Monday, 26 October 2015

Giotto at Santa Croce, Florence

Santa Croce is one of the larger church complexes in Florence. It's also one of the most important art complexes with works still in place after 500 years. The first time I went there I got terribly excited by seeing a Giotto fresco cycle for the first time and exclaiming out loud that 'he invented art!'. Well, he did, sort of.

The church is at one end of a large square that hosts a market some days of the week. At other times it's empty and you're greeted by a rather severe statue of Dante surrounded by four lions. His disdainful countenance which is based on is death mask looks down on you and asks whether you are worthy to enter the church. I am actually, Mr Dante. So you pay your due and go in near the main altar which is very splendid but the main sight is to the right of the altar. A Giotto chapel!

The chapel is dedicated to St Francis and his followers and Giotto depicts scenes from his life and his death. It's really quite wonderful to see a wall - several walls - covered in paintings by Giotto, some so high up you can' really see the detail at all but it's all there. Giotto tried to bring a new naturalism into his art, to show people as they really were in the presence of God and his Son, his saints and holy men and women. That's what we see in this chapel, Giotto trying to bring a new naturalism to religious art.

That's what we see in the scene that depicts the deathbed of St Francis, his monks shocked and appalled at his death, hardly believing that such a holy man can have died. And Giotto tries to capture the various expressions that might happen at such a pivotal moment. How would you react to the most holy man you've ever met leaving you to join your Lord?

Some of the monks hold up their hands in shock and disbelief, some bend to kiss his hand for the last time while others try to commiserate with them. 'How is this possible?' some are muttering while others comfort themselves by recognising that their Lord has called him to His side. So many emotions in one panel of a fresco. Emotions not seen before Giotto interpreted the holy tales and painted them in this chapel. That is the power of a great artist, to make us see something we can't possibly have seen ourselves but he shows it to us. He tries to make us part of the scene by depicting real people. And Giotto was the first, the trailblazer who escaped from the previous artistic tradition and began a new journey. How wonderful.

Here are some more photos of that chapel, of that story that Giotto told for the first time. Look and marvel. And go to Santa Croce if you can - don't take my word for it.

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