Important Art by Giotto
Historians have grappled with the problem of exactly what Giotto painted while at Assisi, though there is general consensus that he was responsible for this and other important frescos. Isaac Blessing Jacob, one of Giotto's earliest extant works, forms part of a fresco cycle in the Upper Church of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Sitting along the top half of the church's walls, the frescoes portray narratives from the Old Testament that were key bases for beliefs of the Franciscan monastic order. Here, the elderly Isaac is shown blessing his younger son, Jacob, as Jacob offers him food while Isaac's wife, Rebekah, watches.
This fresco reveals early versions of Giotto's technical innovations in painting: that of rendering believable space between human figures. Although Giotto creates an artificial scene by cutting away two of the walls, he also transforms the moment of Isaac blessing Jacob into an everyday event. Using axial perspective, a technique in which lines recede parallel to each other and into the distance, Giotto places the three figures here in an interior that has spatial depth; we can see, for instance, how the foot of the bed recedes. While artists had employed the technique of axial perspective since antiquity, Giotto combines it with numerous details of casual daily life to make the interior more approachable. A curtain hangs across the back of the room to evoke a private space, and the sheets over Isaac's feet are rumpled as if he has just sat up. Isaac, Jacob and Rebekah too seem more like actual human bodies. Not only do sheets and clothes drape over their forms to suggest human anatomy from shoulders to feet, but their faces have distinct contours. Isaac's face is angular and lined around his nose like the face of an older man, and Jacob's face has fuller cheeks with little suggestion of bone structure like that of a youth. In addition, Jacob's steady, concentrated gaze at Isaac complements Isaac's pensive, sideways gaze. Such humanist innovations brought a new psychological dimension to proceedings.
Giotto's more realistic depiction of human figures and their spatial relations had a marked influence on later artists, including the early 15th-century Fra Angelico and Masaccio. When painting The Expulsion of Adam and Eve in his fresco cycle for the Brancacci Chapel (c. 1425, S. Maria del Carmine, Florence), Masaccio echoed Giotto's perspectival rendering of architectural elements and evocation of emotional response (Adam and Eve bend over awkwardly with shame and grief as they walk past an arch receding into the distance). Giotto's fresco thus highlights shifts in European painting techniques that would become key for Renaissance artists and subsequent generations.
Nineteen feet high, and forming part of a choir screen, this depiction of the Crucifixion reveals Giotto's rethinking of established modes of religious representation. Earlier Byzantine artists had usually depicted the Crucifixion with a "Triumphant Christ" who stands erect and seems to look proudly out from the cross. Here, however, Giotto focuses on the pathos of the scene and thus encourages the viewer to empathize with Christ's suffering. Unusually detailed anatomical depiction of Christ's body suggests how it hangs heavily from the cross, as might an actual human body. The muscles in Christ's arms appear painfully stretched because of their sharp delineation while his stomach sags uncomfortably towards his feet. His head bows to imbue the scene with the melancholy of emotional suffering. Worshippers are invited to participate in this scene - which depicts the Virgin and St. John at the end of each arm looking inward at Christ's suffering. Since Giotto adjusted his Crucifixion to the viewers' point of view (they sit or stand underneath the suspended crucifix) the proportions of Christ's body bring added emotional gravitas when seen from below.
This humanistic depiction of Christ on the cross became the preferred mode of representing the Crucifixion for later artists. For instance, with his Holy Trinity (c. 1425-27) fresco inside S. Maria Novella in Florence, Masaccio echoes Giotto's depiction of the realistic suffering and bodily weight of Christ. Christ's body again hangs heavily from distended muscular arms, and the invitation to worshipper participation has become even more overt as a worshipper in the painting looks directly out to our space.
This work, also located in the Upper Church at Assisi, uses perspective to depict a religious space normally inaccessible to lay worshippers. A scene from Giotto's fresco cycle narrating the life of St Francis, this painting displays the saint creating the first Nativity scene, now familiar in the celebration of Christmas across the Christian world; we see St. Francis laying Christ in a manger. Giotto shows St. Francis clearly behind the choir screen that usually divided the church into space for lay worshippers and space for religious figures, such as the Franciscan monks. Not only are the white panels of the choir screen visible but Giotto further emphasizes the unusual setting through his use of perspective to create a definable space in front of the viewer. We can see how the floor is tipped upward, the pulpit recedes away from us, and the structure at the left is shown at a raking diagonal. In addition, there is space behind the choir screen since women step across its threshold and the crucifix leans backwards at a reclining angle.
Beyond its artistic innovations, as the art historian Jacqueline E. Jung has observed, Giotto's fresco offers unusual insight into the complexity of social interactions within a medieval church. To the right and left of St. Francis, well-dressed (and so wealthy) individuals in flowing and colorful robes surround four Franciscan monks in brown robes. Since the monks stand behind the well-dressed individuals with their mouths open, the scene appears to offer lay worshippers instruction in the religious event before them; they are not only allowed behind the choir screen, but they can learn by looking at St. Francis and listening to the monks. Women too are permitted to enter this area, as they stand at the threshold of the choir screen; however, they occupy a more ambiguous position: at once marginally placed on the threshold and centrally placed laterally in the choir screen. This fresco thus offers evidence of artistic innovation to art historians, and also to social historians pointing to distinctions in gendered interactions along with the approaches to the secular and divine at the time.