Saturday, March 12, 2016



One of the best ways to measure the difference between Gothic and Renaissance art is to compare two altarpieces in the Uffizi Gallery, GIOTTO'S MAESTA for the church of Ognissanti in Florence (1310) and VENEZIANO'S ALTARPIECE for the church of SANTA LUCIA DEI MAGNOLI (also Florence)(1445) (next blog entry):

Both were altarpieces made for smaller churches away from the center of Florence, but the Giotto altarpiece is considerably larger than the one made by Veneziano. Both paintings are of the same subject, the Madonnna and Child ENTHRONED with saints, and both are painted in tempera on panel.
           What is GOTHIC about GIOTTO's painting? The first thing to notice is the Gothic arch in the construction of the throne. A Gothic arch in architecture is pointed, unlike Romanesque arches which are round. Here the point of the Gothic arch is reinforced by the pointed elements in the gable of the throne and in the pointed shape of the altarpiece itself.

1) The Madonna and Child are larger than the surrounding figures because they are the MOST IMPORTANT SACRED FIGURES. Giotto's Madonna and Child look like a painted version of
the statue Arnolfo da Cambio carved out of marble for the facade of the Florence Cathedral:

She is enormous, stiff, blocky, and Giotto gives her shadows under the chin and around the breasts and neck to make her appear to be three-dimensional, but because she is so much bigger than the other figures, the viewer sees her as removed from real life and holier than normal humans, in a realm by herself and up the stairs on her throne. Even her Child is similar to the Arnolfo; he blesses with his right hand and sits on her lap in similar fashion.

Both Mother and Child are large, too, because they are the most powerful figures in the scene.

2) The background of the painting is GOLD LEAF, for the gold light of heaven, and the haloes that each of the figures wear are disks of gold, embossed with tools from Giotto's workshop. The Madonna and Child are portrayed raised up on a throne in heaven, with gold leaf outlining their clothing as well. They are holy figures worthy of the most expensive materials and covered with the most expensive cloths. The Child blesses with two fingers of the right hand. These haloed creatures are extraordinary humans, not living in a human landscape.
The angels and saints on either side of the Madonna in Giotto's version are placed symmetrically, same number on each side, and the angels in the foreground bring the Madonna symbolic gifts. One on the left holds a crown because the Madonna is considered the QUEEN OF HEAVEN; the one on the right holds an incense box to keep the throne area perfumed. The two angels kneeling in front hold vases of lilies and roses, symbolic of the Virgin's purity and love. These types of altarpieces are sometimes known as Madonna in MAESTA, the Madonna in Majesty, because she is displayed as royalty.
          The child looks like a small adult and the throne is perforated with quatrefoil decoration in the windows and pointed arch finials.
          HOW is GIOTTO moving away from the GOTHIC way of presenting this scene?
1) The artist is interested in space and how to represent things being further forward or further backward in depth. His pictorial space progresses from the picture plane at the lowest part of  the painting, to the kneels of the white angels, to the first step of the throne stairs, to the green robes of the front angels, to the first section of the pedestal of the throne room, to the seated Madonna and Child, to the seat she is sitting on complete with cushion, with the saints on either side of that, to
the back of the throne room, to the rows of saints looking through the windows on either side, to the
gold leaf of the background landscape of HEAVEN.  ALMOST 11 separate delineations of SPACE!
He is obviously intent on showing his skill at being able to demonstrate the receding pictorial planes
in regular, mathematical fashion. At the same time, however, the emphasis is on the vertical, with the people who are most important being placed closest to the top.
2) In keeping with his interest in the depiction of picture planes and depth in space, he has used shadows to convey space that is receding, such as the shadows on the necks of the angels and around their knees.
3) The most interesting advance in his depiction of depth occurs in the throne ceiling and windows and in the steps of the throne.
If you look closely at the ceiling of the throne room, 

you will notice that the right side of the ceiling (painted in red and gold) is larger than the area of the ceiling shown on the left. By the same token the left side of the throne steps (the vertical part) is larger than the right side, or, we see more of the left side of the throne step in front than we do of the right side. 

We also see more of the opening of the right window of the throne and its concomitant saint's face) than we do of the left window and its saint's face. 


WHAT IS GIOTTO DOING? He is showing us more of the right side than the left in the ceiling and windows, and more of the left side of the staircase in order to convey the sense that we are not looking at the throne from the front of it, but rather from the left side. From the left a spectator would see more of the right window, more of the right ceiling, and more of the left side of the stairstep. 

For the first time in the history of Western painting we see the artist showing his awareness of the viewer of his painting. He assumes the spectator to have a position to the left of the scene, and he confirms it by having the Child face to our left and bless a person standing in that position. He is starting to think about the relationship of the holy heavenly figures to the spectator looking at them in the space of the church. His interest in space and depth means that he is observing more what happens in actuality in nature and is trying his best to imitate real recession in his pictorial world. Unlike other Gothic altarpieces, where the angels and Madonna are flat against the picture plane and the Madonna is huge, his Madonna and child are starting to look more like humans, with volume in the clothing and bodies suggested under the drapery.
          But he has not come anywhere near the mirroring of nature that is made possible with the
invention of ONE-POINT PERSPECTIVE IN THE 15TH CENTURY. We will now move on in the next blog to the Renaissance altarpiece of the Madonna Enthroned by Domenico Veneziano and see how it differs from Giotto's.
          Just remember when you walk into the Uffizi room where Giotto's Madonna Enthroned is
installed, make sure to stand slightly to the left where you can receive the full measure of the Child's
blessing,  and with it the full measure of understanding what Giotto is conveying with his large, wide-eyed Virgin on a throne full of gold. Then walk into the next room of the Uffizi to see the Veneziano altar and you will be taking on a new perspective.

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