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.)