The Gothic Santa Croce Church in Florence contains some of Giotto’s most famous frescoes, painted around 1320-25, when he was already a famous and much in-demand artist. Depicting scenes from the “Life of Saint Francis” (in the Bardi Chapel) and “Lives of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist” (Peruzzi Chapel), this series of frescoes are some of Giotto’s most notable works, that have literally changed the course of art history. Here we can appreciate his revolutionary techniques and stylistic solutions that have paved the way for future generation of artists.

Giotto di Bondone is often labelled the Father of Western painting. What was new about his style? His experiments with space, light and perspective – at least a primitive idea of it – and the realism of his figures. He’s a storyteller, a dramatist, who studied the ancient Roman fresco techniques and applied them to his works, bringing new life and naturalism to the art of painting.

Santa Croce Church in Florence is the perfect place to admire his work and glean inspiration, just as Masaccio and Michelangelo did.

Frescoes by Giotto in Santa Croce Church

The Bardi and Peruzzi Chapel, frescoed by Giotto, are some of Santa Croce Church’s masterpieces. It’s here that Giotto showed his new sensitivity and style, representing realistic scenes and people, in place of the static, stylized figures that were typical of Romanesque and Byzantine style. With Giotto, reality entered the world of painting. How? Naturalistic details, expressive figures, the vivacity of scenes. a sense of depth in the architecture. And a first attempt at perspective, with the artist using light to create volume.

BARDI CHAPEL serie of frescoes “Life of Saint Francis” by Giotto (around 1325)

The Bardi Chapel was commissioned by the Bardi family, a noble family that was then at the apex of its financial and political power in Florence. The subject of the frescoes – the humble, impecunious Saint Francis – might not seem very apt for a wealthy banking family, but it was indeed perfect for Santa Croce, the city’s most important Franciscan church.

=> Did you know? Giotto had already painted the life of Saint Francis in the San Francesco Basilica in Assisi.

The entrance to the Bardi Chapel is marked by the dramatic “Stigmatisation of St Francis”, the episode that represents the highest point in the saint’s life. Saint Francis received the stigmata while praying on Mount La Verna. This labelled him as Christ’s direct successor, according to the Legenda Maior, one of the saint’s earliest hagiographies. In this scene the saint looks overwhelmed, while the rays indicate the points in his hands and feet were the stigmata would appear.

as he was praying on the side of the mountain, he saw the figure of a seraphim, with six wings as bright as they were fiery, descending from the sublimity of the heavens (…) and then there appeared between its wings the effigy of a crucified man (…) Two wings rose above his head, two stretched out to fly, and two veiled his whole body. At that sight he was greatly astonished, while joy and sadness flooded his heart

Legenda Maior
Frescos by Giotto in Santa Croce Church Florence
Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce Church

Setting the scene realistically was one of Giotto’s great innovations. As you can see in one of Giotto’s better-known works, the “Death of St. Francis,” (the scene is located on the left wall, at eye level), monks gathered for his funeral, weeping with convincing pathos. Each character has their own individual story: one is amazed when he sees that the saints’ soul is being carried heavenward by angels, another monk kisses the stigmata, while a disbelieving nobleman examines the wound in St. Francis’ side.

frescoes by giotto in santa croce church florence
“Death of Saint Francis”, Bardi Chapel – Image by Wikipedia

In “Apparition of Saint Francis” Giotto uses light to create depth and shape. The figures look solid thanks to the way the light and shadow on their robes create volume.

Looking at this scene is like looking at a picture, where the figures don’t interact with the viewers but are totally absorbed in the drama of the moment. Here some of the monks are showing their backs to the viewers, a new element of composition that creates intimacy and realism. Saint Francis appears serene, his hands raised to perfectly complete the architectural design, drawing all attention to himself.

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frescoes by giotto in santa croce church florence
“Apparition of Saint Francis, Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce Church

Psychological depth – another one of Giotto’s new stylistic marks – is what characterises the fresco “Francis renouncing his possession”. Here we see his angry father (in yellow) being restrained, while young Francis is pointing at the sky, more interested in the spiritual realm than earthly affairs. He’s naked but for a robe the bishop is covering him with. The characters that complete the scene react differently to this shocking episode, and their expressions show what they think of Francis’s crazy gesture. The children on both sides are being held back by mothers to stop them throwing stones at him. Giotto here manages to mix the divine with the human, the sacred with everyday reality.

“Francis renouncing his possession”, Bardi Chapel

PERUZZI CHAPEL, frescoes by Giotto (1318-22)

The second chapel to the right of the apse was funded by another banker family, the Peruzzi. On the left side are episodes of the life of Saint John The Baptist (Florence’s patron saint) and the right side is decorated with scenes from the life of Saint John the Apostle. The frescoes are badly damaged because Giotto painted them on dry plaster instead of wet plaster (the usual medium for frescoes).

John the Apostle is the writer behind the Book of Revelation, and here he’s portrayed asleep, surrounded by his apocalyptic visions. The best known scene of the Peruzzi Chapel is “Raising Drusiana from the Dead”, where Giotto uses architectural elements to create a depth to the scene. The disposition of the figures and the vivid details create tension and give a sense of real emotional charge.

The left side is decorated with scenes from the Life of St John the Baptist, in which once again architectural elements help with the narrative. In “Birth and Naming of the Baptist” Giotto unites two scenes by way of the architecture: on one side we see John’s mother, in labour, and on the left, his father, who’s writing his name on a tablet.

The “Feast of Herod” scene is badly damaged, but the narrative is still intact. We see Herod being served the severed head of John on a dish, and Salomè dancing watched by two women, and the moment of horror is still clear: an apparently normal environment where the horror is perpetrated, and all the details create tension.

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“Raising Druisiana from the Dead”, Peruzzi Chapel, Santa Croce Church

=> The other frescoes to look out for in the Church of Santa Croce are from Giotto’s most eminent pupil – Taddeo Gaddi – who painted the Baroncelli-Giugni Chapel in the transept. The frescoes depict scenes from the “Life of the Virgin,” and include an “Annunciation to the Shepherds” that is the first night scene to be shown in an Italian fresco.

Why frescoes? The frescoes depicting religious stories in Medieval churches were there to educate a largely illiterate population. They became a substitute for mosaics, and flourished between the 12th to 17th century, mainly in Florence. Some of the best examples from the 15th century are right here in Florence. During the Medieval period and Early Renaissance, most painting was either a church altarpiece or a fresco. Painting for private residences only took off later during the Renaissance with artists like Botticelli.

Did you know? The frescoes in the Peruzzi Chapel were re-discovered in 1841. The frescoes were hidden after a layer of white painting.

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