St Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Giotto


This is a big painting – over three metres high and one and a half metres wide. No doubt it is more impressive in the flesh than viewed as a print in a book. Is this an example of a painting that is totally anachronistic in today's world? Surely no amount of special pleading or discussion about symbolism, form and content and conventions of the day can rescue it from its exclusive supernatural fantasy, can it? Well, I'll have a try but it will be uphill work. Lets, for the time being, forget about the absurd seraphim levitating above the rocks – my poem about laser beams has already poked fun at this – perhaps we could put a positive spin on the stigmata phenomenon by saying it is an extreme case of someone empathizing completely with someone else's suffering. And for all that, the seraphim-Christ could be a vision, in fact in all probability is, instead of seemingly located in the sky. (We should keep this depiction of visions in mind throughout the rest of the book.)




I recently listened to an art historian talking in hushed tones about the wonderful three-dimensional illusion of St Francis' robes in the Giotto fresco. Okay, it is an advance on Byzantine flatness and the saint is the most naturalistic part of the painting – not bad for around 1300. Ahead of his time?




The predella ( that's the oblong bit at the bottom of the main image) depicts three scenes from the saint's life – Pope Innocent III witnessing St Francis holding up the church when it is about to collapse, the Church approving the Franciscan Order and the saint preaching to the birds. Now, I can warm to the latter. As a keen birder, I can identify chough, geese, cockerel and magpie I think. St Francis has been adopted by the Green movement today and we certainly need to value and care for all living things and stop destroying habitats before we destroy the Earth itself. The separation of humankind from the rest of life was given a huge boost by Christianity, with its philosophy of 'have dominion over the beasts of the earth.' Eastern religions have been historically more holistic and inclusive and viewed all life as 'one.'




There, I told you it would be a struggle, but I've found something that is relevant today, and for the future, after all.




Bellini painted St Francis in the Desert over a hundred years later and the difference vividly illustrates the development of Renaissance artistic sensibility. Gone are the laser beams and seraphim; instead we have a human being standing in a believable landscape. The plants he paints are recognizable by species and perspective is skilfully handled. 'Down to earth' is an overused metaphor (cliché) but is supremely relevant in this context. (I am not however falling into the Vasari trap of imagining all Byzantine art is inferior to Renaissance art.)








St George and the Dragon, Uccello

This is a small painting and a vast improvement on an earlier version now in Florence. In that earlier (1435?) one the perspective is awkwardly flattened and the dragon looks like a comic-cut-out version of a child's dragon.If you visit the National Gallery in Britain to see this painting you may be surprised at how small it is and also note that the colours are more muted than shown in many reproductions.This painting has a decidedly surrealist feel; almost as if Salvador Dali had had a hand in the scene. Everything is stylized – the cave looks sculpted but not by geological forces. St George is hardly the brave macho knight in shining armour; more a pale-faced pre-adolescent boy, all skin and bone.In spite of the picture's many oddities, as I have allude to in my poem, it is an early masterpiece of virtuosic composition and shows a command of linear perspective – the grassy parallelograms give a vanishing point somewhere in the middle of the sky. The dragon here steals the show; at least to our eyes it is read as a brilliantly compact design. Was Uccello thinking of bat's wings when he experimented with the shapes, and a snake or lizard for the mouth?As I wrote in my poem, triads feature a lot in the composition; three figures, a triangular cave entrance interlocking with the pyramidal shape of the dragon and a large triangle formed by the lance. Commentators on this painting have alluded to the cloud in the top right corner being supernatural and hence contributing to the overpowering of the dragon (the knight comes from the same direction) – the dragon symbolizing paganism. Another interpretation is that the dragon is the evil potential within each of us. In that case I prefer the Buddhist admonition against killing – in Buddhist art the  'beast' is tamed or converted rather than killed. I will explore this important theme in Sassetta's The Wolf of Gubbio - and in works by other artists.


Gates of Paradise, Ghiberti

There are eight scenes on panels measuring 80cm by 80cm, depicting stories from the Old Testament. The complete door is a technical and artistic achievement causing Michelangelo, no less, to say, “They are so beautiful they would grace the entrance to Paradise.”  The one I've composed a poem about is the Garden of Eden. Let's pass over the anachronistic imagery for a moment and admire the composition and the different levels of relief – the figures more rounded for example than the serpent which is depicted in shallow relief.  The modelling of the nude figures not only looks pristine but shows a realism almost on a par with Leonardo and Michelangelo. The myth of the Garden of Eden has always puzzled me. On one level I can relate to the Romantic idea that self-consciousness resulted in a disharmony with the rest of nature along Wordsworth's lines of 'trailing clouds of glory.' With knowledge of good and evil mankind becomes manipulative and devious. On the other hand the myth can be seen as representing the birth of Free Will in humankind which is, on balance, a positive thing, but of course also the whole reason why evil exists. (Um, perhaps there's more to Christian theology, after all.)  If the story emphasises how important it is to be obedient to our deeper, authentic selves, then I can go along with it. (When I was a child and asked my mother, 'What is God?' she replied 'Your conscience!') I often look at my cat and realise the main thing which distinguishes us from each other is the moderate amount of free will I have. (Yes, I know the likes of Stephen Pinker say we have very little free will, but compared to cats we have the capacity to change ourselves for the better (as well as the potential to do harm). Also, no animal can commit evil or 'do good for others' (be altruistic) – or can it? Maybe some of the other primates have a conscience and maybe even cats, if you saw the You-Tube clip of the cat protecting the seven-year-old boy who was being attacked by a dog. Oh dear, I think I'd better stop before I argue against myself. It just shows, things aren't as simple as we think - although until bonobos start strapping on suicide vests we can probably say non-human animals are not capable of the gross evil that we are capable of.  Back to the bronze panels.The material is gilded bronze which means that the bronze surface was covered with a paste of powdered gold and mercury which was fired at a relatively low temperature. The mercury is burned off leaving the gold fused to the bronze surface without melting or destroying the sculpture-relief.Lorenzo Ghiberti was awarded the commission in preference to Brunelleschi in a competition to cast one trial piece. Ghiberti impressed the judges with his depiction of Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac. You can get some idea of the technical challenge when you know the doors took 25 years to complete.At this time in the west there wasn't the same distinction that we make nowadays between fine art and crafts. A goldsmith's work was often regarded as superior to a fresco painter's. This was partly to do with the materials used; gold, silver, diamond, pearls and other gems were employed in artefacts to give them value. Also at this time, artisans, sculptors, architects, metalworkers, wood-carvers and painters would work together and were often multi-skilled.

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Two brothers are reunited at their father's funeral after twenty years apart. As the police begins to look into the murder of their father and try to find out what happened it becomes clear that not everyone is telling the truth and buried family secrets start to be revealed."