional light to suggest real space can also be seen in the Presentation. All scenes of the Maestà are illuminated as if there is a light source on the left, adjusting colours to depict time of day.(ref 13)

Duccio, Presentation of Christ in the Temple, from the Maestà (front), tempera and gold on wood, 1308-11. Siena, Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana del Duomo

The illusion of a consistent light source is also fundamental to the sense of realistic space in Giotto’s frescoes including those in the Arena Chapel. Here, a light source from the west at about 45 degrees appears to fall on the narrative cycle, referring perhaps to the windows on the wall of the Last Judgment. (ref 14)

Giotto, Presentation of Christ in the Temple, from the Arena Chapel, fresco, c. 1305. Padua, Arena Chapel

Alastair Smart reasons that it was Pietro Cavallini in Rome who influenced Giotto to incorporate a consistent light source. Cavallini would himself have been inspired by the 5th century mosaics he restored and replaced in San Paolo di fuori le Mura, now lost. His surviving mosaics in Santa Maria in Trastevere demonstrate this innovation, appearing to be shaded as if lit from the left. (ref 15)

Cavallini, Presentation of Christ in the Temple, from Life of the Virgin, mosaic, c. 1296-1300. Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere

Individual dramas

It is amusing to look at the expressive detail of the infant Jesus and Simeon in Cavallini’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The baby looks entirely sceptical of this moment, squirming to escape the stranger. Any parent of an infant could relate to this reaction – and to Simeon’s flustered face. Their reactions also symbolise foreboding of the ultimate offering of Christ at his crucifixion, but the charming surface drama invites personal engagement.

Cavallini, detail of Presentation of Christ in the Temple, from Life of the Virgin, mosaic, c. 1296-1300. Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere

In Giotto’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple in the Arena Chapel, the drama is intensified with Christ flailing more forcibly. Mary is more assertively stretching out her hands to take him back, as if she wants to catch him before he falls.

Giotto, detail of Presentation of Christ in the Temple, from the Arena Chapel, fresco, c. 1305. Padua, Arena Chapel

Compared to both Duccio’s and Cavallini’s Presentation scenes, Giotto’s Simeon and Anna appear more severe in their expressions, intensified by the shadows on their faces. The effect of his lighting is stronger overall than Duccio’s, creating weightier shapes and heavier drapery, reminiscent again of antique art. While Duccio lacks Giotto’s solidity and severity, he is abundant in gentleness of line and expression.

Duccio, detail of Presentation of Christ in the Temple, from the Maestà (front), tempera and gold on wood, 1308-11. Siena, Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana del Duomo

However different their modelling styles, both Giotto and Duccio are concerned with individuality of the characters in their narrative scenes.

Duccio, crowd detail in Entry into Jerusalem, from the Maestà (back), tempera and gold on wood, 1308-11. Siena, Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana del Duomo

Even minor characters in the Arena Chapel are animated and full of meaning, as John White observes. ‘Each is individual not merely in the physical terms of volume and spatial setting but by virtue of personal reaction.’(ref 16)


Duccio, in the Maestà, also breathes life into minor characters, particularly in crowded scenes such as the Entry into Jersusalem. This individuality in clamorous scenes may have been influenced by contemporary Passion plays, where familiar townspeople would have appeared in the productions.

(ref 17)

At this time in Italy, there was also a rise in popularity of sculpted funerary monuments incorporating accurate facial features of the deceased. (ref 18) This in turn may have been related to medieval knowledge of classical texts and artefacts such as Imperial coins celebrating individuality and character. (ref 19)


Heavenly irrealism

When considering realistic innovation in Italian religious art, it is essential not to lose site of the play between realism and a higher reality. Realism was important but it was not the only ambition.

The Christian story is at once worldly and otherworldly, and the creative challenge was to meld the two. Gold, pattern, and colour in particular, were employed to evoke the sacred realm.

Duccio, Virgin and Child Enthroned fromTriptych: Crucifixion and other Scenes, tempera and gold on wood, c.1302-08. Hampton Court Palace, Royal Collection

Gold and patterning

Looking again at Duccio’s Madonna and Child, their loving embrace is playfully naturalistic while the patterned gold background evokes a divine realm. The gold trim on Mary’s robe connects her to the divine, while the illusionistic ledge connects viewers to Mary. This layered connection was essential for believers who sought intercession through Mary.


In the Crucifixion Triptych, Duccio juxtaposes the realistically modelled Christ with a more decorative approach to Mary and St John. Their robes are defined with ethereal gold striations rather than naturalistic shading. This emphasises Christ’s naked humanity within a sacred context. Striations decorate most figures in the accompanying scenes, with the exception of St Francis in the Stigmatisation and Mary in Christ and the Virgin Enthroned.


Francis’ drab attire is realistically modelled, making him appear part of our world while experiencing a supernatural event. On the throne with Christ, Mary is wearing a shimmering white patterned robe, signifying her elevated status as Queen of Heaven. The throne and draperies in heaven are similarly patterned with gold, contrasting with earth tones in the Stigmatisation. Paul Hills finds that Duccio’s radiant patterns ‘divert from the representational and offer a refuge from the insistence of meaning.’(ref 20)


Giotto, in the Louvre St Francis, also uses gold to accentuate the mystical. The gold sky illuminates the ochre mountain, creating a moment of transcendence on earth. The three lower scenes include realistic detail, but nevertheless glow with a golden light, signifying the higher nature of events.


Compared with Duccio, who applies gold to backgrounds, figures, and architecture in the Crucifixion, Giotto restricts gold mainly to the background of the Louvre St Francis resulting in a less decorative effect overall.


Giotto’s blue skies in the Arena chapel are one step closer to realism. The solid azure functions like gold, however, by framing events in sacred space, matching the heavenly ceiling. Giotto uses gold sparingly in the Arena Chapel and relies more on colour to balance realism with spirituality.

Extraordinary colour

Giotto and Duccio both employed bright saturated colours, having inherited ideas of medieval aesthetes such as Abbot Suger. He believed that ‘sensory impressions derived from bright colours drew the onlooker from the material to the immaterial, bringing the divine into human life.’ (ref 21)


With a limited palette of saturated hues to play with, artists used repeating patterns of alternating colour, pleasingly balanced in an abstract sense, like stained glass. This effect is known as isochromaticism. (ref 22)


Duccio’s symmetrical approach to colour in the Crucifixion Triptych is a lovely example of isochromatic pattern. In Virgin and Child Enthroned, an alternating patchwork of colours decorates the angels and throne. If the image were folded in half, it would be an almost perfect mirror. But Duccio has played with the sequence of red and blue on the lower angels, offsetting the imbalance of these colours on Mary and Christ. The result is a sense of a higher order of beauty: perfectly balanced, yet defying simplistic rules.


In the Arena Chapel, Giotto creates symmetry of robe colours between The Pact of Judas and The Visitation, located on either side of the Chancel Arch. In The Pact there is an avaricious exchange between Judas draped in menacing yellow and the Priest in ostentatious red, while the secondary characters are in cool tones of purple and green.


In The Visitation there is a loving embrace between Elizabeth in warm ochre and Mary in a dalmatic red robe. (ref 22) The secondary characters are again draped in cool blues and green. In these paired scenes, Giotto manages to convey opposite spiritual morality with a reordered colour mirror.

left: Giotto, The Pact of Judas, from the Arena right: Giotto, The Visitation, from the Arena Chapel, fresco, c. 1305. Padua Chapel, fresco, c. 1305. Padua

Without extraneous decoration, there is an austerity to Giotto’s scenes, which intensifies the sense of real space and emotional drama within. On another level his use of bright, isochromatic colour creates a kaleidoscope dream world, beyond reality. While it may be tempting to judge Duccio’s style less progressive in its realism than Giotto’s, they both rendered a story at once terrestrial and heavenly, with stunning power and beauty.


In early Trecento religious art, the use of gold, pattern and colour provided a departure from realism and a layer of mysterious meaning. While realistic illusion had great power to touch the humanity of Christian followers, irreality was essential to help them transcend it.



References

  1. Holly Flora, ‘Order, gender and image: art for Dominican and Franciscan women’ in Sanctity Pictured, The Art of Franciscan and Dominican Orders in Renaissance Italy, ed. by Trinita Kennedy (Nashville: Frist Centre for the Visual Arts and Philip Wilson Publishers, London, 2014), p. 69.

  2. Amy Neff, ‘Painting, devotion, and the Franciscans’ in Sanctity Pictured, ed. by Trinita Kennedy, p. 44.

  3. Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Online Collection, Madonna and Child [accessed 02 March 2016]

  4. Neff, p. 38.

  5. Hans Belting, ‘Norm and Freedom: Italian icons in the age of the Tuscan cities’ in Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art, ed. by Hans Belting and Edmund Jephcott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 358.

  6. Joanna Cannon, ‘Giotto and Art for the Friars: Revolutions Spiritual and Artistic’ in The Cambridge Companion to Giotto, ed. by Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 121.

  7. Ibid., p. 122.

  8. Charles Harrison, ‘Giotto and the ‘rise of painting’ in Siena, Florence, and Padua: Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400, Vol. I: Interpretive Essays, ed. by Diana Norman (London: Open University and Yale University Press, 1995), p. 88.

  9. Ibid., p. 88.

  10. Cannon, p. 124.

  11. Neff, p. 42.

  12. Diana Norman, ‘A nobel panel’: Duccio’s Maestà’ in Siena, Florence, and Padua: Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400, Vol. II: Case Studies, ed. by Diana Norman (London: Open University and Yale University Press, 1995), p. 71.

  13. Ibid., pp.74-75.

  14. Paul Hills, The Light of Early Painting (New Haven & London: Yale University Press 1990), p. 43.

  15. Alastair Smart, The Dawn of Italian Painting 1250-1400 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1978), pp. 22-26.

  16. John White, Art & Architecture in Italy 1250-1400 (London: Pelican, 1987, 2nd edition), pp. 327-328.

  17. Smart, p. 44.

  18. Diana Norman, ‘Astrology, antiquity and empiricism’ in Siena, Florence, and Padua: Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400, Vol. I: Interpretive Essays, ed. by Diana Norman (London: Open University and Yale University Press, 1995), p. 197.

  19. Ibid., p. 198.

  20. Hills, p. 98.

  21. John Gage, Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995), p. 64.

  22. Marcia B. Hall, Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 21-22.

  23. Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, The Usurer's Heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), pg. 73.



Bibliography

  • Belting, H., ‘Norm and Freedom: Italian icons in the age of the Tuscan cities’ in Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art, ed. by Hans Belting and Edmund Jephcott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)

  • Cannon, J., ‘Giotto and Art for the Friars: Revolutions Spiritual and Artistic’ in The Cambridge Companion to Giotto, ed. by Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

  • Derbes, A. and M. Sandona, The Usurer's Heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008)

  • Flora, H., ‘Order, gender and image: art for Dominican and Franciscan women’ in Sanctity Pictured, The Art of Franciscan and Dominican Orders in Renaissance Italy, ed. by Trinita Kennedy (Nashville: Frist Centre for the Visual Arts and Philip Wilson Publishers, London, 2014)

  • Gage, J., Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995)

  • Harrison, C., ‘Giotto and the ‘rise of painting’ in Siena, Florence, and Padua: Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400, Vol. I: Interpretive Essays, ed. by Diana Norman (London: Open University and Yale University Press, 1995)

  • Hills, P., The Light of Early Painting (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1990) Hall, M., Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

  • Kennedy, T., ‘Catalogue’ in Sanctity Pictured, The Art of Franciscan and Dominican Orders in Renaissance Italy, ed. by Trinita Kennedy (Nashville: Frist Centre for the Visual Arts and Philip Wilson Publishers, London, 2014)

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, Collection, Madonna and Child [accessed 02 March 2016]

  • Musée du Louvre, Paintings, ‘St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata’ < http:// www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/st-francis-assisi-receiving-stigmata> [accessed 02 March 2016]

  • Neff, A., ‘Painting, devotion, and the Franciscans’ in Sanctity Pictured, The Art of Franciscan and Dominican Orders in Renaissance Italy, ed. by Trinita Kennedy (Nashville: Frist Centre for the Visual Arts, 2014)

  • Norman, D., ‘Astrology, antiquity and empiricism’ in Siena, Florence, and Padua: Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400, Vol. I: Interpretive Essays, ed. by Diana Norman (London: Open University and Yale University Press, 1995)

  • Norman, D., ‘A nobel panel: Duccio’s Maestà’ in Siena, Florence, and Padua: Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400, Vol. II: Case Studies, ed. by Diana Norman (London: Open University and Yale University Press, 1995)

  • Royal Collection Trust, Collection, Triptych: Crucifixion and other Scenes [accessed 02 March 2016]

  • Smart, A., The Dawn of Italian Painting 1250-1400 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1978)

  • White, J., Art & Architecture in Italy 1250-1400 (London: Pelican, 1987, 2nd edition)


43 views

© 2020 by Glennis McGregor