Giotto (Early Renaissance)

Location: Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi                                                                                                                                                                                  Artist: Giotto                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Date: 1311-1320                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Medium: Fresco

Giotto’s fresco of the Flight into Egypt can actually be found in two locations: the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, which I am focusing on here. This depiction is regarded to be the superior one by many.

The composition of the painting is intriguing, as it demonstrates conflict of dynamic forces throughout. Characteristically of Giotto, the scene has visible weight and the characters are firmly within the bounds of gravity (Wilkins, Schultz, and Linduff). Thus it is tempting to look at the picture and see the scene moving at a snail’s pace, though hardly at a standstill—they are on a journey, after all. Joseph leads, and is granted a halo for his part, with Mary and Jesus on a donkey behind him. He has a somewhat plodding demeanour about him, but two angels directly above him contradict his earthly weakness. These youthful, divine beings seem to drive the scene at a much quicker pace than the slow, gravity-bound movements of the holy family imply. Joseph seems somewhat old and bent, at a direct contrast with the child-featured angels. Perhaps this is Giotto setting the perfection and strength of the divine against the feebleness of man’s feeble frame.

Flight into Egypt, Giotto. San Francesco, Assisi. An early Renaissance work.

Giotto's "Flight into Egypt" from his frescoes in the Lower Church of Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy.

There is a clear interaction between the figures in the fresco: as Joseph leads the donkey along Mary holds her baby and looks ahead at Joseph; and one of the two anonymous figures in the back lays a hand on the donkey’s rump. Giotto makes certain that all of the characters are connected to each other: from the white-robed person in the back to Joseph in front they form a living chain, Mary and Jesus in the dead center. The setting of all of them in the foreground is reminiscent of non-perspectival Byzantine art, but the dynamism in the characters’ interaction and motion is a very new development.

This work demonstrates how Giotto is departing from the impersonal Byzantine style and leading art into a new era, one that focuses more on natural movement and human form than on the transcendent and ultra-symbolic (Infoplease), and though the characters in the painting are not fully three-dimensional just yet, they are nonetheless recognizable and have distinct physical presence. Contrast that with earlier Byzantine art (see the Flight to Egypt depicted in the Florence Baptistery), where the characters tend to be static and seem to take almost no notice of each other. The sense of scale in Byzantine art is subjective, while Giotto takes care to give the objects their correct stature and natural physical features. The sideways-marching profile view of the scene is still very much Byzantine, but Giotto, even in this, one of his earliest known works, is making great strides towards what will eventually turn into high Renaissance art.

The development of art from the highly symbolic and abstracted Byzantine style is especially visible in the juxtaposition of the two paintings we have examined thus far (below). They both depict the same scene in different styles, and viewing the flat, motionless Byzantine work is a very striking way to note even the relatively minor evolution represented by Giotto’s work in San Francesco. St Francis’ mystical focus on nature and God’s world is reflected all throughout the church built in his honour, from the cavernesque feel of the lower church to the stars painted on the ceiling of the higher one. It is only fitting that this increasingly naturalistic art reflect the physical form of God’s creation in the way that St Francis himself so appreciated it.

Byzantine and Early Renaissance renditions of the Flight into Egypt

Sources Used

“Frescoes in the Lower Church.” Web Gallery of Art, Image Collection, Virtual Museum, Searchable Database of European Fine Arts (1000-1850). Web. 07 Apr. 2012. <http://www.wga.hu/html_m/g/giotto/assisi/lower/index.html&gt;.

“Flight into Egypt.” Giotto. Web. 07 Apr. 2012. <http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/giotto/flight-into-egypt-1&gt;.

“Giotto: Style and Influence.” Infoplease. Infoplease. Web. 07 Apr. 2012. <http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0858414.html&gt;.

Wilkins, David G., Bernard Schultz, and Katheryn M. Linduff. Art Past, Art Present. 6th ed. Upper  Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008. Print.

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