Driving in Umbria IV (Giotto I)
Bill Long 7/15/06
A Vist to Assisi and Gubbio
On the final full day that we had a rental car (July 2), we drove to Assisi and then Gubbio, in the Northern parts of Umbria. It was a Sunday, and we arrived at the Church of San Francesco (Saint Francis) just as the Mass was concluding. This and the next two essays will focus only on the 28 Frescoes of Giotto depicting the life of St. Francis, which are in the Upper Church. This essay will provide the overview of the frescoes, while in the next two essays I explore some of better and lesser-known frescoes. I will close these essays with a dream that I had about Gubbio, on the night (July 4) that we returned from Italy.
Getting Acquainted with the Frescoes
If Ghiberti's Baptistery doors and Brunnelleschi's Dome were the signal contributions to Italian art and architecture in the early 15th century, the Frescoes of Giotto were the central artistic contribution of the early 14th century. Painted by Giotto de Bordone (1266-1337)[though this is still debated by some], a pupil of Cimabue during the 1280s and then, from 1290-1304, commissioned to portay the life of St. Francis for the Church, these frescoes were the first attempt to portray a full life's story in art. Francis had only been dead about 65 or so years when Giotto began his task, and the stories of his sanctity were still uttered by people who knew Francis or, at least, knew of people who knew him. Yet, the frescoes were not taken from the oral traditions but from the "approved" tradition that had already been codified by Bonaventure in his 1263 Legenda Maior S. Francisci. Thus, the frescoes instantiated in art what had been circulating in writing for about a generation. One other point. Though all 28 frescoes are called the frescoes of Giotto, he only painted the first 21 himself and assigned the remaining 7 to his pupils.
Before going on to an overview of the 28 Frescoes, I want to muse about one point. St. Francis became such a "big name" so quickly because he had so many people celebrating his name in interesting ways. Within two generations of his death he had a biographer and the leading artist of his day sing his praises through different media. But Benedict of Norcia (ca. 480-543) had no one to tell his story. It may be the accident of time and the brilliance of the Franciscan publicity effort that makes St. Francis a household word for Americans (even non-religious Americans), while St. Benedict is only known by some Catholics.
This situation is reminiscent of an apocryphal story attributed to Alexander the Great (died 323 B.C.). As the story goes, Alexander was greatly distraught after having conquered almost all of the known world by the age of 33. Why? Because, as he said, he had no "Homer" to tell his story. Achilles would forever be emblazoned on people's memories because of the way Homer "sang" him. As for Alexander, he had the third-rate historian Arrian--whom no one has ever heard of. Thus, to this day, almost no one reads about the exploits of Alexander, while every educated Westerner knows of the "anger of Achilles."
Thus, we know Francis of Assisi but we don't know Benedict. Tourloads (I almost said "turdloads") of tourists vomited forth from the busses in Assisi to traipse over to the Basilica of San Francesco and give each of Giotto's Frescoes their "10 seconds" before rushing off to someplace else. But, I thought I would spend a little more time on the frescoes with you here.
An Overview of the 28 Frescoes
Giotto's Frescoes are in the Upper Church, ringing the nave, with thirteen of them on either side and two of them above the entry door to the East. The story begins on the right (North) wall of the nave nearest the Altar. All 28 scenes are depicted on this web site; I will give an overview of the 28 here and then conclude this essay with two of the most famous ones. One might divide the 28 scenes into the following three groups: Scenes 1-4 depict events before Francis renounces his wealth; Scenes 5-20 show the course of life from renunciation through death, and Scenes 21-28 show the continuing effects of Francis on others after his death. With fully 1/4 of the scenes taking place after Francis' death, we see the importance of developing a sort of holy story of St. Francis--i.e., how others reacted to the news of his death.
Within each category of scenes, as I have divided them, are interesting themes. The first category has a man from Assisi sweeping the streets and laying down his cloak for Francis (Scene 1) which no doubt leads to Francis' giving up his cloak to a man fallen on hard times (Scene 2). But this is before grace so to speak, and it is an indication of what a theologian might call natural affection or love. Only through the vision of the crucifix at the Church of St. Damian (Scene 4) is Francis convicted internally of the need to "rebuild the church which has fallen." This then, leads to his renunciation of his wealth (Scene 5).
The second category of scenes shows many events from the life of Francis. I will focus on some of these in the next essay. Suffice it to say here that the vivid picture of parting from his father (Scene 5) and the pope's dream (Scene 6) set the stage for the most famous scenes, which are of St. Francis preaching to the Birds (Scene 15) and St. Francis receiving the Stigmata (Scene 19). Finally, in the third category, painted by Giotto's students, are visions that saints and even the pope have of Francis as well as a valedictory scene where St. Claire paying tribute to the body of the dead Francis (Scene 25). Most interesting to me in this cycle is an ignored Fresco (Scene 22) where a noble knight who probably had doubted the story of St. Francis having received the stigmata, is shown "checking out" the wounds. Like Thomas in the Gospel of John, this knight, we are led to believe, realizes his folly and comes to recognize the sanctity of Francis. So grows the legend.
Actually, this essay is long enough. Let's turn now to some of the scenes from the Life of St. Francis.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long