The Stigmata of St. Francis is a painting by famed Italian artist Giotto di Bondone. The stigmata was originally part of an altarpiece for the San Francesco church in Pisa Italy. The stigma was completed in the High Medieval Ages (C.1000-1299 CE) between the years 1295-1300 CE. The painting depicts St. Francis of Assisi: an Italian monk who founded the Franciscan Order in 1209 CE. Francis believed that monks should follow the teaching of Jesus and his apostles be living in poverty and preaching penance.
In 1224, Francis became the first documented person to experience Christ’s Passion or stigmata: body marks, sores, or sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the describe body marks, sores, or sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, such as the hands, wrists, and feet., such as the hands, wrists, and feet [Crook 1999, 19].
The Stigmata of St. Francis, hereafter known as the Stigmata, is one of the first narrative panels;it depicts the stigmatization of St. Francis, Pope Innocent III’s Dream of the Lateran, Innocent Confirming the Rule, and Francis’ Sermon to the Birds.
The Stigmata is painted on an special type of altarpiece known as a polyptych: “a structure of made of vertically joined planks, with a frame that was far more architectural than previous versions, with moldings and pinnacles” [See Sciacca 2012, 85]. With this new structure the Stigmata was given more room to expand to full-length portrayal of St. Francis. The front of the polyptych was then painted with tempera.
The work has a rectangular shape in the lower part, ending with a triangular cusp, and has a golden background. The Stigmata is special because it is one of the first altarpieces to abandon traditional Byzantine style of inexpressive, frontal figures depicted with serious facial structures. The Stigmata is notable because it is one of the first works of art to employ the use of naturalism. According to Hayden Maginnis “there is a transition between real and pictorial space that hadn't been seen before in earlier works. This was accomplished by placing the front corner of a piece of furniture, seen obliquely, in the immediate foreground; in other instances a figure served the purpose.” [See Maginnis 1997, 105].
Giotto depicts St. Francis kneeling in front of a mountain on one knee beneath a seraphim shaped Jesus. In St. Francis’ face one can see fear or even startlement, emotions that were not able to be depicted in earlier paintings: “New exploration of setting and lighting led to consideration of how gesture and facial expression might heighten the viewer’s empathetic response” [ See Maginnis 1997, 109]. The Stigmata depicts Christ passing along the Passion to Francis via golden rays that emanate from the former's wounds that were inflicted during crucifixion as a reward for his faithfulness. This is different than paintings only a few years prior because this narrative is larger than the others, signifying a more important role than the other three narratives. Francis also dominates this first scene to the extent that Jesus is only visible in the upper corner of the painting in the vision of the stigmatization [ See Crook 1999, 151].
The Stigmata also has three other smaller, narrative painting that depict other famous events in the saint’s life: Pope Innocent III’s Dream of the Lateran, Innocent Confirming the Rule, and the Sermon to the Birds. In Pope Innocent's dream, Francis is shown upholding the falling church of the Lateran which represented the support of a crumpling institution. The middle narration depicts Pope Innocent approving the rule of the Franciscan Order.
This approval signified a combining of two different ideologies. At this point the Catholic Church was wealth and used its power to influence secular dealings. The Franciscan Order wanted to abstain from such influences. According to W.R. Crook “They were to live in imitation of the apostles, preaching penance. From the pope’s perspective, they were to be a clear and living refutation of the claim of some heretics that gospel life and the Catholic Church were incompatible” [Crook 1999, 19]. The final scene depicts St. Francis’ famous sermon to the birds in which he allegedly began to spread the word of God to all living animals he passed. This story is of the factors that led to him becoming the patron saint of animals.
Local Historical ContextEdit
Giotto lived in or near the Italian state of Florence during the later 13th century to the early 14th century and was greatly influenced by the changing world around him. During this time Western Europe was experiencing a large state building process fueled by the taxes paid by citizens , an event that was relatively new at this point in European history. The large amount of revenue being brought in from the taxes fostered an atmosphere of competition, a cultural arms race. This cultural arms race led to one of the most important cultural revolutions in human history, the Renaissance.
The term Renaissance refers to the “rebirth” of European Civilization after the Black Plague forced European culture into a period of both economic and cultural decay known as the Middle Ages. The Renaissance was centered in Florence and was witness to a dramatic burst of artistic, intellectual, and spiritual creativity on a scale that had not been seen since the ancient Greek and Romans. Painters and sculptures began to move toward a more fluid or naturalistic representation of art that began to replace the stiff models that dominated medieval sculptures and paintings.
This movement towards a more naturalist styling can be seen in the Stigmata as St. Francis is depicted in a kneeling manner with the surrounding landmarks become realistically scaled. As time progressed, artists stopped making art exclusively for large cathedrals and started doing work on behave of the social elite. This led to fewer depictions of saints being depicted and instead more “normal” human images were painted a led to a more cosmopolitan atmosphere.
The Renaissance did far more than just producing beautiful, iconic artwork; it also fostered an environment for profound intellectual and spiritual growth. This period saw the rise of a group of thinkers known as humanists. Humanists studied the literature, history, and moral philosophy of classical thinkers of the ancient Greek and Roman world. Many of these works had been destroyed or hidden away during the middle ages because they were seen as heresy by the Catholic Church. It wasn't until the 14th and 15th century that thinkers began to argue that Christian values and classical philosophical truth could coexist.
Famed humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam  (1466-1536 CE) created a newer, more properly translated Latin and Greek versions of the New Testament to replace the older, poorly translated ones of the medieval period. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola(1463-1494) tried to combine the best of Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and classical Greek thinking to create a corpus of shared knowledge that would broaden the borders of European thought. This led to more people abandoning full servitude to the church and instead becoming more active in the secular world.
World Historical SignificanceEdit
In a larger historical context, St. Francis receiving the stigmata is the earliest artwork to show signs of naturalist techniques. It abandoned the traditional Byzantine/ medieval conventions of art and began to depict figures with more human emotions. The Stigmata makes use of a narrative design that would eventually replace the front facing art of earlier years. Giotto himself was also an influential figure in the early stages of the Renaissance in Florence.
This altarpiece marks the beginning of a transitional period in European history in which art and philosophy started to become less religious and focus more on older themes and forms of the classical Greek and Roman age. The movement that it helped inspire would lead to a cultural arms race that directly caused the age of expansion and exploration by European powers. Giotto, like his Renaissance contemporaries, helped shape and influence art and thought in Europe for the next three centuries and would help create some of the world’s most icon cathedrals, paintings, and texts.
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