The scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) are comparable to the frescoes depicting the same subject in the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi that are also attributed to Giotto. For the central portion of the painting, Giotto chose not to depict a full-length, hieratic figure, as one generally sees on 13th-century retables, but rather one of the key moments in the life of St. Francis: the receiving the stigmata of Christ, whom he sees in the form of a seraph while praying on Mount Della Verna.
The predella of the retable depicts four scenes from the life of the saint: to the left, the dream of Pope Innocent III wherein he sees St. Francis supporting a church about to collapse; in the center, the pope approving the rule of the Franciscan order; to the right, St. Francis preaching to the birds, demonstrating that the Word of God applies to all living creatures.
The Stigmata of St. Francis was made by the famous Italian artist Giotto di Bondone. It was originally part of an altarpiece for the Church of San Francesco in Pisa, Italy.
Giotto lived either in or near Florence during the later 13th century and was greatly influenced by the changing world around him. During this time, Western Europe was experiencing a large state building process, fueled by the taxes paid by citizens.
The large amount of revenue that was brought through this taxes, enabled an atmosphere of competition, leading to one of the most important cultural revolutions in human history: the Renaissance.
Painters and sculptures moved towards a more fluid and more natural representations of art, replacing the stiff models that were seen in medieval artwork.
As time progressed, artists stopped making art exclusively for large cathedrals and started doing work on behave of the social elite. This led to fewer depictions of holiness, and instead more normal human images, in a more cosmopolitan atmosphere.
This particular painting was completed between the years 1295-1300, and it depicts St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Orders.
Francis followed the teachings of our Lord, by living in poverty and practicing penance, and in 1224, he became the first documented person to ever experienced Christ’s Passion through the stigmata, which are body marks, sores, and pain, in locations that correspond those to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ. We will see an emphasis on the wounds of the hands, side, and feet.
The Stigmata of St. Francis, is one of the first narrative panels of its kind; the full work depicts the following scenes: the stigmatization of St. Francis, Pope Innocent III’s Dream of Lateran, Pope Innocent Confirming the Rule, and Francis’ Sermon to the Birds.
This panel was once displayed in the Louvre, after Napoleon raided Italy and had the artwork transported to Paris.
The Stigmata is painted on a structure made of vertical joined planks, with a frame and moldings that were nonexistent in previous versions. With this new structure this piece had more room to display a full-length portrayal of St. Francis.
The front of the panel was painted with tempera, giving it a characteristic golden background.
This is one of the first works to employ naturalism, which means that the altarpiece abandoned the traditional Byzantine style of inexpression.
Therefor we are not seeing any frontal figures with a serious facial gesture.
St. Francis is kneeling in front of a mountain on one knee, beneath a seraphic figure of Jesus. His expression might show fear or even astonishment, emotions that were not depicted in earlier paintings.
Jesus Christ is passing along His Passion to Francis via golden rays that emanate from his wounds, inflicted during the crucifixion, and that now are a reward for Francis’ faithfulness.
Francis also dominates this scene to the extent that Jesus is only visible in the upper corner of the painting.
St. Francis receiving the stigmata is the earliest artwork to show signs of naturalism techniques. Leaving the traditional Byzantine medieval conventions of art, depicting instead figures with human emotions. The Stigmata makes use of a narrative design that would eventually replace the front facing art of earlier years.
Giotto, was a very influential figure in the early stages of the Renaissance in Florence, and like his other contemporaries, helped to shape art in Europe for the following three centuries.