Uffizi Sala dei Dugento: Enthroned Madonna with Child by Cimabue, Duccio and Giotto 2/2

A modern museum visitor will probably be amazed when he or she looks at Giotto’s, ‘Madonna with Child,’ and reads the comments of Boccaccio, Ghiberti or Vasari. He or she will certainly not consider this painting ‘realistic’.  On the contrary, in our view it is more like a defective reproduction of reality. The faces of Mary, her child and the angels, the hands of Mary, the gold in the background do not convince. However, it should be kept in mind that we have a long tradition of painting behind us. Artists have always made progress and made important discoveries or reinvented what had been lost since antiquity.

Giotto “Enthroned Madonna with Child” and a detail
 Large size Google Art Project
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Giotto “Enthroned Madonna with Child" Uffizi

For Giotto’s contemporaries this work was quite remarkable: Mary and the child were like flesh and blood. The world of painting before Giotto consisted of the two other panels that you can see the Sala del Dugento of the Uffizi, the work of Duccio and Cimabue. A comparison between the Virgin and Child of Cimabue and the work of Giotto shows why contemporaries were so impressed. The pupil, Giotto, had surpassed his teacher Cimabue with his enthroned Madonna and Child. What makes the Madonna and Child of Giotto so much better than those of Cimabue or Duccio, at least according to the yardstick of naturalism? What immediately struck the churchgoer of the Ognissanti at Giotto’s large altarpiece was the almost tangible lifelike Mary. She clearly has a body under the clothing. This is especially noticeable at the breasts and knees. With the other two Mary’s and the child of Duccio and Cimabue, there are just drapes with seemingly nothing underneath them. The robes look like a piece of fabric hanging down or a curtain as you often see in Byzantine art. The head and hands were then painted on the flat garment, which is how Cimabue completed his Mary with Child. Video Khan Academy A comparison: Madonna’s with child by Cimabue and Giotto (10.59 minutes)

Cimabue en Giotto “Enthroned Madonna with Child”  
details ca.1285 en ca.1306
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The folds of Mary’s blue cloak were painted very realistically by Giotto. Cimabue’s are more like decorative lines on a precious piece of woven fabric. Lines of gold form a strange spider’s web that stretches over the draperies. This web is reminiscent of light falling on the protruding parts of the folds. These golden thin lines are what the art historian, Gombrich, describes as a misunderstood and way of displaying light, translated in gold.12 In ancient times, the trick of modelling with light and dark was already known. A cloth or panel has no depth. The painter has to use all kinds of tricks to add a roundness to something that is flat. In the fifth century, Philoponos (Johannes Grammaticus) describes the miraculous effect that light and dark have on the viewer when they are placed next to each other.

‘If you place white next to black on the same plane, then from a distance, it seems that white is always much closer and black is much further away. Therefore, if painters want to make something look hollow, such as a well, a cistern, a ditch or a cave, they have to colour it with black or brown. But if they want to make something look prominent, like a girl’s breasts, an outstretched hand, or a horse’s legs [protruding folds], they add black around the adjoining area to make it move backwards and the parts in between will come forward.’

According to Philoponos in a commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorologica from the fifth century. Quoted and translated from ‘Light and highlights The Heritage of Apelles’ into: Gombrich, E.H., ‘The Heritage of Apelles Studies in the Art of the Renaissance,’ Phaidon Press, Oxford 1976, p. 5

It is Giotto who, centuries later, has been rediscovering what has been known since Plato. It was the Greek painter of Alexander the Great, Apelles, who became famous because he could use light and dark to create the illusion that some parts came out of the painting.13

‘Still Life with Peaches and Water Jar’ Herculaneum mural detail
ca. 50 v.Chr. large size

If you look at the top of the folds that Giotto paints, you can see that a colour of blue mixed with white has been used here. In the depths of the folds, however, the blue is mixed with black. This will bring the “law of Philoponos of Apelles” to life. Our eyes see the light part coming forward and the dark part moving backwards. This means that we see round folds, even though it is really painted on a flat panel. The light near the folds of Mary that Cimabue paints is made of thin lines of gold. However, gold does not have the same effect, it does not come to the foreground. Yet you can see in Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna (mouseover) that, albeit only in the lower half of Maria’s blue robe, he seems to be anticipating Giotto’s discovery.

Cimabue and Duccio “Enthroned Madonna with Child”  details
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It is clear that Giotto succeeds in depicting the head of Mary in a much more three-dimensional way than Cimabue. Again, just like the folds. Cennino Cennini, the painter who, after 1400, wrote his handbook, ‘Il Libro dell’Arte,’ for colleagues, gives the following advice for painting a face:

‘But you must follow the method I will teach you, for Giotto, the grandmaster, did it exactly in that manner.’ […] Then take three platters for three shades of fleshy colour; make the darkest half as light as the pink colour and the other two one shade lighter still. Now take the platter with some of this flesh colour and you squeeze the brush with your fingers and you form all the light tones of the face.

Then take the platter with the intermediate flesh colour and indicate all halftones of the face and also of the hands, feet and body when painting nudes. Then take the platter with the third flesh color and accentuate the shadows. Always strive to make the green earth [subsoil] shine through in the accents.’

Cennino Cennini, ‘The artist’s handbook, ‘Il Libro dell’Arte,’ Contact, Amsterdam/Antwerp 2001 (original edition after 1400) LXVII pages 111-112

Duccio and Giotto Mary
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Cennini also mentions two other ways of painting fleshy colours, but he strongly advises against them.15 Duccio and Cimabue have followed the wrong method. They also used a green background, but only one flesh colour for the face. Only then did they apply light and dark accents. This way of painting flesh colours is based on the Byzantine tradition.

Giotto’s contemporaries were not only amazed at the unprecedented realism of their time, but also looked at the saints in a strange way.16 It was inappropriate to place angels among the saints and then to have two more kneeling down. Cimabue has neatly placed his four saints at the bottom of the picture plane,  as it should be. He painted his angels where they belonged: at the top and in the vicinity of Mary and her child. The remarkable fact that Giotto painted his saints so high and close to Mary on the panel, has to do with the patrons: the order of the Humiliati.

Ognissanti exterior and interior large size
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Ognissanti Florence

Pictures: xacobeo4 and interior Marco

This monastic order with its main church, the Ognissanti (all saints), was all about humility, as their name would suggest. Angels who had fallen to a position below their value, showed their submissive position. This is exactly a quality that the son of God had also shown through his crucifixion. Precisely because of this behavior, the angels raised themselves in the eyes of their Lord.

Giotto “Enthroned Madonna with Child”
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If you look closely at the saints to the right and left of the throne, you can see that Giotto has incorporated the word Ognissanti in his representation. The suggestion is aroused by the cut-outs of the figures to the far right and left that there are many more saints behind the frame. A number of halos with only the indication of tufts of hair at the top give you the impression that we are dealing with a lot of saints here.

Despite Giotto’s revolutionary innovations, there is still much that seems rather archaic in the eyes of today’s spectator. As Vasari put it, there are still a few remains of his despised ‘maniera greca’ or Byzantine style. The golden background, the unnaturally long fingers, the almond-shaped eyes and the overtly small mouth are anything but naturalistic.

Click here for the continuation of day 5