The left wall of the Bardi chapel
In the lunette to the left, Giotto has placed a cube-shaped palace at an angle to the picture plane. The building acts as a screen that connects the two groups, but also separates them at the same time. A nude Francis, partly still covered by a bishop’s cloak, stands exactly at the spot where the palace makes a sharp angle towards the viewer. Francis doesn’t look at his father. He’s visibly angry, he’s even stopped by supporters. Francis’ gaze is directed upwards towards his heavenly father. Giotto tells his story with simple but very expressive means. Thus, the nudity of St. Francis, his upward gaze, shows that St. Francis rejects earthly goods and that he wants to devote himself completely to the Lord. The attitude of Francis’ father also leaves little to the imagination.
Kids want to throw rocks
“Then this father according unto the flesh was fain to take this son of grace, now stripped of his wealth, before the Bishop of the city, that into his hands he might resign his claim unto his inheritance, and render up all that had been his. This that true lover of poverty shewed himself right ready to do, and coming into the Bishop’s presence, he brooked no delays, he was kept back of none, tarried for no speech, nor spake himself, but at once did off all his garments, and restored them unto his father. Then was the man of God seen to have a hairshirt next his skin under his rich apparel. Yea more, as one drunk with wondrous fervour of spirit, he threw aside, even his breeches, and stood up naked in the presence of all, saying unto his father: Hitherto I have called thee my father on earth, but henceforth I can confidently say ‘Our Father, Which art in heaven,’ with Whom I have laid up my whole treasure, and on Whom I have set my whole trust and hope.” The Bishop, seeing this, and marvelling at such exceeding fervour in the man of God, rose forthwith, and, weeping, put his arms round him; then, devout and kindly man as he was, covered him with the cloak wherewith he himself was clad, bidding his servants give him something to clothe his limbs withal, and there was brought unto him a mean and rough tunic of a farm-servant of the Bishop. This Francis gladly received, and with his own hand marked it with the sign of the Cross, with a piece of chalk that he chanced upon, thus making it a garment meet for a man crucified, poor, and half naked. Thus, then, the servant of the Most High King was left despoiled, that he might follow the Lord Whom he loved. Who had been despoiled and crucified; thus he was fortified with the Cross, that he might entrust his soul unto that wood of salvation, that should bring him forth unscathed from the shipwreck of the world.”
The father is angry about his son’s behavior and wants to intervene, but he only has an eye for God. The tension between the two groups that support the son or the father is further emphasized by Giotto leaving the space between them open. It is no coincidence that this open space has been placed exactly in the middle of the image plane. On both sides you can almost hear and feel the agitation. Two kids want to throw rocks. They are being held back by their mothers in a violent manner.
The left wall under the lunette shows the apparition of Francis to his brothers at Arles. It is not a scene showing excitement, but it is one of calmness and contemplation. Francis appears in a vision to bless his fellow-brothers and to strengthen them in their faith. Not all monks see the appearance of the saint. The Franciscan monk on the left with his hand against his face is absorbed in his thoughts. The architecture also exudes tranquility through a balanced relationship between horizontal and vertical building elements. The muted colours also contribute to the serene atmosphere. The appearance of Francis to his followers is painted for the viewer who has just entered the chapel, so not as frontally as if you were standing in front of it.
Francis uplifted in the air
Bonaventura describes in his’ Legenda major Sanctus Francisci’ (Great Biography of Saint Francis) 13th century in chapter IV, 10 the following: “For while that glorious preacher, who is now a noted Confessor of Christ, Antony, was preaching unto the Chapter of the Brethren at Arles on the title inscribed on the Cross: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’, a certain Brother of proved uprightness, Monaldo by name, looking, by a divine impulse, toward the door of the Chapter-house, beheld with his bodily eyes the Blessed Francis uplifted in the air, his hands outstretched after the manner of a Cross, blessing the Brethren.”
In the death of Francis, the most important event was also put in the middle. Francis is lying on a catafalque. His followers are standing around his bed. One of the brothers behind the catafalque kisses the hand with the stigma. At the front, the clothes show a man of nobility sticking his fingers into the side wound of St. Francis. Apparently, he can hardly believe it. It is strongly reminiscent of the doubting apostle Thomas who could not believe that Christ had risen from his grave after three days and nights.
The death of Francis
Bonaventura describes in his’ Legenda major Sanctus Francisci’ (Great Biography of Saint Francis) 13th century in chapter XV, 4 the following:
“When the departure of the blessed Father became known, and the report of the miracle was spread abroad, the folk gathered in haste unto the spot, that with their bodily eyes they might behold that which should dispel all doubt from their reasons, and should add rejoicing unto their love. Accordingly, very many of the citizens of Assist were admitted to behold and to kiss those sacred stigmata. Now one among them, a learned and wise knight, Jerome by name, a man illustrious and renowned, having had doubts concerning these sacred tokens, and having been an unbeliever like Thomas,—did very eagerly and boldly, in the presence of the Brethren and of the other citizens, move the nails, and touch with his own hands the hands, feet, and side of the Saint; and thus it befell that, while touching those authentic marks of the wounds of Christ, he cut away every wound of unbelief rom his own heart and the hearts of all. Wherefore he became thereafter a constant witness, among others, unto this truth that he had learnt with such certainty, and confirmed it by an oath, laying his hands on thrice-holy things.”
The right wall of the Bardi chapel
The top of the lunette depicts the confirmation of the rule by Pope Honorius II. Again a clear architectural background, certainly not realistic, but very effective as a division of the composition. The side rooms look like the side panels of a triptych. Francis kneels before the Pope with a scroll on which the rules of the order are written.
Pope Honorius II and Francis
Bonaventura describes in his’ Legenda major Sanctus Francisci’ (Great Biography of Saint Francis) 13th century in chapter III, 9 the following:
“Now when he had come unto the Roman Curia, and had been introduced into the presence of the Supreme Pontiff, he expounded unto him his intent, humbly and earnestly beseeching him to sanction the Rule aforesaid for their life. And the Vicar of Christ, the lord Innocent the Third, a man exceeding renowned for wisdom, beholding in the man of God the wondrous purity of a simple soul, constancy unto his purpose, and the enkindled fervour of a holy will, was disposed to give unto the suppliant his fatherly sanction.”
The subject of the lunette must have addressed the Bardi family, who were trading with the Middle East. In the middle sultan Almalik Alkamil of Egypt sits on his throne. He’s pointing at the fire. To the right of the throne, Francis stands by the flames. He’s willing to go through fire for his faith.
“With such firmness of mind, with such courage of soul, and with such fervour of spirit he preached unto the Soldan aforesaid God Three and One and the Saviour of all, Jesus Christ, that in him was manifestly and truly fulfilled that saying of the Gospel: ‘I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist.’ For, as the Soldan beheld the marvellous fervour of spirit and valour of the man of God, he heard him gladly and did right earnestly invite him to tarry with him. Then the servant of Christ, taught by the heavenly counsel, said: ‘If thou, together with thy people, wilt be converted unto Christ, for the love of Him I will right gladly tarry among you.” Continue reading scroll down
But if thou art hesitating whether to give up the law of Mahomet for the faith of Christ, do thou command that a great fire be kindled and I will enter the fire with thy priests, that even thus thou mayest learn which faith is the surer, and holier, and most worthy of being held. Unto whom the Soldan made answer: ‘ I do not believe that any of my priests would be ready to expose himself unto the fire in defence of his faith, or to undergo any sort of torture.’ For he had seen that, so soon as mention of this was made, one of his priests, an aged man and one in authority, had fled from his presence. Unto whom the holy man replied: ‘If thou wilt promise me, on behalf of thyself and thy people, that thou wilt embrace the faith of Christ, if I come forth from the fire unscathed, I will enter the fire alone; if I am burned, let it be set down unto my sins, but if the divine might protect me, ye shall know that Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God, is the true God and the Lord and Saviour of all.”
This is a clash of two religions, of which, of course, only one can be the true one. The Muslims shy away from the fire test. Alkamil sees all this and has to decide between fear and courage, between truth and falsehood. He has to make a decision and this is the subject of this story. As with all scenes in the chapel, the central theme is in the middle of the picture plane. The stage is clear: a long and wide stage. Francis stands upright, inflexible. At the cowards to the left of the sultan, the arms of the Muslims hang down lethargically and in resignation The figure in the yellow cloak resembles a graceful arabesque with gothic lines. In this case, however, the shapes are not decorative, but a reaction to the dark man in the white cloak. He points at the fire with his hand, but the man in yellow follows the others who scuttled out. The folds of the yellow cloak direct attention to the man who looks depressed. The heavily drooping folds of his brown overcoat reflect the depressed posture of this figure with his head bent forward. With only a few formal elements, Giotto does manage to create a rich psychological content.
As mentioned previously, the lower scene was badly damaged by an altar that was later added and removed during the major restoration. Here, in a vision, Francis appears to Agostino, a brother in law, and the bishop of Assisi.
“Moreover, a Brother named Augustine, who was then Minister of the Brethren in Terra di Lavoro, an holy and upright man, having come unto his last hour, and some time previously having lost the power of speech, in the hearing of them that stood by did on a sudden cry out and say: ‘Tarry for me. Father, tarry for me, lo, even now I am coming with thee!’ When the Brethren asked and marvelled much unto whom he thus boldly spake, he made answer: ‘Did ye not see our Father, Francis, who goeth unto heaven’? And forthwith his holy soul, departing from the body, followed the most holy Father.”
A comparison between the so-called Bardi Dossal panel on the altar, dating from around 1250, and the fresco cycle in this chapel shows how painting developed with Giotto. The unknown painter of the large panel has placed Francis in the middle with around him twenty narrative scenes from the life of the saint.
Bardi Dossel view altarpiece with all scenes (1 up to 22) click here at the official site of the Santa Croce
This panel shows some of the stories Giotto painted on the walls of the chapel, such as the stigmatisation, the confirmation of the rule and the death of Francis. On the panel, Francis has little in common with the figures on the walls. There is no realism here, as is evident from looking at the clothing. Garments look like hanging rags of fabric that don’t fit around the bodies. Giotto had painted three-dimensional figures, as we have already seen in his altarpiece, the Enthroned Virgin and Child. In addition, the twenty narrative images on the panel are not very convincing. The landscape and the architecture are nothing more than schematics. The golden background does not contribute to any realism either. The world on the panel is clearly different from the space where the viewer stands. In addition, there is absolutely no psychological content, as can be seen in Giotto’s fresco of Francis for the sultan. It is for good reason that the chronicler Giovanni Villani, in his chronicle of Giotto in 1337, remarked as follows: ‘the most sovereign master of painting in his time, and someone who more than anyone else drew every figure and action to life.