What Paintings Tell

by Michael Djordjevitch

The above is a late fifteenth century painting in the National Gallery, London, one of a set by an unknown painter now called the Master of the Griselda Legend.  Here we see a fully realized Public Loggia set in an idealized urban landscape, something which is far more easily achieved through painting than building.  

Further along these lines, Sandro Botticelli in his Calumny of Apelles (c. 1494–95), offers us a detailed look inside one completely imagined Loggia.  Though nearly monochrome in coloring, this monumental room is filled with figural sculpture, both freestanding and in relief, framed and bounded by architectural elements.   

That these paintings are consistent with a longstanding tradition, and one which applies to artistic production at all scales, can be seen in this next work, Giotto's freestanding Baroncelli Polyptych, painted around 1334 for a family chapel in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, and partially reframed a century later.

Below we see this retable in context, placed upon its altar and set beneath the chapel’s stained-glass liturgically east-facing (ad orientem) window, mediating between the setting of the chapel and the celebrant and offering a focus for the worshipers.   Before us a colonnade frames a vision of Heaven, making present a threshold between us and the transcendent.  And this colonnade is itself bounded, set within its own frame, which provides for it a fitting place upon its Altar.

Giotto's (1267 - 1337) oeuvre has come to be seen as straddling the late Medieval and early Renaissance worlds, working within the Iconic and Liturgical/Theological conventions of the High Middle Ages and bringing a new artistic approach to the figures inhabiting it.  By contrast Dante (1265 – 1321) is usually presented as representing the culmination of the Middle Ages.  And yet, Dante’s realism concerning the depth and breadth of the human condition in the light of the Divine had its direct artistic corollary in Giotto’s naturalism, depicting fully rounded human beings playing out their destiny in the space of a here and now that is bounded by the divine and a setting for the eruption of the transcendent into the everyday.

The work which authoritatively preserves for us the image of a complete artistic whole by Giotto is his Capella degli Scrovegni, a Church constructed immediately adjacent to the Scrovegni Family Palazzo, and both built within the remains of the Ancient Roman Arena in Padua (thus, known more widely as the Arena Chapel).  

Here we are presented with Painting and Architecture working together, through architectural frames; fictive architectural frames structure the entire interior and operate as thresholds into a multiplicity of worlds.  From Giotto’s Arena Chapel to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is a clear artistic  continuum and a short and direct path.  It would be surprising and unusual if Brunelleschi’s work, occurring as it did at the midpoint of this path, did not directly participate in this cultural trajectory and within its cultural/theological matrix.



Encountering Brunelleschi's final work in the light of Giotto's then --- is quite bracing.  

Nor need we merely speculate that Brunelleschi worked in a similar way.  We can see it clearly in the pulpit he designed for Santa Maria Novella, commissioned in 1443 by the Rucellai family and finished by the sculptor Andrea Calvalcanti, Brunelleschi's adopted son.

Before us are a set of sacred scenes framed within an architectural ensemble which obeys the typological and design conventions of an early Christian church pulpit.  That the elements are in that all’ antica manner, which Brunelleschi was at the time being celebrated for reintroducing, should not distract us from what this work has in common with that of Giotto’s: through architecture, creating a threshold between the here and now --- and representations of the Divine interacting with our world.  

What we have been surveying, then, has been that deeper personal, artistic and cultural/theological context for our pioneering architect, who, suddenly in middle age, had been given the commission in 1419 for his first architectural work, a new institution in Florence called the Ospedale degli Innocenti.  Can we be faulted for striving to visualise that work within its originating living context?  None of this takes anything away from the Ospedale’s also revolutionary character.  But, we should not forget that the pioneering journey Brunelleschi was on was the very one which triggered the Renaissance and led to its mature culmination, the Baroque.  It did not trigger the 1920’s avant garde and all that that movement has wrought.  Nor was it the (much) before-the-fact harbinger of that movement.  For the true harbingers see Kenneth Frampton’s, Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture.  

For more on Giotto’s frescoes at the Arena Chapel see below: