ST. FRANCIS BEFORE THE SOLDAN

(GIOTTO)

JOHN RUSKIN

It is a characteristic—(as far as I know, quite a universal one)—of the great masters, that they never expect you to look at them;—seem always rather surprised if you want to; and not overpleased. Tell them you are going to hang their picture at the upper end of the table at the next great City dinner, and that Mr. So-and-So will make a speech about it;—you produce no impression upon them whatever, or an unfavourable one. The chances are ten to one they send you the most rubbishy thing they can find in their lumber-room. But send for one of them in a hurry, and tell him the rats have gnawed a nasty hole behind the parlour door, and you want it plastered and painted over;—and he does you a masterpiece which the world will peep behind your door to look at for ever.

I have no time to tell you why this is so; nor do I know why, altogether, but so it is.

Giotto, then, is sent for, to paint this high chapel: I am not sure if he chose his own subjects from the life of St. Francis: I think so,—but of course can't reason on the guess securely. At all events, he would have much of his own way in the matter.

St. Francis before the Soldan. Giotto.

St. Francis before the Soldan.
Giotto.

Now you must observe that painting a Gothic chapel rightly is just the same thing as painting a Greek vase rightly. The chapel is merely the vase turned upside-down, and outside-in. The principles of decoration are exactly the same. Your decoration is to be proportioned to the size of your vase; to be together delightful when you look at the cup, or chapel, as a whole; to be various and entertaining when you turn the cup round; (you turn yourself round in the chapel;) and to bend its heads and necks of figures about, as best it can, over the hollows, and ins and outs, so that anyhow, whether too long or too short—possible or impossible—they may be living, and full of grace. You will also please take it on my word to-day—in another morning walk you shall have proof of it—that Giotto was a pure Etruscan-Greek of the Thirteenth Century: converted indeed to worship St. Francis instead of Heracles; but as far as vase-painting goes, precisely the Etruscan he was before. This is nothing else than a large, beautiful, coloured Etruscan vase you have got, inverted over your heads like a diving-bell. The roof has the symbols of the three virtues of labour—Poverty, Chastity, Obedience.

A. Highest on the left side, looking to the window. The life of St. Francis begins in his renunciation of the world.

B. Highest on the right side. His new life is approved and ordained by the authority of the church.

C. Central on the left side. He preaches to his own disciples.

D. Central on the right side. He preaches to the heathen.

E. Lowest on the left side. His burial.

F. Lowest on the right side. His power after death.

Besides these six subjects, there are, on the sides of the window, the four great Franciscan saints, St. Louis of France, St. Louis of Toulouse, St. Clare, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary. The Soldan, with an ordinary opera-glass, you may see clearly enough; and I think it will be first well to notice some technical points in it.

If the little virgin on the stairs of the temple reminded you of one composition of Titian's, this Soldan should, I think, remind you of all that is greatest in Titian; so forcibly, indeed, that for my own part, if I had been told that a careful early fresco by Titian had been recovered in Santa Croce, I could have believed both report and my own eyes, more quickly than I have been able to admit that this is indeed by Giotto. It is so great that—had its principles been understood—there was in reality nothing more to be taught of art in Italy; nothing to be invented afterwards except Dutch effects of light.

That there is "no effect of light" here arrived at, I beg you at once to observe as a most important lesson. The subject is St. Francis challenging the Soldan's Magi,—fire-worshippers—to pass with him through the fire, which is blazing red at his feet. It is so hot that the two Magi on the other side of the throne shield their faces. But it is represented simply as a red mass of writhing forms of flame; and casts no firelight whatever. There is no ruling colour on anybody's nose; there are no black shadows under anybody's chin; there are no Rembrandtesque gradations of gloom, or glitterings of sword-hilt and armour.

Is this ignorance, think you, in Giotto, and pure artlessness? He was now a man in middle life, having passed all his days in painting, and professedly, and almost contentiously, painting things as he saw them. Do you suppose he never saw fire cast firelight?—and he the friend of Dante! who of all poets is the most subtle in his sense of every kind of effect of light—though he has been thought by the public to know that of fire only. Again and again, his ghosts wonder that there is no shadow cast by Dante's body; and is the poet's friend because a painter, likely, therefore, not to have known that mortal substance casts shadow, and terrestrial flame, light? Nay, the passage in the Purgatorio where the shadows from the morning sunshine make the flames redder, reaches the accuracy of Newtonian science, and does Giotto, think you, all the while, see nothing of the sort?