NEW RESEARCH: Redefining the Altarpiece in early Renaissance Italy: Giotto’s Stigmatization of Saint Francis and its Pisan Context
The Stigmata of St. Francis is a painting by Giotto from around 1295 – 1300 and housed in Musée du Louvre in Paris. For the central portion of the painting, Giotto chose not to depict a full-length hieratic figure, but rather the pivotal scene from the life of the saint – the stigmatization he underwent through the intervention of the Seraph. The predella of the painting depicts three other scenes from his life: the dream of pope innocent III wherein he sees St. Francis supporting a church about to collapse, the pope approving the Franciscan order and St. Francis preaching to the birds.
Although one of the few paintings by Giotto, which is actually signed, it is nevertheless often overlooked by art historians believing it to be no more than another altarpiece from a side-chapel in San Francesco in Pisa.
Recent research by Donal Cooper into the register of nine inventories of the church from 1367 -1472 has, however, shown that this work was never an altarpiece, but designed for display over a screen or beam as can be seen in the “Verification of the Stigmata”, a fresco from the Upper Church of San Francesco in Assisi.
Thus, he writes “the Louvre panel should be understood as part of a hitherto undervalued phenomenon in the early history of Italian panel painting, the emergence of elevated images on a monumental scale in the decades around 1300. This genre provided fresh opportunities for developing new iconographies or narratives within expansive pictorial fields.”
The history behind this new-fangled fashion, identified by Cooper, is still somewhat obscure. For instance it is not known what connection these elevated panels had with the tradition of Byzantine iconostasis imagery. Nor is it quite clear which physical challenges had to be met in order to raise and suspend these unwieldy panels.
However, what is clear from the exploration of the panel in Louvre is the way in which its motive was chosen carefully in order to signal the consecration of the church up front making a “powerful institutional statement and emphasizing the stigmata as a divine seal for the order’s rule and preaching”.
Redefining the Altarpiece in early Renaissance Italy: Giotto’s Stigmatization of Saint Francis and its Pisan Context
By Donal Cooper,
In: Art History, Volume 36, Issue 4, pages 686–713, September 2013