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Giotto and his works in Padua Part 6

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For St. John says, that he having received the sop, went _immediately_ out; yet that Christ had washed his feet is certain, from the words, "Ye are clean, but not all." Whatever view the reader may, on deliberation, choose to accept, Giotto's is clear, namely, that though not cleansed by the baptism, Judas was yet capable of being cleansed.

The devil had not entered into him at the time of the washing of the feet, and he retains the sign of an Apostle.

The composition is one of the most beautiful of the series, especially owing to the submissive grace of the two standing figures.

x.x.x.

THE KISS OF JUDAS.

For the first time we have Giotto's idea of the face of the traitor clearly shown. It is not, I think, traceable through any of the previous series; and it has often surprised me to observe how impossible it was in the works of almost any of the sacred painters to determine by the mere cast of feature which was meant for the false Apostle. Here, however, Giotto's theory of physiognomy, and together with it his idea of the character of Judas, are perceivable enough. It is evident that he looks upon Judas mainly as a sensual dullard, and foul-brained fool; a man in no respect exalted in bad eminence of treachery above the ma.s.s of common traitors, but merely a distinct type of the eternal treachery to good, in vulgar men, which stoops beneath, and opposes in its appointed measure, the life and efforts of all n.o.ble persons, their natural enemies in this world; as the slime lies under a clear stream running through an earthy meadow. Our careless and thoughtless English use of the word into which the Greek "Diabolos" has been shortened, blinds us in general to the meaning of "Deviltry," which, in its essence, is nothing else than slander, or traitorhood;--the accusing and giving up of good. In particular it has blinded us to the meaning of Christ's words, "Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a traitor and accuser?" and led us to think that the "one of you is a devil" indicated some greater than human wickedness in Judas; whereas the practical meaning of the entire fact of Judas' ministry and fall is, that out of any twelve men chosen for the forwarding of any purpose,--or, much more, out of any twelve men we meet,--one, probably, is or will be a Judas.

The modern German renderings of all the scenes of Christ's life in which the traitor is conspicuous are very curious in their vulgar misunderstanding of the history, and their consequent endeavours to represent Judas as more diabolic than selfish, treacherous, and stupid men are in all their generations. They paint him usually projected against strong effects of light, in lurid chiaroscuro;--enlarging the whites of his eyes, and making him frown, grin, and gnash his teeth on all occasions, so as to appear among the other Apostles invariably in the aspect of a Gorgon.

How much more deeply Giotto has fathomed the fact, I believe all men will admit who have sufficient purity and abhorrence of falsehood to recognise it in its daily presence, and who know how the devil's strongest work is done for him by men who are too b.e.s.t.i.a.l to understand what they betray.

x.x.xI.

CHRIST BEFORE CAIAPHAS.

Little is to be observed in this design of any distinctive merit; it is only a somewhat completer version of the ordinary representation given in illuminated missals and other conventual work, suggesting, as if they had happened at the same moment, the answer, "If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil," and the accusation of blasphemy which causes the high-priest to rend his clothes.

Apparently distrustful of his power of obtaining interest of a higher kind, Giotto has treated the enrichments more carefully than usual, down even to the steps of the high-priest's seat. The torch and barred shutters conspicuously indicate its being now dead of night. That the torch is darker than the chamber, if not an error in the drawing, is probably the consequence of a darkening alteration in the yellow colours used for the flame.

x.x.xII.

THE SCOURGING OF CHRIST.

It is characteristic of Giotto's rational and human view of all subjects admitting such aspect, that he has insisted here chiefly on the dejection and humiliation of Christ, making no attempt to suggest to the spectator any other divinity than that of patience made perfect through suffering. Angelico's conception of the same subject is higher and more mystical. He takes the moment when Christ is blindfolded, and exaggerates almost into monstrosity the vileness of feature and bitterness of sneer in the questioners, "Prophesy unto us, who is he that smote thee;" but the bearing of the person of Christ is entirely calm and unmoved; and his eyes, open, are seen through the binding veil, indicating the ceaseless omniscience.

This mystical rendering is, again, rejected by the later realistic painters; but while the earlier designers, with Giotto at their head, dwelt chiefly on the humiliation and the mockery, later painters dwelt on the physical pain. In t.i.tian's great picture of this subject in the Louvre, one of the executioners is thrusting the thorn-crown down upon the brow with his rod, and the action of Christ is that of a person suffering extreme physical agony.

No representations of the scene exist, to my knowledge, in which the mockery is either sustained with indifference, or rebuked by any stern or appealing expression of feature; yet one of these two forms of endurance would appear, to a modern habit of thought, the most natural and probable.

x.x.xIII.

CHRIST BEARING HIS CROSS.

This design is one of great n.o.bleness and solemnity in the isolation of the princ.i.p.al figure, and removal of all motives of interest depending on accessories, or merely temporary incidents. Even the Virgin and her attendant women are kept in the background; all appeal for sympathy through physical suffering is disdained. Christ is not represented as borne down by the weight of the Cross, nor as urged forward by the impatience of the executioners. The thing to be shown,--the unspeakable mystery,--is the simple fact, the Bearing of the Cross by the Redeemer. It would be vain to compare the respective merits or value of a design thus treated, and of one like Veronese's of this same subject, in which every essential accessory and probable incident is completely conceived. The abstract and symbolical suggestion will always appeal to one order of minds, the dramatic completeness to another. Unquestionably, the last is the greater achievement of intellect, but the manner and habit of thought are perhaps loftier in Giotto. Veronese leads us to perceive the reality of the act, and Giotto to understand its intention.

x.x.xIV.

THE CRUCIFIXION.

The treatment of this subject was, in Giotto's time, so rigidly fixed by tradition that it was out of his power to display any of his own special modes of thought; and, as in the Bearing of the Cross, so here, but yet more distinctly, the temporary circ.u.mstances are little regarded, the significance of the event being alone cared for. But even long after this time, in all the pictures of the Crucifixion by the great masters, with the single exception perhaps of that by Tintoret in the Church of San Ca.s.sano at Venice, there is a tendency to treat the painting as a symmetrical image, or collective symbol of sacred mysteries, rather than as a dramatic representation. Even in Tintoret's great Crucifixion in the School of St. Roch, the group of fainting women forms a kind of pedestal for the Cross. The flying angels in the composition before us are thus also treated with a restraint hardly pa.s.sing the limits of decorative symbolism. The fading away of their figures into flame-like cloud may perhaps be founded on the verse, "He maketh His angels spirits; His ministers a flame of fire" (though erroneously, the right reading of that verse being, "He maketh the winds His messengers, and the flaming fire His servant"); but it seems to me to give a greater sense of possible truth than the entire figures, treading the clouds with naked feet, of Perugino and his successors.

x.x.xV.

THE ENTOMBMENT.

I do not consider that in fulfilling the task of interpreter intrusted to me, with respect to this series of engravings, I may in general permit myself to unite with it the duty of a critic. But in the execution of a laborious series of engravings, some must of course be better, some worse; and it would be unjust, no less to the reader than to Giotto, if I allowed this plate to pa.s.s without some admission of its inadequacy. It may possibly have been treated with a little less care than the rest, in the knowledge that the finished plate, already in the possession of the members of the Arundel Society, superseded any effort with inferior means; be that as it may, the tenderness of Giotto's composition is, in the engraving before us, lost to an unusual degree.

It may be generally observed that the pa.s.sionateness of the sorrow both of the Virgin and disciples, is represented by Giotto and all great following designers as reaching its crisis at the Entombment, not at the Crucifixion. The expectation that, after experiencing every form of human suffering, Christ would yet come down from the cross, or in some other visible and immediate manner achieve for Himself the victory, might be conceived to have supported in a measure the minds of those among His disciples who watched by His cross. But when the agony was closed by actual death, and the full strain was put upon their faith, by their laying in the sepulchre, wrapped in His grave-clothes, Him in whom they trusted, "that it had been He which should have redeemed Israel," their sorrow became suddenly hopeless; a gulf of horror opened, almost at unawares, under their feet; and in the poignancy of her astonied despair, it was no marvel that the agony of the Madonna in the "Pieta" became subordinately a.s.sociated in the mind of the early Church with that of their Lord Himself;--a type of consummate human suffering.

x.x.xVI.

THE RESURRECTION.

Quite one of the loveliest designs of the series. It was a favourite subject with Giotto; meeting, in all its conditions, his love of what was most mysterious, yet most comforting and full of hope, in the doctrines of his religion. His joy in the fact of the Resurrection, his sense of its function, as the key and primal truth of Christianity, was far too deep to allow him to dwell on any of its minor circ.u.mstances, as later designers did, representing the moment of bursting the tomb, and the supposed terror of its guards. With Giotto the leading thought is not of physical reanimation, nor of the momentarily exerted power of breaking the bars of the grave; but the consummation of Christ's work in the first manifesting to human eyes, and the eyes of one who had loved Him and believed in Him, His power to take again the life He had laid down. This first appearance to her out of whom He had cast seven devils is indeed the very central fact of the Resurrection. The keepers had not seen Christ; they had seen only the angel descending, whose countenance was like lightning: for fear of him they became as dead; yet this fear, though great enough to cause them to swoon, was so far conquered at the return of morning, that they were ready to take money-payment for giving a false report of the circ.u.mstances. The Magdalen, therefore, is the first witness of the Resurrection; to the love, for whose sake much had been forgiven, this gift is also first given; and as the first witness of the truth, so she is the first messenger of the Gospel. To the Apostles it was granted to proclaim the Resurrection to all nations; but the Magdalen was bidden to proclaim it to the Apostles.

In the chapel of the Bargello, Giotto has rendered this scene with yet more pa.s.sionate sympathy. Here, however, its significance is more thoughtfully indicated through all the accessories, down even to the withered trees above the sepulchre, while those of the garden burst into leaf. This could hardly escape notice when the barren boughs were compared by the spectator with the rich foliage of the neighbouring designs, though, in the detached plate, it might easily be lost sight of.

x.x.xVII.

THE ASCENSION.

Giotto continues to exert all his strength on these closing subjects.

None of the Byzantine or earlier Italian painters ventured to introduce the entire figure of Christ in this scene: they showed the feet only, concealing the body; according to the text, "a cloud received Him out of their sight." This composition, graceful as it is daring, conveys the idea of ascending motion more forcibly than any that I remember by other than Venetian painters. Much of its power depends on the continuity of line obtained by the half-floating figures of the two warning angels.

I cannot understand why this subject was so seldom treated by religious painters: for the harmony of Christian creed depends as much upon it as on the Resurrection itself; while the circ.u.mstances of the Ascension, in their brightness, promise, miraculousness, and direct appeal to all the a.s.sembled Apostles, seem more fitted to attract the joyful contemplation of all who received the faith. How morbid, and how deeply to be mourned, was the temper of the Church which could not be satisfied without perpetual representation of the tortures of Christ; but rarely dwelt on His triumph! How more than strange the concessions to this feebleness by its greatest teachers; such as that of t.i.tian, who, though he paints the a.s.sumption of the Madonna rather than a Pieta, paints the Scourging and the Entombment of Christ, with his best power,--but never the Ascension!

x.x.xVIII.

THE DESCENT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.

This last subject of the series, the quietest and least interesting in treatment, yet ill.u.s.trates sadly, and forcibly, the vital difference between ancient and modern art.

The worst characters of modern work result from its constant appeal to our desire of change, and pathetic excitement; while the best features of the elder art appealed to love of contemplation. It would appear to be the object of the truest artists to give permanence to images such as we should always desire to behold, and might behold without agitation; while the inferior branches of design are concerned with the acuter pa.s.sions which depend on the turn of a narrative, or the course of an emotion. Where it is possible to unite these two sources of pleasure, and, as in the a.s.sumption of t.i.tian, an action of absorbing interest is united with perfect and perpetual elements of beauty, the highest point of conception would appear to have been touched: but in the degree in which the interest of action _supersedes_ beauty of form and colour, the art is lowered; and where real deformity enters, in any other degree than as a momentary shadow or opposing force, the art is illegitimate. Such art can exist only by accident, when a nation has forgotten or betrayed the eternal purposes of its genius, and gives birth to painters whom it cannot teach, and to teachers whom it will not hear. The best talents of all our English painters have been spent either in endeavours to find room for the expression of feelings which no master guided to a worthy end, or to obtain the attention of a public whose mind was dead to natural beauty, by sharpness of satire, or variety of dramatic circ.u.mstance.

The work to which England is now devoting herself withdraws her eyes from beauty, as her heart from rest; nor do I conceive any revival of great art to be possible among us while the nation continues in its present temper. As long as it can bear to see misery and squalor in its streets, it can neither invent nor accept human beauty in its pictures; and so long as in pa.s.sion of rivalry, or thirst of gain, it crushes the roots of happiness, and forsakes the ways of peace, the great souls whom it may chance to produce will all pa.s.s away from it helpless, in error, in wrath, or in silence. Amiable visionaries may retire into the delight of devotional abstraction, strong men of the world may yet hope to do service by their rebuke or their satire; but for the clear sight of Love there will be no horizon, for its quiet words no answer; nor any place for the art which alone is faithfully Religious, because it is Lovely and True.

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Giotto and his works in Padua Part 6 summary

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