The Spirit of the Frescoes: The Unification of Light

In considering the frescoes of Giotto and Taddeo Gaddi from the early 14th century, 
specifically in the Peruzzi, Bardi and Baroncelli Chapels to the right of the main chapel of Santa Croce, the beauty of their art is fancied by visitors, students of art history and Italians alike. Both painters are celebrated for their originality in composition, and for evolving the techniques in painting during their time. Giotto and Taddeo Gaddi’s use of light, shadow, and perspective provided attention to naturalism and optics. This rendered an experience for the 14th century beholder that was different from ordinary life; it left a special impression on the medieval viewer because the scenes oriented them in relationship with it, bringing the beholder closer to God.
As 21st century beholders of medieval art from an aesthetic point of view, we are
observers of cultural achievement, and not necessarily participants. Looking at the Middle Ages from a purely critical or historical point of view can be a dangerous and misguided attempt at understanding the beauty of the age. And yet, allowing ourselves to be visually swooned by looking at art from solely a romantic perspective is likewise not the most fitting position to be in.
To embrace and revel in the aesthetic integrity of the medieval age, perhaps experience a touch of the emotions that the artists intended, is certainly a challenge. Our mind on a day to day basis is overwhelmed with images and symbols, a fact untrue for individuals in medieval time. In respect to this, to recognize the beauty of these frescoes is something that demands some time and effort from us.
The artist’s great achievements in painting are reasons why these frescoes are so
compelling to look at, if only we are to understand a little of what they succeeded in doing. In the Bardi Chapel, Giotto depicted the Story of St. Francis in six scenes. From inside the chapel, the  viewer is meant to see all the scenes from the same spot. Image

Therefore the inner space created within each individual scene is according to this central spot. Giotto further asserts this perspective by accounting for the stained glass window in the chapel, and using the window’s actual light as the light source within his scenes. The fresco’s architectural relationship, sharing the same space and the same light, provides an affect that puts the viewer in the scenes with St. Francis, nonetheless within the chapel of Santa Croce. It must be remembered, however, that in the medieval ages, the beholder was not surrounded by artificial lighting (it was actually the dark ages). Therefore, their perception of the light was much stronger, further illustrating their relationship with St. Francis and with God. Light, for medieval painters, was believed to be one way in which to represent God, as God was light.

As an artist, Taddeo Gaddi accounted for light much more implicitly than Giotto did.
Taddeo Gaddi learned Giotto’s techniques with light while he was his assistant, and went a step further with the study of optics.Image

His scenes depicting the Life of the Virgin in the Baroncelli Chapel are also completely unified with the architectural space surrounding it. However, in the chapel, one may notice that the location of the window is on the same wall as the frescoes.
Taddeo Gaddi was thus faced with a problem: there was no direct light source for those scenes on the same wall as the window. How did he account for a light source when the actual light source was backlit? He created an artificial light source instead, with the scenes taking place during nighttime. His supernatural light in the form of an angel provided a “flash” of light to make the scenes visible in the dark. Giotto on the other hand portrayed nighttime differently, for example by depicting torches, or not portraying scenes at night at all. Taddeo Gaddi introduced changes in the meaning of light, and his artificial creation of it also exhibits his attention to the architectural space in which he was working. His solution for maintaining a unification of light is brilliant, and further asserts the magnificence of naturalism to the beholder. This is additionally a key aspect of the mendicant order’s style, and these frescoes are undeniably part of the beauty of this Franciscan church.


Blogger Kaitlyn Laurie is a student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She is studying philosophy, the theory of art and architecture, and languages.

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