The Bardi Chapel
The wealthy banker Bardi commissioned Giotto to paint a fresco cycle in his chapel, directly to the right of the main chapel. The story is about Saint Francis, quite fitting for the main church of the Franciscans in Florence. When you enter the church and walk towards the main altar, you will see the stigmatization of Francis on your right above the entrance of the chapel. This image is based on a vision that Francis had on the mountain La Verna, near Arezzo. (Here at Web Gallery of Art you can see Giotto’s work in the Bardi chapel and click here for the layout of this fresco cycle). Atop this mountain, our saint received the stigmata that Christ suffered at the crucifixion, pressed into the feet, hands, and into his body by a winged seraphim.
“When, therefore, by seraphic glow of longing he had been uplifted toward God, and by his sweet compassion had been transformed into the likeness of Him Who of His exceeding love endured to be crucified,—on a certain morning about the Feast of the Exaltation of Holy Cross, while he was praying on the side of the mountain [La Verna], he beheld a Seraph having six wings, flaming and resplendent, coming down from the heights of heaven. When in his flight most swift he had reached the space of air nigh the man of God, there appeared betwixt the wings the Figure of a Man crucified, having his hands and feet stretched forth in the shape of a Cross, and fastened unto a Cross. Two wings were raised above His head, twain were spread forth to fly, while twain hid His whole body. Beholding this, Francis was mightily astonied, and joy, mingled with sorrow, filled his heart. He rejoiced at the gracious aspect wherewith he saw Christ, under the guise of the Seraph, regard him, but His crucifixion pierced his soul with a sword of pitying grief. He marvelled exceedingly at the appearance of a vision so unfathomable, knowing that the infirmity of the Passion doth in no wise accord with the immortality of a Seraphic spirit.” Continue reading, scroll down
“At length he understood therefrom, the Lord revealing it unto him, that this vision had been thus presented unto his gaze by the divine providence, that the friend of Christ might have foreknowledge that he was to be wholly transformed into the likeness of Christ Crucified, not by martyrdom of body, but by enkindling of heart. Accordingly, as the vision disappeared, it left in his heart a wondrous glow, but on his flesh also it imprinted a no less wondrous likeness of its tokens. For forthwith there began to appear in his hands and feet the marks of the nails, even as he had just beheld them in that Figure of the Crucified. For his hands and feet seemed to be pierced through the midst with nails, the heads of the nails shewing in the palms of the hands, and upper side of the feet, and their points shewing on the other side; the heads of the nails were round and black in the hands and feet, while the points were long, bent, and as it were turned back, being formed, of the flesh itself, and protruding therefrom. The right side, moreover, was—as if it had been pierced by a lance—seamed with a ruddy scar, wherefrom ofttimes welled the sacred blood, staining his habit and breeches.
Prior to this chapel, Giotto painted an extensive fresco cycle about Francis in Assisi (Stigmata and Wikipedia). Here, similar to a panel (Stigmata and Musée du Louvre) with the same subject from his hand, the seraphim with six wings was depicted without a cross. For the first time, Giotto depicts the seraphim with a cross. And so Giotto establishes a clear link between the chapel and the Santa Croce which, as the name suggests, is dedicated to the Holy Cross. Moreover, on the altar, which now has a panel, was a crucifix. The painting that can be seen today, the so-called Bardi Dossal (In situ and Wikipedia), was painted around 1250 (Wikipedia). It’s similar to the frescos about the life of Saint Francis. It was placed on the altar in 1595.
Bardi Dossel Detail
“In a vision, God’s servant saw a crucified seraph above him who so clearly pressed the signs of his crucifixion into Francis’ body that he himself seemed to be crucified. His hands, feet and sides were given the mark of the cross, but he kept his stigmata carefully hidden from everyone. Some people have seen them in his life, but most of them only saw them after his death. Anyone who has any doubts about this miracle must be careful, as Jacobus makes clear: ‘In Apulia, a man, a certain Rogier, who stood before a statue of Saint Francis, thought: Is it really true that he became famous for this miracle, or was it a pious illusion or a figment of his brothers’ imagination? These thoughts were in his head. Suddenly he heard a sound like an arrow shot with a crossbow and noticed that he was seriously injured on his left hand. ” Continue reading, scroll down
“Because his glove turned out to be completely undamaged, he pulled it off and saw that his hand showed a severe injury, a kind of arrow wound, that burned so badly that he seemed to swoon from the heat and the pain. He repented and declared that he sincerely believed in the stigmata of Saint Francis. Two days later, he begged the saint to deliver him from the pain, which happened immediately. In order to remove all doubt, an anecdote of a second man is mentioned by Voragine. This man from Castile was miraculously saved from death. Francis, with his stigmata, stroked over the deadly wounds the man had sustained by a sword and behold he was healed.” Translated from: James of Voragine, De hand van God De mooiste heiligenlevens uit de Legenda Aurea (translation by Vincent Hunink and Mark Nieuwenhuis) Atheneum-Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2006 blz. 247-248
Originally, for ordinary churchgoers, the frescoes in the Bardi chapel were only visible through a fence, while Giotto did paint it in such a way that you really have to see it when you’re standing in the middle of the chapel. The work follows a logical process. The higher the figures in the chapel, the greater the shortening from the point of view of the viewer. This makes it seem as if the chapel where the viewer is standing merges fluently into the pictorial space. The openwork architecture that runs parallel to the wall surface reinforces this effect even more. Nevertheless, this impression is toned down again because the spaces are put back into the image plane a little. This creates some distance between the viewer and the artistic space.
Unlike Giottos’ frescoes of Francis in Assisi, architecture should no longer give the impression of being real or at least half true. Architecture is clearly fictitious. This does not apply to the clothing worn by the figures, which is contemporary. For example, in the fresco in which Francis stands before the sultan, a stage setting is used as a background. The suggestion that we are dealing with realistic architecture is no longer made here. Conversely, the monastery during the apparition of Francis to his brothers, is no more than a corridor. The ceilings in the two adjoining rooms in ‘the confirmation of the rule’ are far too low. Giotto’s invention to use architecture as a decor screen had an enormous influence on painting in the quattrocento (fifteenth century).
This can be seen at Ghirlandaio (Tornabuoni chapel Santa Maria Novella) or Masaccio or Masaccio (Brancacci chapel). The useful thing about this invention is that the story comes close to the viewer. In addition, the figures can easily be painted as a kind of relief. This creates the impression that the space where the viewer is standing continues into the world of fresco.
The whole cycle in the Bardi chapel about Francis has six scenes from the life of Francis next to the vault and a seventh, the stigmatization, on the front above the entrance. At the back wall, next to the stained glass windows, two saints are painted on each side. They are important saints of the Franciscans. Three of them can still be seen: Clara, Elisabeth and Louis of Toulouse. The fourth figure was Louis IX, king of France.
Three allegorical figures are painted in the four sections of the cross rib vault. They represent virtues, chastity, poverty and obedience. The Franciscan monks also had to uphold these virtues faithfully. There was also a painted bust of Francis. Only the poverty remains, along with obedience and chastity.