Coming from an art history background and having worked in museums (the Frick and the Carnegie Museum) I always enjoy new art discoveries. It demonstrates the power of art, reaching beyond the centuries to speak to us here and now.
Such is the case with a famous Giotto fresco. Art restorers recently discovered–after cleaning the painting, no doubt–the profile of what appears to be a devil. This fresco is among Giotto’s famous cycle of scenes of the life and death of St. Francis in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. They date to the 13th century, but are surprisingly vivid and stirring for us moderns.
Here, in this photo, just to the right edge of the clouds one can see the ghostly outline of the villainous fiend. See his wicked grin and sharp-horned head?
Art historian Chiara Frugone discovered this image with the help of high-powered zoom photography. It must have been surprising for her suddenly to confront such a frightful face. (Here is the devil’s mug cropped out for you, just in case you haven’t found lucifer yet! He’s just beneath the angel in white)
Giotto is commonly known in the art world as the father of the Italian Renaissance, and by extension modern art. His dramatic, bold naturalism captured the imagination of the artists at that time. His figures had solid, ostensible weight and expressed heightened emotion unseen in art before him.
Born near Florence, Italy in 1266, this Italian painter and architect was hailed by Dante as the most innovative painter of his time. Legend has it that Cimabue, the most famous artist before Giotto, discovered the painter at the age of 10 as he was drawing sheep figures on rock formations. So impressed was the medieval master Cimabue that he brought the young Giotto to apprentice with him.
As an aside, Dante speaks of Giotto’s eventual overshadowing of his master Cimabue in Canto XI of his Purgatorio. Here Dante honors the two talents, and seems to sympathize with the Cimabue’s fading glory–as one star in the art heaven began to shine against and brighter than the other:
O vanity of human powers,
how briefly lasts the crowning green of glory,
unless an age of darkness follows!
In painting Cimabue thought he held the field
but now it’s Giotto has the cry,
so that the other’s fame is dimmed.
Yes, Giotto’s art was a revolution, arresting attention as does any great genius. Considering the importance of his invention and technique, it is not surprising that he continues to dazzle us even today.
Sadly the artwork in the basilica in the convent where St Francis is buried was badly damaged by a severe and unusual earthquake in 1997. Since the terrible quake, most of frescoes have been restored.
Both the St. Francis cycle, and the paintings of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, also known as the Arena Chapel, are Giotto’s masterworks. Considering his puckish sense of humor, one wonders what might be discovered there if we take a closer look?
Art historians believe that Giotto didn’t intend that the devil image be of center focus, but rather that the artist was having “a bit of fun.” Seems Giotto was aware that satan likes to poke his nose and horns into our lives. Give the devil a taste of his own medicine with a sharp shove back. With a little help from St. Francis and St. Clare, of course!
Jennifer Roche has a BA in the history of art from Chatham College with minors in philosophy and French. She has authored many publications for Catholic press as well as secular, and a storybook for adults and children on the Maltese Islands called Cat Tails from Malta.