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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.
Video transcript
DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Giotto is not a Renaissance painter, but he's laying that foundation. 20, perhaps 30 years after Cimabue painted the large altar piece for Santa Trinita, Giotto, his student, paints the "Madonna" and child enthroned as well that we think came from tradition of Ognissanti in Florence. DR. BETH HARRIS: And this is a Mary like none we've ever seen before. She occupies space. She has a monumentality, and presence, and physicality. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's totally different from anything that we saw at the end of the 1200s. If you think about Cimabue, or even if you think about Duccio in Sienna, there's a kind of delicacy, a kind of elegance that those are figures that are almost paper thin. And here, Giotto's Madonna is solid. She weighs a lot. There's no knocking her over. DR. BETH HARRIS: No, and it's not just the size of her body. It's also all of that use of modeling that we see. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Light and shadow, the turn of her body that's created by the transition from highlights to shade. DR. BETH HARRIS: Exactly, which we can see in her neck, around her breasts, pulling the drapery across toward the Christ Child. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We see that in the Christ Child as well and even in the angels around her. This is so different from that real sense of flatness or the sense of drawing. This seems much more sculptural. DR. BETH HARRIS: With Giotto, we have a real sense of Mary sitting inside her throne. Her knees are clearly foreshortened. If you look back at the Duccio, she turns her body so that her thighs are parallel to the picture plane. But the knees in Giotto's "Madonna" come forward. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: They really are foreshortened. DR. BETH HARRIS: Creating an illusion of space. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Yeah, it's true. And then of course, there's a little bit more of a rational space for her to exist in. This is not a painting that uses linear perspective. But it is a painting that functions as a precursor in some ways. I mean, look, for example, at the specificness with which the artist places us, the viewer, in relationship to the architecture that he's portraying. Now, if you look at it carefully, clearly we're looking down to the step in the foreground. But we're looking up at the ceiling of the throne. And there's a left-right axis as well. We can see a little bit more of the window on the right side. So we know that we're actually favored on the left a little bit. And so it makes sense that we're just below Christ, and we're just to his left. So Giotto is placing us in a very particular point in relation to these divine figures. And it is making room for us. DR. BETH HARRIS: As individuals, as viewers. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Giving us a kind of dignity in relationship to the divine. And that is an inherently Renaissance idea. And what I think is really remarkable is that the Old Testament prophets so that we saw in the Cimabue are now brought out of the basement, and they flank the Virgin Mary. And we can actually see their faces, at least two of them, framed in the wings of the throne itself. So it's as if Giotto is actually suggesting to us that a painting can be a kind of window that we can look into, that we can look through, and that a painting is a kind of frame in which we can enter with our eyes. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's the reason that Giotto's painting has a kind of emotional power. Even within this very traditional composition, all of that use of gold, all of these things that are still medieval, Giotto is literally making room. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: In a sense making a space for us in this room. Because this is a world that we can inhabit. This is a place that we know where there are solids, where there's gravity, where there is, in a sense, all of the physical forces that our bodies contend with. And we're able to inhabit this space in a much more direct way than in the previous paintings. DR. BETH HARRIS: So she's in Heaven, but she's still here with us. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That basic conflict will power the Renaissance for the next several hundred years. How do we incorporate, how do we bring together our physical experience and our understanding, our emotional attachment to the divine?