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The Morning Report - 07/3/19 | Main | The Morning Rant
July 03, 2019

Mid-Morning Open Thread [Kris]

Bondone Lamentation.jpg

The Lamentation
Giotto di Bondone

Giotto is one of the most important artists in Western history. He is a transitional figure, spanning the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Called “the Father of the Renaissance”, he almost single-handedly changed Western art. Antonio Vasari, a later painter and writer, wrote that Giotto was tending sheep when he was supposedly discovered by Cimabue. Giotto drew the animals on rocks to pass the time. Cimabue was so impressed by the lifelikeness of the sketches that he took the shepherd on as an apprentice. In Star Wars fashion, the apprentice eventually surpassed the master, although Vasari doesn’t say whether the younger man killed his former master in dual. As a side note, Vasari is also considered the father of modern art history. His book, “The Lives of the Artists”, is a good read for those interested. Giotto was a contemporary and friend of Dante and is praised in “The Divine Comedy: Purgatory”.

The Lamentation is a common subject in Christian art. It refers to after the Crucifixion when the dead Christ is removed from the Cross and his followers gather around crying. A more focused depiction of a Christ and Mary only is called a “pieta”. This specific work is one of many scenes decorating the interior of the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. Traditionally the most important images would go in the center. Here, the center is occupied by St. John. Instead, Jesus and Mary are in a crowd of people in the lower left. This placement throws the composition off balance and may illustrate the unbalance of his followers. For me, taking Christ out of the center humanizes him and makes his death more common. It becomes relatable. Giotto’s arrangement is innovative and would have been a shock to the contemporary viewer. A hill (Calvary?) gradually rises to the right and is topped with budding tree, possible representing life from death. Because Jesus and Mary are more hidden than usual, Giotto added the light-colored ridgeline of the hill to point them out. It acts like a big arrow that says, “Look here.”
Giotto also adds emotion to the scene, but not in the human faces. It’s all body language. In medieval art, the saints were depicted very stoically. They were above human emotion. Here, Giotto makes them react naturally; people raise their arms in shock, cradle his feet in their lap, or stand by in silence. The two figures in front with their backs to us is also new. They cover their heads and just sit there. Before, art was very frontal. It was a tableau and looked very posed and staged. Here we see people from the side, at different angles and from the back. This isn’t posed. This is very natural, and it allows us to be part of the crowd.

At the top, angels show more emotion than the humans. Scholars describe them as a type of Greek chorus; they emphasize the mood of the scene. They writhe and twist in agony, cover their faces, and pull their hair. What’s weird here is that the heavenly beings, who are supposed to be above human frailties, show more emotion than the humans. While Giotto went to great pains to make the death seem very common, as a Catholic he understands that the death wasn’t common at all. Heaven and earth mourned this death.

A final innovation is the presence of shading to create mass in the figures. Medieval art was heavily influenced by Byzantine styles. That style is very stiff, very flat and highly stylized. Giotto’s figures have real proportions and real reactions. They respond to a real situation and inhabit the space in which they’re placed. Giotto is creating something Europe hadn’t seen in a thousand years – a naturalistic art that feels alive and relatable. These ideas would be picked up and developed by the following generations and create an artistic style that would dominate Western art for about 600 years.

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posted by CBD at 09:32 AM

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