26 December 2013

Art for Christmas (2): ‘Saint Stephen’
by Giotto di Bondone

Saint Stephen, by GIotto di Bondone

Patrick Comerford

This morning in the Calendar of the Church we remember the martyrdom of Saint Stephen [26 December]. It is an important that this day follows Christmas as reminder that there is a Cost of Discipleship, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and that there can be no such thing has cheap grace.

My choice of a work of art for today, the second day of Christmas, is a painting of Saint Stephen by the great Florentine painter and architect GIotto di Bondone (1267-1337). Giotto painted this wood panel in tempera on ca 1320-1325. It measures 84 x 54 cm, and is in the Museo Horne in Florence.

This wood panel, which is in good condition, was originally part of a polyptych that is now scattered through several museums. The central panel of the Madonna is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and other panels can be seen in the Musée Jacquemart-André in Chaalis.

Giotto paid close attention to the transparency of the colours on this panel of Saint Stephen. These colours were applied with delicate brushstrokes that reveal Giotto’s awareness of the increasingly fashionable Gothic style.

Saint Stephen is dressed in a deacon’s dalmatic and carries a bound book. Although the tone is not worldly or courtly, there is a feeling that Giotto is challenging his contemporary, Simone Martini of Siena.

Dante regarded Giotto as the leading artist of his day. He is the first in a line of great artists who contributed to the Italian Renaissance, and he influenced Renaissance painters such as Masaccio, key figures in the High Renaissance, including Raphael and Michelangelo, and later the Pre-Raphaelites in Victorian England.

His work is marked by his clear, grave, simple solutions to the problems of representing space and the volume, structure, and solidity of three-dimensional forms, especially the human form. He got to the heart of events in Biblical and Church history so he could express their inner spiritual meaning in simple ways.

His frescoes of the Life of Saint Francis on the lower walls of the Upper Church of San Francesco in Assisi were probably paint in the mid-1290s, and mark the early work of Giotto.

His mosaic in Rome of the Navicella (ca 1300) was regarded as his most important work. But it is now cut-down and a shadowy echo of its former glory.

His signed altarpieces include the Stigmatisation of Saint Francis (The Louvre, Paris), the Baroncelli Altarpiece (Santa Croce, Florence) and the polyptych of the Madonna and Saints (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna). His other great works include the Ognissanti Madonna (The Uffizi, Florence), the Dormition of the Virgin (Berlin) and a Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

But his greatest masterpiece must be the frescoes in the Arena Chapel, Padua (ca 1304-1313), depicting scenes from the lives of Saint Joachim and Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary, and from the Life and Passion of Christ. These frescoes are unsigned and undocumented, as are his Life of Saint Francis and his Lives of Saint John Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist in the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels and in Santa Croce, Florence.

The Campanile or “Giotto’s Tower” at the cathedral or duomo in Florence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the last years of his life, Giotto was commissioned to design the Campanile or “Giotto’s Tower” at the cathedral or duomo in Florence. He died in Florence in January 1337, and may have been buried in duomo, although other sources, he was buried in the Church of Santa Reparata. He is represented among the many statues outside the Uffizi.

When he died, he had only finished the lower floor of the bell tower with its marble external revetment: geometric patterns of white marble from Carrara, green marble from Prato and red marble from Siena. But this work made Giotto, along with Brunelleschi and Alberti one of the founding fathers of Italian Renaissance architecture.

Tomorrow: ‘The Vision of Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos,’ by Correggio.

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