The art of painting in the Santa Croce 2/6

Giotto’s work: the Peruzzi Chapel and the Bardi Chapel 2/2

Click here for an overview of the Santa Croce: architecture, sculpture and painting.

The Bardi Chapel

The wealthy banker Bardi commissioned Giotto to paint a fresco cycle in his chapel, directly to the right of the main chapel. The story is about Saint Francis, quite fitting for the main church of the Franciscans in Florence. When you enter the church and walk towards the main altar, you will see the stigmatization of Francis on your right above the entrance of the chapel. This image is based on a vision that Francis had on the mountain La Verna, near Arezzo. (Here at Web Gallery of Art you can see Giotto’s work in the Bardi chapel and click here for the layout of this fresco cycle). Atop this mountain, our saint received the stigmata that Christ suffered at the crucifixion, pressed into the feet, hands, and into his body by a winged seraphim.

Santa Croce interior Florence

The wealthy banker Bardi commissioned Giotto to paint a fresco cycle in his chapel, directly to the right of the main chapel. The story is about Saint Francis, quite fitting for the main church of the Franciscans in Florence. When you enter the church and walk towards the main altar, you will see the stigmatization of Francis on your right above the entrance of the chapel. This image is based on a vision that Francis had on the mountain La Verna, near Arezzo. (Here at Web Gallery of Art you can see Giotto’s work in the Bardi chapel and click here for the layout of this fresco cycle). Atop this mountain, our saint received the stigmata that Christ suffered at the crucifixion, pressed into the feet, hands, and into his body by a winged seraphim.

Giotto ‘stigmatization of Francis’      Above the Bardi chapel
Giotto 'stigmatization of Francis'      Above the Bardi chapel Santa Croce

 

Bardi chapel Stories about Saint Francis’ left wall
Giotto Stories about Saint Francis' left wall Bardi chapel Santa Croce
 
Back wall
Giotto frescoes Back wall Bardi Chapel Santa Croce

Prior to this chapel, Giotto painted an extensive fresco cycle about Francis in Assisi. Here, similar to a panel (Louvre) with the same subject from his hand, the seraphim with six wings was depicted without a cross. For the first time, Giotto depicts the seraphim with a cross. And so Giotto establishes a clear link between the chapel and the Santa Croce which, as the name suggests, is dedicated to the Holy Cross. Moreover, on the altar, which now has a panel, was a crucifix. The painting that can be seen today, the so-called Bardi Dossal, was painted around 1250 (Wikipedia). It’s similar to the frescos about the life of Saint Francis. It was placed on the altar in 1595.34

In his “Life of Saint Francis,” James of Voragine tells about the miracle painted by Giotto as follows:

“In a vision, God’s servant saw a crucified seraph above him who so clearly pressed the signs of his crucifixion into Francis’ body that he himself seemed to be crucified. His hands, feet and sides were given the mark of the cross, but he kept his stigmata carefully hidden from everyone. Some people have seen them in his life, but most of them only saw them after his death

Anyone who has any doubts about this miracle must be careful, as Jacobus makes clear: ‘In Apulia, a man, a certain Rogier, who stood before a statue of Saint Francis, thought: Is it really true that he became famous for this miracle, or was it a pious illusion or a figment of his brothers’ imagination? These thoughts were in his head. Suddenly he heard a sound like an arrow shot with a crossbow and noticed that he was seriously injured on his left hand. Because his glove turned out to be completely undamaged, he pulled it off and saw that his hand showed a severe injury, a kind of arrow wound, that burned so badly that he seemed to swoon from the heat and the pain. He repented and declared that he sincerely believed in the stigmata of Saint Francis. Two days later, he begged the saint to deliver him from the pain, which happened immediately.”

In order to remove all doubt, an anecdote of a  second man is mentioned by Voragine. This man from Castile was miraculously saved from death. Francis, with his stigmata, stroked over the deadly wounds the man had sustained by a sword and behold he was healed.

James of Voragine, The hand of God The most beautiful lives of saints from the Legenda Aurea, (translation by Vincent Hunink and Mark Nieuwenhuis) Atheneum-Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2006 pages 247-248

Originally, for ordinary churchgoers, the frescoes in the Bardi chapel were only visible through a fence, while Giotto did paint it in such a way that you really have to see it when you’re standing in the middle of the chapel. The work follows a logical process. The higher the figures in the chapel, the greater the shortening from the point of view of the viewer. This makes it seem as if the chapel where the viewer is standing merges fluently into the pictorial space. The openwork architecture that runs parallel to the wall surface reinforces this effect even more. Nevertheless, this impression is toned down again because the spaces are put back into the image plane a little. This creates some distance between the viewer and the artistic space.

Apparition at Arles 1319 – 1328
Giotto'Apparition at Arles' 1319 - 1328 Bardi Chapel Santa Croce

Unlike Giottos’ frescoes of Francis in Assisi, architecture should no longer give the impression of being real or at least half true.35 Architecture is clearly fictitious. This does not apply to the clothing worn by the figures, which is contemporary. For example, in the fresco in which Francis stands before the sultan, a stage setting is used as a background. The suggestion that we are dealing with realistic architecture is no longer made here. Conversely, the monastery during the apparition of Francis to his brothers, is no more than a corridor. The ceilings in the two adjoining rooms in ‘the confirmation of the rule’ are far too low. Giotto’s invention to use architecture as a decor screen had an enormous influence on painting in the quattrocento (fifteenth century).

Trail by Fire before the sultan
Giotto 'Trail by Fire before the sultan' Bardi chapel Santa Croce

This can be seen at Ghirlandaio (Capalla Maggiore Santa Maria Novella) or Masaccio (Brancacci chapel). The useful thing about this invention is that the story comes close to the viewer. In addition, the figures can easily be painted as a kind of relief. This creates the impression that the space where the viewer is standing continues into the world of fresco.36

The fresco cycle

The whole cycle in the Bardi chapel about Francis has six scenes from the life of Francis next to the vault and a seventh, the stigmatization, on the front above the entrance. At the back wall, next to the stained glass windows, two saints are painted on each side. They are important saints of the Franciscans. Three of them can still be seen: Clara, Elisabeth and Louis of Toulouse. The fourth figure was Louis IX, king of France.

Altarpiece and the back wall
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Bardi chapel Altarpiece and the back wall Santa Croce

Three allegorical figures are painted in the four sections of the cross rib vault. They represent virtues, chastity, poverty and obedience. The Franciscan monks also had to uphold these virtues faithfully. There was also a painted bust of Francis. Only the poverty remains, along with obedience and chastity.

The left wall shows the spiritual journey of Saint Francis. In the lunette, Francis rejects earthly goods and chooses the way to the Lord. In the middle, Francis appears in a vision to his brothers where he blesses them and strengthens their faith. At the bottom, the soul of Francis is taken up into heaven by angels. The stories on the opposite wall are about the earthly mission of Francis. At the top, Pope Honorius III recognizes the rule of the Franciscans. In the middle scene, Francis was prepared to take the fire test to show that he was spreading the only true faith. And then, at the bottom, finally, is the Franciscan vision of Brother Agostino and the Bishop of Assisi. This last scene was severely damaged by an altar that was later placed there and taken away from the major restoration in the middle of the last century. Giotto has painted predominantly centralized compositions, usually focused around one building or one figure. These kinds of compositions are based on his work in Padua in the Scrovegni Chapel, and especially on “Christ among the doctors.37 

The left wall of the Bardi chapel

In the lunette to the left, Giotto has placed a cube-shaped palace at an angle to the picture plane. The building acts as a screen that connects the two groups, but also separates them at the same time. A nude Francis, partly still covered by a bishop’s cloak, stands exactly at the spot where the palace makes a sharp angle towards the viewer. Francis doesn’t look at his father. He’s visibly angry, he’s even stopped by supporters. Francis’ gaze is directed upwards towards his heavenly father. Giotto tells his story with simple but very expressive means. Thus, the nudity of St. Francis, his upward gaze, shows that St. Francis rejects earthly goods and that he wants to devote himself completely to the Lord. The attitude of Francis’ father also leaves little to the imagination.

Renunciation of Worldly Goods 1319-1328
Giotto 'Renunciation of Worldly Goods' 1319-1328 Bardi chapel Santa croce

He is angry about his son’s behavior and wants to intervene, but he only has an eye for God. The tension between the two groups that support the son or the father is further emphasized by Giotto leaving the space between them open. It is no coincidence that this open space has been placed exactly in the middle of the image plane. On both sides you can almost hear and feel the agitation. Two kids want to throw rocks. They are being held back by their mothers in a violent manner.

Renunciation of Worldly Goods detail
giotto Renunciation of Worldly Goods detail Bardi chapel Santa croce

The left wall under the lunette shows the apparition of Francis to his brothers at Arles. It is not a scene showing excitement, but it is one of calmness and contemplation. Francis appears in a vision to bless his fellow-brothers and to strengthen them in their faith. Not all monks see the appearance of the saint. The Franciscan monk on the left with his hand against his face is absorbed in his thoughts. The architecture also exudes tranquility through a balanced relationship between horizontal and vertical building elements. The muted colours also contribute to the serene atmosphere. The appearance of Francis to his followers is painted for the viewer who has just entered the chapel, so not as frontally as if you were standing in front of it.

Apparition of Francis to his brother’s detail and whole
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Giotto Apparition of Francis to his brother's Bardi chapel Santa Croce

In the death of Francis, the most important event was also put in the middle. Francis is lying on a catafalque. His followers are standing around his bed. One of the brothers behind the catafalque kisses the hand with the stigma. At the front, the clothes show a man of nobility sticking his fingers into the side wound of St. Francis. Apparently, he can hardly believe it. It is strongly reminiscent of the doubting apostle Thomas who could not believe that Christ had risen from his grave after three days and nights.

Death of St. Francis and inspection of the Stigmata
Giotto 'Death of St. Francis and inspection of the Stigmata' Bardi chapel Santa Croce

One of the monks, behind the deathbed at the head of Francis, realized that the saint’s soul is carried to heaven by angels. Here, too, there is a fictional architectural screen that connects all the figures with each other.

The death of  Francis detail

The right wall of the Bardi chapel

The top of the lunette depicts the confirmation of the rule by Pope Honorius II. Again a clear architectural background, certainly not realistic, but very effective as a division of the composition. The side rooms look like the side panels of a triptych. Francis kneels before the Pope with a scroll on which the rules of the order are written.

Trail by Fire before the sultan
Giotto 'Trail by Fire before the sultan' Bardi chapel Santa Croce

The subject of the lunette must have addressed the Bardi family, who were trading with the Middle East. In the middle sultan Almalik Alkamil of Egypt sits on his throne. He’s pointing at the fire. To the right of the throne, Francis stands by the flames. He’s willing to go through fire for his faith.

Cowards and Francis
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Giotto 'Trail by Fire before the sultan detail: Cowards and Francis' Bardi chapel Santa Croce

This is a clash of two religions, of which, of course, only one can be the true one. The Muslims shy away from the fire test. Alkamil sees all this and has to decide between fear and courage, between truth and falsehood. He has to make a decision and this is the subject of this story. As with all scenes in the chapel, the central theme is in the middle of the picture plane. The stage is clear: a long and wide stage. Francis stands upright, inflexible. At the cowards to the left of the sultan, the arms of the Muslims hang down lethargically and in resignation The figure in the yellow cloak resembles a graceful arabesque with gothic lines. In this case, however, the shapes are not decorative, but a reaction to the dark man in the white cloak. He points at the fire with his hand, but the man in yellow follows the others who scuttled out. The folds of the yellow cloak direct attention to the man who looks depressed. The heavily drooping folds of his brown overcoat reflect the depressed posture of this figure with his head bent forward. With only a few formal elements, Giotto does manage to create a rich psychological content.38

As mentioned previously, the lower scene was badly damaged by an altar that was later added and removed during the major restoration. Here, in a vision, Francis appears to Agostino, a brother in law, and the bishop of Assisi.

A comparison between the so-called Bardi Dossal panel on the altar, dating from around 1250, and the fresco cycle in this chapel shows how painting developed with Giotto. The unknown painter of the large panel has placed Francis in the middle with around him twenty narrative scenes from the life of the saint.

Bardi Dossal altarpiece
Bardi Dossal altarpiece Bardi chapel Santa Croce

This panel shows some of the stories Giotto painted on the walls of the chapel, such as the stigmatisation, the confirmation of the rule and the death of Francis. On the panel, Francis has little in common with the figures on the walls. There is no realism here, as is evident from looking at the clothing. Garments look like hanging rags of fabric that don’t fit around the bodies. Giotto had painted three-dimensional figures, as we have already seen in his altarpiece, the Enthroned Virgin and Child. In addition, the twenty narrative images on the panel are not very convincing. The landscape and the architecture are nothing more than schematics. The golden background does not contribute to any realism either. The world on the panel is clearly different from the space where the viewer stands. In addition, there is absolutely no psychological content, as can be seen in Giotto’s fresco of Francis for the sultan. It is for good reason that the chronicler Giovanni Villani, in his chronicle of Giotto in 1337, remarked as follows: ‘the most sovereign master of painting in his time, and someone who more than anyone else drew every figure and action to life.’39

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