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Giotto, The Ognissanti Madonna

Giotto, The Ognissanti Madonna, 1306-10, tempera on panel, 128 x 80 1/4" (325 x 204 cm). Painted for the Church of Ognissanti, Florence Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(swing piano music) - [Female Narrator] We're in one of the first galleries in the Uffizi in Florence, in a room filled with enormous images of the Madonna and Child. But the one that's straight ahead of us is by the great Florentine artist Giotto, the "Ognissanti Madonna." And "ognissanti" in Italian means all saints. - [Male Narrator] It was commissioned by the Humiliati, a religious order, and wool merchants, in Florence. The painting is enormous, but it's smaller than the Duccio and the Cimabue that flank it on the left and the right. It was also produced a little bit later. When Giotto was painting this, he had seen both of these other paintings, and so while we certainly see many similarities, we also see some important innovations. - [Female Narrator] To me, the most obvious is Mary, who no longer seems a bit like a cutout on top of the throne, but a figure who has thighs, and buttocks, and who sits within that throne. So we have a sense of her mass and her weight, and her body taking up space. - [Male Narrator] It's true that you get a sense, especially if you look at the Cimabue, that you're looking at a more ethereal figure, that if somehow your hand could push against her, she would float away like a piece of paper. Whereas with the Giotto, you get the sense that she would push back, she's solid. - [Female Narrator] But if you look at the Cimabue, those folds between the legs are indicated by gold lines, gold striations, and they suggest fabric. But Giotto's figure, that blue drapery that falls across her lap really looks like heavy wool and fabric. - [Male Narrator] There's no gold in Giotto's representation of that blue garment, except at the hem. He's indicating the roundness of her body purely through the use of light and shadow, what the Italians call chiaroscuro, that is, this modulation that creates an illusion of form turning in space, even though we're looking at a two-dimensional surface. - [Female Narrator] And we see that very much in her neck, the left side is in shadow, there's a shadow cast by her chin, and we get a sense of her breasts under that drapery. - [Male Narrator] But it's not just the light and shadow that Giotto is interested in. He also creates the sense of reality, of the illusion of dimension, through the architecture of the throne. The wings of the throne seem to come towards us, and there's a real emphasis on things being in front and in back. We can see that, within those wings, there are windows that are cut, and we can see Old Testament prophets that are framed by those windows, but they're behind. - [Female Narrator] And those steps seem to move out into our space, as though Mary could stand up and walk into the very space that we occupy. The painting itself acts almost like a window through which we view a world that is just as three-dimensional as our own world. - [Male Narrator] Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that they're actually in our world. This painting is making use of large areas of gold, meant to express the light of heaven. But there is an interest in rendering the Christ-child, Mary, the Old Testament prophets in the background, the angels in the foreground, in a space that makes sense to us. And he's doing this in a very precise way. For example, we're clearly looking down at the steps. We're looking down at the seat, because we can still see the top of the seat of the throne. But we're looking up at the ceiling within the throne, and so we know we're lower than that. - [Female Narrator] But we're looking more at the right side of the inside of the throne than the left. - [Male Narrator] And that's appropriate, because Christ is facing to his right, so he seems to be facing where we would be oriented. Look at just three angles, the angle of the seat of the throne, the angle at the top of the cutout, and then the angle that's towards the bottom of the cutout, and you'll notice that that last angle is perfectly horizontal. This is our eye level. - [Female Narrator] And so Giotto is thinking about our placement in space in relationship to these divine figures. - [Male Narrator] Giotto is working in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, in the city-state of Florence, and so Giotto's painting is a wonderful opportunity to understand this transition from the late medieval to what will become the Renaissance. (swing piano music)