When TIME Magazine tried to wrap up the millennium in 2000 with a series of special issues, they decided to name the most significant figure of each century. Only one artist rose to that stature—Giotto, who died January 8, 1337.[*] Writing of TIME’s Man of the 14th Century, Johanna McGeary said, “We who are jaded by the unnatural deconstructions of 20th century art cannot easily imagine the electric impact Giotto made by painting natural human figures that reached out of their frames to communicate directly with the observer. This was not simply a marvel in a superstitious age but also the artistic birth of the Renaissance. Giotto fathered a radical revolution of startling genius that set the course of Western art for the next 600 years.” Just as Francis of Assisi infused a new sense of humanity into the Catholic Church in the 13th century, Giotto infused a new humanity into painting in works such as The Stigmatization of St. Francis (above, from 1297-1300), which shows the unreal moment of stigmatization yet retains a sense of the human drama lost in much of the religious art that went before. Giotto shows Christ himself bestowing the “gift” upon St. Francis, bringing a human touch to the divine proceedings.
Many consider the frescoes depicting the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary in The Scrovegni Chapel (aka, the Arena Chapel) to be Giotto’s masterpieces. The Kiss of Judas (above, from 1304-1306) shows the frantic chaos surrounding the scene in which Judas betrays Christ with a kiss before the Romans take him away. In the middle of all the action, Christ and Judas face off intimately, a still showdown of wills like the calm eye of a hurricane. Judas envelops Christ with his cape, covering over their bodies and thus accentuating their faces shown in profile. Here, the genius of Giotto to take that riotous scene and boil it down to the silent force of exchanged stares rings powerfully across the centuries. Such psychological acuity garnered praise from the poets Dante and Boccaccio, contemporaries and countrymen of Giotto, who recognized the poetry of the master’s paintings.
I remember the first Giotto I ever saw in person—the Madonna and Child (above, from 1320-1330) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. So many depictions of the Christ child make him almost monstrously adult, staring out of the painting with eerily knowing eyes. Giotto’s baby Jesus realistically turns to his mother, and even more realistically reaches for the flower in her hand (probably to put it in his mouth), forging a realistic, humanist link—the first embers of the fiery humanism that would blaze throughout the Renaissance and into modern art. Paradoxically, we know little of the humanity of this quintessential artist of humanity. Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, as he so often does, paints a mythic image of Giotto. Cimabue, Giotto’s great predecessor, discovers Giotto drawing pictures on rocks of the sheep he was shepherding. Later, Giotto paints a fly on the wall so realistically that Cimabue tries to shoo it away. When the Pope sends a messenger to ask for a sample of Giotto’s artistry, Giotto paints a perfect circle freehand and hands it to the messenger. Sadly, all these myths do not add up to a man. Instead, I prefer to find the ground-breaking mind and spirit in the works themselves, which question all ideas of progress as a function of time moving forward. To look back at Giotto is to see not only that the past was far from primitive but also to realize that, in many ways, the past was more sophisticated and enlightened than today.
[*N.B.—I’ve decided to stretch my policy of recognizing artists only on their birthday to recognize artists on the day that they died when that birth date is unknown. How could I possibly pass up Giotto?]