The Raising of Lazarus, circa 1305 (Pre-Restoration)
, Giotto di...
24 in. x 18 in.
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For a hundred years after Giotto there appeared in Florence no painter equally endowed with dominion over the significant. His immediate followers so little understood the essence of his power that some thought it resided in his massive types, others in the swiftness of his line, and still others in his light colour, and it never occurred to any of them that the massive form without its material significance, its tactile values, is a shapeless sack, that the line which is not functional is mere calligraphy, and that light colour by itself can at the best spot a surface prettily. The better of them felt their inferiority, but knew no remedy, and all worked busily, copying and distorting Giotto, until they and the public were heartily tired.
A change at all costs became necessary, and it was very simple when it came. 'Why grope about for the significant, when the obvious is at hand? Let me paint the obvious; the obvious always pleases', said some clever innovator. So he painted the obvious -- pretty clothes, pretty faces, and trivial action, with the results foreseen: he pleased then, and he pleases still. Crowds still flock to the Spanish chapel in S. Maria Novella to celebrate the triumph of the obvious and non-significant. Pretty faces, pretty colour, pretty clothes, and trivial action! Is there a single figure in the fresco representing the Triumph of St. Thomas' which incarnates the idea it symbolizes, which, without its labelling instrument, would convey any meaning whatever?
One pretty woman holds a globe and sword, and I am required to feel the majesty of empire; another has painted over her pretty clothes a bow and arrow, which are supposed to rouse me to a sense of the terrors of war; a third has an organ on what was intended to be her knee, and the sight of this instrument must suffice to put me into the ecstasies of heavenly music; still another pretty lady has her arm akimbo, and if you want to know what edification she can bring, you must read her scroll. Below these pretty women sit a number of men looking as worthy as clothes and beards can make them; one highly dignified old gentleman gazes with all his heart and all his soul at -- the point of his quill.
The same lack of significance, the same obviousness characterize the fresco representing the 'Church Militant and Triumphant'. What more obvious symbol for the Church than a church? what more significant of St. Dominic than the refuted Paynim philosopher who (with a movement, by the way, as obvious as it is clever) tears out a leaf from his own book? And I have touched only on the value of these frescoes as allegories. Not to speak of the emptiness of the one and the confusion of the other, as compositions, there is not a figure in either which has tactile values -- that is to say, artistic existence.
While I do not mean to imply that painting between Giotto and Masaccio existed in vain -- on the contrary, considerable progress was made in the direction of landscape, perspective, and facial expression -it is true that, excepting the works of two men, no masterpieces of art were produced. These two, one coming in the middle of the period we have been dwelling upon, and the other just at its close, were Andrea Orcagna and Fra Angelico.
Of the Orcagnas it is difficult to speak, as only a single fairly intact painting of Andrea's remains, the altar-piece in S. Maria Novella. Here he reveals himself as a man of considerable endowment: as in Giotto, we have tactile values, material significance; the figures artistically exist. But while this painting betrays no peculiar feeling for beauty of face and expression, the frescoes by Nardo in the same chapel, the one in particular representing Paradise, have faces full of charm and grace. Although badly damaged, these mural paintings must always have had real artistic existence, great dignity of slow but rhythmic movement, and splendid grouping. They still convince us of their high purpose. On the other hand, we are disappointed in Andrea's sculptured tabernacle at Or Sammichele, where the feeling for both material and spiritual significance is much lower.
We are happily far better situated toward Fra Angelico, enough of whose works have come down to us to reveal not only his quality as an artist, but his character as a man. Perfect certainty of purpose, utter devotion to his task, a sacramental earnestness in performing it, are what the quantity and quality of his work together proclaim. It is true that Giotto's profound feeling for either the materially or the spiritually significant was denied him -- and there is no possible compensation for the difference; but although his sense for the real was weaker, it yet extended to fields which Giotto had not touched.
Like all the supreme artists, Giotto had no inclination to concern himself with his attitude towards the significant, with his feelings about it; the grasping and presentation of it sufficed him. In the weaker personality, the significant, vaguely perceived, is converted into emotion, is merely felt, and not realized. Over this realm of feeling Fra Angelico was the first great master. 'God's in his heaven -- all's right with the world' he felt with an intensity which prevented him from perceiving evil anywhere.
When he was obliged to portray it, his imagination failed him and he became a mere child; his hells are bogy-land; his martyrdoms are enacted by children solemnly playing at martyr and executioner; and he nearly spoils one of the most impressive scenes ever painted -- the great 'Crucifixion' at San Marco -- with the childish violence of St. Jerome's tears. But upon the picturing of blitheness, of ecstatic confidence in God's loving care, he lavished all the resources of his art. Not were they small.
To a power of rendering tactile values, to a sense for the significant in composition, inferior, it is true, to Giotto's, but superior to the qualifications of any intervening painter, Fra Angelico added the charm of great facial beauty, the interest of vivid expression, the attraction of delicate colour. What in the whole world of art more rejuvenating than Angelico's ' Coronation' -- the happiness on all the faces, the flower-like grace of line and colour, the childlike simplicity yet unqualifiable beauty of the composition? And all this in tactile values which compel us to grant the reality of the scene, although in a world where real people are standing, sitting, and kneeling we know not, and care not, on what.
It is true, the significance of the event represented is scarcely touched upon, but then how well Angelico communicates the feeling with which it inspired him! Yet simple though he was as a person, simple and onesided as was his message, as a product he was singularly complex. He was the typical painter of the transition from Medieval to Renaissance. The sources of his feeling are in the Middle Ages, but he enjoys his feelings in a way which is almost modern; and almost modern also are his means of expression. We are too apt to forget this transitional character of his, and, ranking him with the moderns, we count against him every awkwardness of action, and every lack of articulation in his figures.
Yet both in action and in articulation he made great progress upon his precursors -- so great that, but for Masaccio, who completely surpassed him, we should value him as an innovator. Moreover, he was not only the first Italian to paint a landscape that can be identified (a view of Lake Trasimene from Cortona), but the first to communicate a sense of the pleasantness of nature. How readily we feel the freshness and spring-time gaiety of his gardens in the frescoes of the 'Annunciation' and the 'Noli me tangere' at San Marco!
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