For this paper, I have chosen the Ognissanti (or Enthroned) Madonna by Giotto di Bondone, which he created for the All Saints’ Church in Florence. It is a beautiful piece of art, one that operates on a grand scale and serves as a critical milestone in history. The author is often regarded as one of the first artists of the Italian proto-Renaissance, one that influenced others and started a trend of breaking from the Byzantine style. The Ognissanti Madonna serves as an excellent example of the distinctive traits of Giotto’s art that would be imitated by artists that followed him. Its size and scale enable a demonstration of the guiding principles of the painter’s style, while its theme invites comparison with similar works by other great Italian artists, such as Cimabue. In this paper, I will review the cultural context and the visual characteristics of the artwork.
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Both Giotto and Cimabue worked in Florence in the same general period, though the latter preceded the former considerably. Kleiner highlights Vasari’s claim that the earlier artist taught the latter but notes that, while Cimabue likely influenced Giotto, the direct tutelage claims are debatable (407). Moreover, both painters worked with religious topics and received the patronage of the Catholic Church. As a religious depiction that was commissioned for a church and installed there (though it was later removed to a museum), the Ognissanti Madonna was likely also funded by representatives of Catholicism. “Virgin and Child” adds that Giotto worked for the specific church for some time, creating at least two other artworks for it. As part of a broader composition, the depictions adhered to a highly specific iconography consistent with the Italian Christianity of the time.
Depictions of the Virgin holding the Child while seated on a throne are popular in Christianity, particularly in the 13th and 14th centuries, when Giotto worked. According to “Virgin and Child,” this iconography inspired the title “Maestà,” or “Majesty,” which applies to a variety of paintings with similar traits. However, as Adams notes, Giotto omitted the Old Testament figures, making Christ the center of the painting (27). As shown in fig. 1, the painting depicts the Virgin holding Christ, who is making the sign for giving a blessing. She is sitting on an ostentatious throne that is surrounded by angels and saints who offer them gifts. The angels can be distinguished by their youthful appearance and the wings on those at the forefront, while the saints are in the background and appear older, with bearded faces.
During the Medieval era and early Renaissance, when Giotto worked and the Ognissanti Madonna was created, Catholicism was virtually unchallenged in Italy. Neither Protestantism nor atheism would emerge as substantial movements for a long time. The political and religious influence of the Vatican on Europe was powerful, particularly in Italian cities due to their proximity to Rome. Per Adams, Giotto worked in various cities throughout Italy, working on numerous religious paintings and mosaics (27). Considering the number of religious works that he created, the circumstances of his life, and the historical context, it is possible to assert that Giotto was a devout Catholic who had a close relationship with the church. As such, he would be intimately familiar with the religious concepts that he tried to depict and do so faithfully and skillfully.
The political context of the environment is not particularly relevant because of its structure at the time. As mentioned above, the Catholic Church had considerable political influence at the time, which allowed it a substantial degree of independence from the secular government. Moreover, the two systems were not generally in conflict, like Giotto’s appointment of familiar (friend) of Naples’s court while working primarily on Catholic-themed pieces demonstrates (Adams 27). As Italy was separated into numerous competing city-states at the time, all of them aimed to ally with the unified and powerful Church. Any tensions that took place would not be overt because of the Pope’s potential censure and the resulting damage. As such, there would likely be no political messaging or influence in Giotto’s work, as there was no reason for him to be involved in Italian court intrigues.
From a modern perspective, Giotto’s painting does not appear to be highly lifelike, but this style can be explained as the result of art being at an early stage. However, per Kleiner, the Ognissanti Madonna represents a substantial departure from the Byzantine and Italo-Byzantine styles and their spiritual immateriality and toward a more naturalistic approach (408). To that end, the figures are represented more realistically and appear to follow physics laws more than prior works by authors such as Cimabue. In the resulting work, the Virgin and Christ appear to be physical and grounded in reality, while Cimabue’s version features a throne that does not seem to be standing on solid ground (Kleiner 406). The specific features that contribute to this style warrant a more detailed exploration.
The painting takes a two-dimensional form, though Giotto uses the medium in a noteworthy manner that distinguishes the Ognissanti Madonna. The reason for this unique quality is the composition, which emphasizes the physicality of the space surrounding the throne. It is firmly grounded, and the angels and saints are standing in front of it and behind it, obscuring each other and the throne correspondingly. Per Adams, the techniques used by Giotto, namely the powerful definition of solids and the usage of chiaroscuro for the folds of fabric between Mary’s knees (27). Each figure has a subtle but definite contour line, enabling the clear separation of objects within the scene. Overall, the methods convey a feeling of three-dimensionality for the painting and the central figures, specifically.
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Giotto’s colors retain some Byzantine style features, such as the abundance of gold in the background and for various objects. However, “Virgin and Child” notes that the decorative elements on clothing have been minimized to focus on the bodies, and, other than the throne, the artist resorts to simple colors such as white, pink, or green. The represented texture has also been adjusted to give attention to the faces and bodies, conveying the perception of some coarseness compared to the smoothness of clothing and the throne. As mentioned above, Giotto tries to depict the space as three-dimensional by positioning the characters around the throne and applying his techniques to the depiction of the Virgin. The mass and volume are also transmitted in the depictions of the throne and Mary. They appear to occupy a substantial amount of space and be firmly positioned on the ground rather than float, which is partially the case with artists such as Duccio.
Giotto makes use of perspective and foreshortening to focus attention on the throne and the pair that occupies it. In particular, the throne’s arms are heavily foreshortened to reinforce the perception of a frontal view on a three-dimensional scene (Adams 25). The horizontal lines that define the arms are also not parallel to each other despite presumably being so in the throne as imagined, which is another expression of perspective. The body proportions of the characters depicted in the painting appear to be appropriate, though the Virgin’s elongated right hand may not be realistic. On the other hand, the scale hierarchy identifies Mary and Christ as the central figures of the painting by making them, as well as the throne in which they sit, much larger than the surrounding angels and saints.
The Ognissanti Madonna is mostly significant historically, though it also has substantial aesthetic meaning. It represents the point at which Italian artists started turning away from the dominant and stylized Byzantine approach and started exploring naturalism. Eventually, this movement led to the Renaissance, revolutionizing art and starting a continuous evolution that resulted in numerous masterpieces. Many of Giotto’s works display the same traits as the Ognissanti Madonna, but it is significant for its scale and the potential for comparison with Duccio’s and Cimabue’s versions of the same iconography, among others. By taking a classic and sophisticated scene and altering it per his ideas of art, Giotto expressed his style clearly and concisely. The Ognissanti Madonna’s distinctive qualities and the opportunities for the identification of trends due to the size and complexity of the composition make the artwork an excellent piece for review by art historians.
“Virgin and Child Enthroned, Surrounded by Angels and Saints (Ognissanti Maestà).” Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi, 2020. Web.
Adams, Laurie Schneider. Italian Renaissance Art. 2nd ed., Taylor & Francis, 2018.
Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective. 14th ed., vol. 1, Cengage Learning, 2012.