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.

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?

The fact was, he saw light so intensely that he never for an instant thought of painting it. He knew that to paint the sun was as impossible as to stop it; and he was no trickster, trying to find out ways of seeming to do what he did not. I can paint a rose,—yes; and I will. I can't paint a red-hot coal; and I won't try to, nor seem to. This was just as natural and certain a process of thinking with him, as the honesty of it, and true science, were impossible to the false painters of the Sixteenth Century.

Nevertheless, what his art can honestly do to make you feel as much as he wants you to feel, about this fire, he will do; and that studiously. That the fire be luminous or not, is no matter just now. But that the fire is hot, he would have you to know. Now, will you notice what colours he has used in the whole picture. First, the blue background, necessary to unite it with the other three subjects, is reduced to the smallest possible space. St. Francis must be in grey, for that is his dress; also the attendant of one of the Magi is in grey; but so warm, that, if you saw it by itself, you would call it brown. The shadow behind the throne, which Giotto knows he can paint, and therefore does, is grey also. The rest of the picture21 in at least six-sevenths of its area—is either crimson, gold, orange, purple, or white, all as warm as Giotto could paint them; and set off by minute spaces only of intense black,—the Soldan's fillet at the shoulders, his eyes, beard, and the points necessary in the golden pattern behind. And the whole picture is one glow.

A single glance round at the other subjects will convince you of the special character in this; but you will recognize also that the four upper subjects in which St. Francis's life and zeal are shown, are all in comparatively warm colours, while the two lower ones—of the death, and the visions after it—have been kept as definitely sad and cold.

Necessarily, you might think, being full of monks' dresses. Not so. Was there any need for Giotto to have put the priest at the foot of the dead body, with the black banner stooped over it in the shape of a grave? Might he not, had he chosen, in either fresco, have made the celestial visions brighter? Might not St. Francis have appeared in the centre of a celestial glory to the dreaming Pope, or his soul been seen of the poor monk, rising through more radiant clouds? Look, however, how radiant, in the small space allowed out of the blue, they are in reality. You cannot anywhere see a lovelier piece of Giottesque colour, though here you have to mourn over the smallness of the piece, and its isolation. For the face of St. Francis himself is repainted, and all the blue sky; but the clouds and four sustaining angels are hardly retouched at all, and their iridescent and exquisitely graceful wings are left with really very tender and delicate care by the restorer of the sky. And no one but Giotto or Turner could have painted them.

For in all his use of opalescent and warm colour, Giotto is exactly like Turner, as, in his swift expressional power, he is like Gainsborough. All the other Italian religious painters work out their expression with toil; he only can give it with a touch. All the other great Italian colourists see only the beauty of colour, but Giotto also its brightness. And none of the others, except Tintoret, understood to the full its symbolic power; but with those—Giotto and Tintoret—there is always, not only a colour harmony, but a colour secret. It is not merely to make the picture glow, but to remind you that St. Francis preaches to a fire-worshipping king, that Giotto covers the wall with purple and scarlet;—and above, in the dispute at Assisi, the angry father is dressed in red, varying like passion; and the robe with which his protector embraces St. Francis, blue, symbolizing the peace of Heaven. Of course certain conventional colours were traditionally employed by all painters; but only Giotto and Tintoret invent a symbolism of their own for every picture. Thus in Tintoret's picture of the fall of the manna, the figure of God the Father is entirely robed in white, contrary to all received custom; in that of Moses striking the rock, it is surrounded by a rainbow. Of Giotto's symbolism in colour at Assisi I have given account elsewhere.22

You are not to think, therefore, the difference between the colour of the upper and lower frescos unintentional. The life of St. Francis was always full of joy and triumph. His death, in great suffering, weariness, and extreme humility. The tradition of him reverses that of Elijah: living, he is seen in the chariot of fire; dying, he submits to more than the common sorrow of death.

There is, however, much more than a difference in colour between the upper and lower frescos. There is a difference in manner which I cannot account for; and above all, a very singular difference in skill,—indicating, it seems to me, that the two lower were done long before the others, and afterwards united and harmonized with them. It is of no interest to the general reader to pursue this question; but one point he can notice quickly, that the lower frescos depend much on a mere black or brown outline of the features, while the faces above are evenly and completely painted in the most accomplished Venetian manner:—and another, respecting the management of the draperies, contains much interest for us.

Giotto never succeeded, to the very end of his days, in representing a figure lying down, and at ease. It is one of the most curious points in all his character. Just the thing which he could study from nature without the smallest hindrance, is the thing he never can paint; while subtleties of form and gesture, which depend absolutely on their momentariness, and actions in which no model can stay for an instant he seizes with infallible accuracy.

Not only has the sleeping Pope, in the right hand lower fresco, his head laid uncomfortably on his pillow, but all the clothes on him are in awkward angles, even Giotto's instinct for lines of drapery failing him altogether when he has to lay it on a reposing figure. But look at the folds of the Soldan's robe over his knees. None could be more beautiful or right; and it is to me wholly inconceivable that the two paintings should be within even twenty years of each other in date—the skill in the upper one is so supremely greater. We shall find, however, more than mere truth in its casts of drapery, if we examine them.

They are so simply right, in the figure of the Soldan, that we do not think of them;—we see him only, not his dress. But we see dress first, in the figures of the discomfited Magi. Very fully draped personages these, indeed,—with trains, it appears four yards long, and bearers of them.

The one nearest the Soldan has done his devoir as bravely as he could; would fain go up to the fire, but cannot; is forced to shield his face, though he has not turned back. Giotto gives him full sweeping breadth of fold; what dignity he can;—a man faithful to his profession, at all events.

The next one has no such courage. Collapsed altogether, he has nothing more to say for himself or his creed. Giotto hangs the cloak upon him in Ghirlandajo's fashion, as from a peg, but with ludicrous narrowness of fold. Literally, he is a "shut-up" Magus—closed like a fan. He turns his head away, hopelessly. And the last Magus shows nothing but his back, disappearing through the door.

Opposed to them, in a modern work, you would have had a St. Francis standing as high as he could in his sandals, contemptuous, denunciatory; magnificently showing the Magi the door. No such thing, says Giotto. A somewhat mean man; disappointing even in presence—even in feature; I do not understand his gesture, pointing to his forehead—perhaps meaning, "my life, or my head, upon the truth of this." The attendant monk behind him is terror-struck; but will follow his master. The dark Moorish servants of the Magi show no emotion—will arrange their masters' trains as usual, and decorously sustain their retreat.

Lastly, for the Soldan himself. In a modern work, you would assuredly have had him staring at St. Francis with his eyebrows up, or frowning thunderously at the Magi, with them bent as far down as they would go. Neither of these aspects does he bear according to Giotto. A perfect gentleman and king, he looks on his Magi with quiet eyes of decision; he is much the noblest person in the room—though an infidel, the true hero of the scene, far more so than St. Francis. It is evidently the Soldan whom Giotto wants you to think of mainly, in this picture of Christian missionary work.

He does not altogether take the view of the Heathen which you would get in an Exeter Hall meeting. Does not expatiate on their ignorance, their blackness, or their nakedness. Does not at all think of the Florentine Islington and Pentonville, as inhabited by persons in every respect superior to the Kings of the East; nor does he imagine every other religion but his own to be log-worship. Probably the people who really worship logs—whether in Persia or Pentonville—will be left to worship logs to their hearts' content, thinks Giotto. But to those who worship God, and who have obeyed the laws of heaven written in their hearts, and numbered the stars of it visible to them,—to these, a nearer star may rise; and a higher God be revealed.

You are to note, therefore, that Giotto's Soldan is the type of all noblest religion and law, in countries where the name of Christ has not been preached. There was no doubt what king or people should be chosen: the country of the three Magi had already been indicated by the miracle of Bethlehem; and the religion and morality of Zoroaster were the purest, and in spirit the oldest, in the heathen world. Therefore, when Dante in the nineteenth and twentieth books of the Paradise, gives his final interpretation of the law of human and divine justice in relation to the gospel of Christ—the lower and enslaved body of the heathen being represented by St. Philip's convert ("Christians like these the Ethiop shall condemn")—the noblest state of heathenism is at once chosen, as by Giotto: "What may the Persians say untoyour kings?" Compare also Milton,—

"At the Soldan's chair,
Defied the best of Paynim chivalry."

Mornings in Florence (Sunnyside, Orpington, Kent, 1875).


21 The floor has been repainted; but though its grey is now heavy and cold, it cannot kill the splendour of the rest.

22 Fors Clavigera for September, 1874.