It has been a longtime dream of mine to visit Assisi and to see the Basilica of St. Francis where the Upper Church is decorated with frescoes painted by Giotto and his assistants around 1290 AD; we had the good fortune to spend a few days in Assisi in September prior to the workshop I taught in Tuscany. The Upper Church is divided between the upper gallery, where most of the frescoes are by Cimabue, and illustrate stories from the Bible (this was painted first), and the lower gallery where the life of St. Francis (painted by Giotto) is retold in such a way that it relates to each of the images from the upper gallery. St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, seen to the left, is probably the most famous fresco and it is reproduced widely.There are so many things I love about this fresco--the gesture of St. Francis, the birds in flight and on the ground, much as they might appear if you saw them in nature, the tranquil natural backdrop, probably depicting Monte Subasio in the distance, and the oak trees that grow there. St. Francis had a profound impact on almost every aspect of Western thought and culture, including painting. Cennino Cennini wrote that Giotto "changed the art of painting from Greek to Latin, and ushered in the modern". And what inspired Giotto? According to Elvio Lunghi, to bring about this transformation required a "maturation of a less pessimistic vision of earthly life that was in great part inspired by the love that St. Francis felt for all creatures." Giotto's work is much more naturalistic and realistic than artists who came before him. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Timeline describes his work as volumetric, rather than linear. The Greek, or Byzantine style that had dominated Italian painting was much more linear and described a spiritual world that did not need to refer to anything familiar or real--it was much more symbolic. Giotto made figures three dimensional, with brushstrokes that sculpted and created lights and darks. Perhaps most noticeable are the very human expressions that he gave to his faces, and emotions that we can still recognize and respond to 7 centuries later.
To the right is a breathtaking crucifixion scene by Giotto, also painted early in his career. We visited Florence briefly on our way home and got to see the church of Santa Maria Novella where this astonishing work of art hangs, almost 9 feet tall. It really did take my breath away--the tenderness of the portraits, the sumptuousness of the colors against the somber dark background--in Florence only Fra Angelico's frescoes in San Marco are as profoundly beautiful. I understood that the modeling of the body of Jesus in this portrait heralded the Renaissance artists who later portrayed the human body in all its strength and sometime frailty. Here there is no fear of the body, but more a sense of identification with it. The impact of this work is so immediate, I definitely count it among my favorite works of European art. Donatello's Mary Magdalen in the Museo del'Duomo in Florence is another. The sculptures of the founder figures in Naumberg Cathedral in Germany are others--these works stop you--there is no way you can walk on without a deep response. What strikes you in these works is the humanity in each of the figures.