The current museum visitor will surely be surprised when looking at Giotto’s ‘Madonna with Child’ and reading the commentaries of Boccaccio, Ghiberti, or Vasari. He or she will certainly not perceive this painting as ‘representing reality.’ On the contrary, in our eyes, it appears more like a flawed reproduction of reality. The faces of Mary, her child, and the angels, as well as Mary’s hands, and the gold in the background, do not convince. However, it should be noted that we now have a long tradition of painting behind us, where artists have continually taken steps forward and made significant discoveries or reinvented what had been lost since antiquity.
For Giotto’s contemporaries, this work was truly remarkable: Mary and the child appeared as if made of flesh and blood. The world of painting before Giotto consisted of the other two panels that you see in the Sala del Dugento of the Uffizi, namely the works of Duccio and Cimabue. A comparison between Cimabue’s Madonna and Child and Giotto’s work reveals why contemporaries were so impressed. The apprentice, Giotto, had surpassed his master Cimabue with his enthroned Madonna and Child. What makes Giotto’s Madonna and Child so much better than those of Cimabue or Duccio, at least according to the standards of naturalism? What immediately caught the churchgoer’s attention at the Ognissanti, right in front of Giotto’s large altarpiece, was the almost palpably lifelike Mary. Her body is clearly present under the clothing, especially noticeable at the breasts and knees. In contrast, the other two Marys and the child by Duccio and Cimabue seem to be draped without substance. Their garments resemble hanging pieces of fabric or curtains, as often seen in Byzantine art. The head and hands are then painted onto the flat drapery, completing Cimabue’s Madonna with Child.
The folds of Mary’s blue mantle are painted by Giotto in a very realistic manner. Those of Cimabue appear more like decorative lines on a precious woven fabric. Gold lines form a peculiar spiderweb that stretches across the drapery. This web evokes the idea of light falling on the prominent parts of the folds. These thin golden lines are, as art historian Gombrich describes, an incomprehensible and gold-translated way of representing light. In antiquity, the trick of modeling with light and dark was already known. A canvas or panel inherently lacks depth. The painter must employ various artifices to make something flat appear truly round. Philoponos (John the Grammarian) describes in the fifth century the miraculous effect that light and dark have on the viewer when placed next to each other.
“If you place white next to black on the same surface, from a distance, the white always appears much closer and the black farther away. Therefore, painters, when they want something to appear concave, like a well, a rain barrel, a ditch, or a cave, color it with black or brown. But if they want something to stand out, like a girl’s breasts, an outstretched hand, or a horse’s legs [or prominent folds], they surround it with black to make it recede, and the parts in between will come forward.” Thus, Philoponos in a commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorologica from the fifth century. ‘Light and highlights The Heritage of Apelles’ in: Gombrich, E.H., ‘The Heritage of Apelles Studies in the art of the renaissance,’ Phaidon Press, Oxford 1976 p. 5
It is Giotto who, after many centuries, has rediscovered what has been known since the time of Plato. It was especially the Greek painter of Alexander the Great, Apelles, who became famous for being able to create the illusion that certain parts of the painting were emerging through the use of light and dark.
If you look at the upper part of the folds painted by Giotto, you can see that a blue color is used here, mixed with white. However, in the depth of the folds, the blue is mixed with black. This makes the ‘law of Philoponos or Apelles’ come into play. Our eyes perceive the light part as coming forward, and the dark part as receding. This creates the illusion of round folds, even though it is actually painted on a flat panel. The light in the folds of Mary painted by Cimabue is made of thin lines of gold. However, gold does not have the same effect; it does not come forward. Nevertheless, in the Rucellai Madonna by Duccio, you can see that he, albeit only in the lower half of Mary’s blue garment, seems to be anticipating Giotto’s discovery.
A comparison between the faces and necks of Giotto’s Mary and his mentor speaks volumes. It is clear that Giotto succeeds in rendering the head of Mary much more three-dimensionally than Cimabue, just like with the folds.
Three faces of Mary: Giotto Cimabue Duccio
Cennino Cennini, the painter who wrote a handbook, ‘Il Libro dell’Arte,’ for his colleagues after 1400, offers the following advice when painting a face: “But you follow this method in everything which I shall teach you about painting: for Giotto, the great master, followed it, […] Then take three little dishes, which you divide into three sections of flesh color; have the darkest half again as light as the pink color, and the other two, each one degree lighter. Now take the little dish of the lightest one; and with a very soft, rather blunt, bristle brush take some of this flesh color, squeezing the brush with your fingers; and shape up all the reliefs of this face. Then take the little dish of the intermediate flesh color, and proceed to pick out all the half tones of the face and of the hands and feet, […]” Cited from: Cennino Cennini, ‘Il Libro dell’Arte,’ p. 46 of 149 Gutenberg
Cennini also mentions two other ways to paint flesh colors, but he strongly advises against them. Duccio and Cimabue followed the incorrect method. Although they also used a green background, they applied only one flesh color for the face. They then added light and dark accents afterward. This method of painting flesh colors is based on the Byzantine tradition.
Contemporaries of Giotto were not only astonished by the unprecedented realism of their time but also found the depiction of the saints unconventional. It was deemed inappropriate to place angels among the saints, especially two kneeling angels. Cimabue placed his four saints at the bottom of the composition as it was customary. He painted his angels where they belonged: at the top and in the vicinity of Mary with her child. The remarkable aspect that Giotto painted his saints so high and close to Mary on the panel is related to the patrons: the order of the Humiliati.
This religious order, with its main church, the Ognissanti (All Saints), as the name of the order suggests, held humility in high regard. Now, angels who lowered themselves to a position beneath their worth demonstrated their submissiveness. This is precisely a quality that the Son of God had also shown through his crucifixion. It was through this behavior that the angels elevated themselves in the eyes of their Lord.
If you look closely at the saints to the right and left of the throne, you can see that Giotto has incorporated the word “Ognissanti” into his representation. The suggestion is created, through the truncation of the figures on the far right and left, that many more saints are situated behind the frame. By using halos with only the indication of tufts of hair at the top, the impression is given that we are dealing with a multitude of saints here.
Despite Giotto’s revolutionary innovations, there is still much that appears quite archaic to the contemporary viewer. To use Vasari’s words, there are still remnants of the despised “maniera greca,” or the Byzantine style. Elements such as the golden background, unnaturally long fingers, almond-shaped eyes, and a disproportionately small mouth are far from naturalistic.