Giotto di Bondone has been always referred to as the artist who initiated the new, or if to be more precise, renewed style of the visual arts known as Renaissance - Compare image introduction. To get a better idea of the nature of Giotto’s achievement it is useful to compare his work with contemporary representations of the same theme –take, for example, the Madonna Enthroned.
First we consider the Madonna Enthroned by Cimabue painted between 1280 and 1290. In this painting there is an obvious adherence to the Byzantine tradition of flattening of the space. Nevertheless, the painting has some departures from the Byzantine conventions. Though the space is shallow, the painting nonetheless attempts to situate its figures within a constructed depth of field. This illusion of three-dimensional space is accentuated in the drapery that wraps the body of the Virgin which corresponds to the implied volume of the figure.
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Cimabue’s predecessors did not exhibit so much novelty in their works and held to the traditional type of icon panting. Classic example of this older type is Theotokos of Vladimir, frontispiece, brought from Constantinople to Kiev, Ukraine in the early twelfth century. This work shows many of Byzantine tradition just the same as the work of Cimabue. There is little variation in scale between two figures which implies that they both exist on the same plane, which in turn flattens out the painting. There is, however, a concentration on facial expressions which produces a sense of emotion and tenderness, which is quite unusual for its date, the Virgin’s head touching the Child’s in a gesture of very deep affection. Though being very emotional Theotokos of Vladimir still lags behind Giotto’s work as regards its naturalistic representation.
It is notable that work of Giotto is taken as a turning point in Western art. If we consider the artist’s version of the Madonna Enthroned we can see that the painter has placed much greater emphasis on the description of volume. The most common way to produce an illusion of volume is to make the viewer believe that elements within the scene exist in light and shadow. Giotto’s use of light as a tool in the modeling of items enabled the inner space of the painting effectively to recede. Such way of painting makes figures be considerably different from flat, embedded design of Byzantine. According to Vasari it was Giotto who first attempted the device of foreshortening to produce an illusionistic space within the plane of painting (Vasari, 1998). This technique mimics everyday perception as things closer to us appear larger than those in the distance and such technique results in highly naturalistic image.
Of course, we have to give Vasari credit for his so precise assessment of Giotto’s paintings; however, to my opinion Theotokos of Vladimir still is most beautiful among the three due to its expression of tenderness and golden-warm colors. Both these elements make the painting express divinity and humanity at one and the same time.
Vasari, Giorgio (1998). The Lives of the Artists. Transl. by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella Oxford: Oxford University Press