The Church San Francesco at Assisi

Transition from the Romanesque and Byzantine or "Greek Manner" to the Late Gothic and Renaissance Styles in Painting and Sculpture

Bonaventura Berlinghieri, 
"St. Francis Altarpiece" 1235 
tempera on wood 60' x 42' (approx. 5" x 3.5)
This altarpiece is painted in tempera on wood.  At five feet, the representation of St. Francis is depicted as nearly life-size.  Art of the Byzantine period largely influenced Italian Gothic art.  There is no depth to St. Francis.  He is two-dimensional and at the front of the picture plane.  His feet are not standing on the ground but seem to be floating just above it.

St. Francis is situated in the center of the painting - a position usually reserved for Christ or the Virgin Mary.  The identification with Christ is further enhanced with the clearly displayed stigmata on his raised blessing hand.  The three knots on his rope belt represent chastity, poverty and obedience. He is flanked on either side by angels and is surrounded by boxes containing major events in his life. 

This altarpiece was completed in 1235, less than ten years after Francis’ canonization. St. Francis taught that studying nature was a way to understand God and religious ideas should be discovered through human experience of the world.  These observations were partially responsible for the reflection on nature rather than most art of its time and were a prototype for new works.  This led to new observations of nature in art and the beginnings of scientific study.

Written by Annette Abbott

According to the Brittanica

from Francis Of Assisi, Saint
The Franciscan rule of life.

Although he was a layman, Francis began to preach to the townspeople. Disciples were attracted to him, and he composed a simple rule of life for them. In 1209, when the group of friars (as the mendicant disciples were called) numbered 12, they went to Rome to seek the approval of Pope Innocent III, who, although hesitant at first, gave his oral approbation to their rule of life. This event, which according to tradition occurred on April 16, marked the official founding of the Franciscan order. The friars, who were actually street preachers with no possessions of any kind and with only the Porziuncola as a center, preached and worked first in Umbria and then, as their numbers grew, in the rest of Italy.

The early Franciscan rule of life, which has not survived, set as the aim of the new life, "To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps." Probably no one in history has ever set himself so seriously as did Francis to imitate the life of Christ and to carry out so literally Christ's work in Christ's own way. This is the key to the character and spirit of St. Francis. To neglect this point is to show an unbalanced portrait of the saint as a lover of nature, a social worker, an itinerant preacher, and a lover of poverty.

Certainly the love of poverty is part of his spirit, and his contemporaries celebrated poverty either as his "lady," in the allegorical Sacrum Commercium (Eng. trans., Francis and His Lady Poverty, 1964), or as his "bride," in the fresco of Giotto in the lower church of S. Francesco at Assisi. It was not, however, mere external poverty he sought but the total denial of self (as in Letter of Paul to the Philippians 2:7).

He considered all nature as the mirror of God and as so many steps to God. He called all creatures his "brothers" and "sisters," and in his "Canticle of the Creatures" (less properly called by such names as the "Praises of Creatures" or the "Canticle of the Sun") he referred to "Brother Sun" and "Sister Moon," the wind and water, and even "Sister Death." His long and painful illnesses were nicknamed his sisters, and he begged pardon of "Brother Ass the body" for having unduly burdened him with his penances. Above all, his deep sense of brotherhood under God embraced his fellow men, for "he considered himself no friend of Christ if he did not cherish those for whom Christ died."

"The Franciscan rule of life.."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Inc.   November 16, 2002.

Context and Critical points of view:  The previous section is a a biography of St. Francis's life however, Francis represents a pivotal figure that represents the transition in thinking between the Gothic period and the Renaissance.

Previous to the life of St. Francis, the Catholic Church was the sole source of information about God for the layman (every day non-clergy).  The Church interpreted, interceded and imposed a very clear point of view about God's teachings and was the sole source of biblical interpretation.  In fact, laymen were not even allowed to own a Bible, not that they could afford one since they were hand written and very expensive.  This point of view and religious/political system meant that everyday people could not actually "know" God for themselves and supported and maintained a point of view that one was born to a place on this earth that was unchangeable.

Francis's point of view that "To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps." Breaks with this tradition and demonstrates the beginning of a point of view in which the lay person could not only have a direct experience of God but also alter their behavior in accordance with their knowledge without needing to consult the Church for interpretation.  This is important and interesting because aside form the ideas exhibited in the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, this represents the beginning of a change in the way of thinking and the stirrings of individual critical thought.  The art that follows, after the Byzantine period and in the late Gothic and Early Renaissance exhibits a new and critical point of view of the world.

The Lower Church


St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man
The building in this image and the others like it are rendered with the illusion of space called intuitive perspective and isometric perspective.  (This kind of perspective is not as illusionistic as the linear perspective that is invented during the Renaissance around 1400 CE.)





St Francis Renounces His Wordly Goods
  • First panel shows Saint Francis removing his clothing in the middle of a town and renouncing his material wealth
  • Gesture and movement of the figures is life-like.
  • The overall scene makes sense in terms of the picture plane's space.  Overlapping of figures and the size scale difference from foreground to background show Giotto's attempts to create a more rational sense of space. 
    • "This is the fifth of the twenty-eight scenes (twenty-five of which were painted by Giotto) of Legend of Saint Francis.

       This scene gives an opportunity to examine one of the most important of Giotto's innovations. Although the mastery of the method of representing the third dimension is of fundamental importance, there are other innovations which are no less significant to the development of Western painting. Among these must be included the use of eloquent gesture, the communication of strong emotions through attitude and facial expression, In the Renunciation of Worldly Goods, St Francis' father expresses his anger in his grimace, in his gesture of lifting the hem of his gown (as if he were about to dash at his son), and in his clenched fist; the effect is heightened by the gesture of his friend, who holds him back by the arm. Within the limits of the dignity and self-restraint that Giotto impresses on all his characters, the father's anger is expressed clearly and vividly."

Francis Drives Out the Demons from Arezzo
The building in this image and the others like it are rendered with the illusion of space called intuitive perspective and isometric perspective.  (This kind of perspective is not as illusionistic as the linear perspective that is invented during the Renaissance around 1400 CE.)


According to the Brittanica:
Perspective is a method of graphically depicting three-dimensional objects and spatial relationships on a two-dimensional plane or on a plane that is shallower than the original (for example, in flat relief).

In Western art, illusions of perceptual volume and space are generally created by use of the linear perspectival system, based on the observations that objects appear to the eye to shrink and parallel lines and planes to converge to infinitely distant vanishing points as they recede in space from the viewer. Parallel lines in spatial recession will appear to converge on a single vanishing point, called one-point perspective. Perceptual space and volume may be simulated on the picture plane by variations on this basic principle, differing according to the number and location of the vanishing points. Instead of one-point (or central) perspective, the artist may use, for instance, angular (or oblique) perspective, which employs two vanishing points.

Another kind of system--parallel perspective combined with a viewpoint from above--is traditional in Chinese painting. When buildings rather than natural contours are painted and it is necessary to show the parallel horizontal lines of the construction, parallel lines are drawn parallel instead of converging, as in linear perspective. Often foliage is used to crop these lines before they extend far enough to cause a building to appear warped.

The early European artist used a perspective that was an individual interpretation of what he saw rather than a fixed mechanical method. At the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, early in the 15th century, the mathematical laws of perspective were discovered by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, who worked out some of the basic principles, including the concept of the vanishing point, which had been known to the Greeks and Romans but had been lost. These principles were applied in painting by Masaccio (as in his "Trinity" fresco in Santa Maria Novella, Florence; c. 1427), who within a short period brought about an entirely new approach in painting. A style was soon developed using configurations of architectural exteriors and interiors as the background for religious paintings, which thereby acquired the illusion of great spatial depth. In his seminal Della pittura (1436; On Painting), Leon Battista Alberti codified, especially for painters, much of the practical work on the subject that had been carried out by earlier artists; he formulated, for example, the idea that "vision makes a triangle, and from this it is clear that a very distant quantity seems no larger than a point."

Linear perspective dominated Western painting until the end of the 19th century, when Paul Cézanne flattened the conventional Renaissance picture space. The Cubists and other 20th-century painters abandoned the depiction of three-dimensional space altogether and hence had no need for linear perspective.
Linear perspective plays an important part in presentations of ideas for works by architects, engineers, landscape architects, and industrial designers, furnishing an opportunity to view the finished product before it is begun. Differing in principle from linear perspective and used by both Chinese and European painters, aerial perspective is a method of creating the illusion of depth by a modulation of colour and tone. 

Linear Perspective

Demonstration of 1 point and 2 point perspectives
Linear perspective is a mathematical system for creating the illusion of space and distance on a flat surface. The system originated in Florence, Italy in the early 1400s. The artist and architect Brunelleschi demonstrated its principles, but another architect and writer, Leon Battista Alberti was first to write down rules of linear perspective for artists to follow. Leonardo da Vinci probably learned Alberti's system while serving as an apprentice to the artist Verrocchio in Florence.

To use linear perspective an artist must first imagine the picture surface as an "open window" through which to see the painted world. Straight lines are then drawn on the canvas to represent the horizon and "visual rays" connecting the viewer's eye to a point in the distance.

The horizon line runs across the canvas at the eye level of the viewer. The horizon line is where the sky appears to meet the ground.

The vanishing point should be located near the center of the horizon line. The vanishing point is where all parallel lines (orthogonals) that run towards the horizon line appear to come together like train tracks in the distance.

Orthogonal lines are "visual rays" helping the viewer's eye to connect points around the edges of the canvas to the vanishing point. An artist uses them to align the edges of walls and paving stones.

Please visit this site for more of an explanantion.

Two Point Perspective

1) To draw a simple shape in two point perspective you start with a single line across the picture plane called the horizon line.

3) Next, add converging lines from the top and bottom of the vertical line and draw two vertical lines which will become the back corners of the box.

2 Then add two vanishing points.  Place one at each end of the horizon line. Then draw a vertical line as big as you want the first box.

4) After erasing some of the horizon line (the part behind the box) it looks like a three dimensional form.

A page with a great example of two point perspective.

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris a Rainy Day, 1877
Here's an example of two point perspective in a painting.  This painting actually has multiple points on the horizon line but I've traced most of the orthagonals to the two most dominant ones in the black and white illustration.

Here's how Giotto kind of had it right.


Here's where the lines should have gone.

While at mass one day, Francis listened to the reading of Matthew 10:7-10 where Jesus tells his apostles to go and preach God’s word. He felt this was a personal calling.  Though he lived a simple life, as he started preaching, he began to attract a following of men who also wished to denounce their wealth and preach God’s word. These men traveled to Rome to speak with the Pope.  Pope Innocent III gave permission for them to live the life they chose.  This event marked the beginning of the Franciscan order.

This fresco is the seventh of twenty-eight scenes of Saint Francis.  It shows St Francis and the friars bending on their knees before Pope Innocent III.  With the introduction of soft pinks and blues, we can witness Giotto abandoning the former Byzantine style whose gold images were rigid and almost cartoon-like (scroll up and compare to Berlinghieri’s altarpiece).  The arches at the top of the painting provide an illusion of depth while delivering the image of Francis and the Pope closer to the viewer.  Lines above the eye level tend to incline and move down while below the eye level, they move up.  This allows the viewer to feel as if he were personally in the picture rather than being a spectator of the event. 

This is the fifteenth of the twenty-eight paintings of St Francis.  While walking with a companion, Francis saw some birds at the side of the road and stopped to preach to them.  It is said that more birds joined them from nearby trees and stood at his feet to listen. This is the sermon he delivered to them in 1220:
My little sisters, the birds, much bounden are ye unto God, your creator, and always in every place ought ye to praise him, for that he hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and hath also given you double and triple rainment; moreover he preserved your seed in the ark of Noah, that your race might not perish out of the world; still more are ye beholden to him for the element of the air which he hath appointed for you; beyond all this, ye sow not, neither do you reap; and God feedeth you, and giveth you the streams and fountains for your drink; the mountains and valleys for your refuge and the high trees whereon to make your nests; and because ye know not how to spin or sow, God clotheth you, you and your children; wherefore your creator loveth you much, seeing that he hath bestowed on you so many benefits; and therefore, my little sisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praises unto God.
The simplicity of this painting reveals much about Giotto as a narrative artist. He reduces imagery to its barest elements without losing any part of the story.  There are no architectural or decorative elements  - only two men, two trees, and a handful of birds.  We also see him breaking away from the old style by making the painting asymmetrical.  Until now, all paintings of Jesus, Mary or a saint featured them in the center of the picture facing its viewer.  His standing in profile and to the side once again allows us to feel like we are more than viewing an image – we are witnessing an event. 


Francis Receives the Stigmata

In 1224 Saint Francis climbed a mountain to begin a 40 day fast.  During this fast, he saw a vision and experienced wounds in his hands and the side of his body – duplicating those that appeared on Christ when he was crucified. Such wounds are referred to as stigmata.

This fresco is painted as if it were a low relief sculpture.  Here, Giotto uses light and shadow on the landscape to add depth.  Such use of light and shade is a distinguishing aspect of Renaissance art. 

from Brittanica: Giotto di Bondone

The Assisi Problem

The central problem in Giotto studies, the attribution of the Assisi frescoes, may be summed up as the question whether Giotto ever painted at Assisi and, if so, what? There can be no reasonable doubt that he did work at Assisi, for a long literary tradition goes back to the Compilatio chronologica of Riccobaldo Ferrarese, who wrote in or before 1319, when Giotto was alive and famous. Later writers down to Vasari expanded this and made it clear that Giotto's works were in the great double church of San Francesco (St. Francis). By Vasari's time, several frescoes in both upper and lower churches were attributed to Giotto, the most important being the cycle of 28 scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi in the nave of the upper church and the "Franciscan Virtues" and some other frescoes in the lower church. (Some of the frescoes in the St. Francis cycle were damaged by earthquakes that struck Assisi on Sept. 26, 1997.)

The majority of these scenes, mostly narrative, are revolutionary in their expression of reality and humanity. In these frescoes, the emphasis is on the dramatic moment of each situation, and, with details of dress and background at a minimum, the inner reality of human emotion is intensified through crucial gestures and glances. In the 19th century, however, it was observed that all these frescoes, though similar in style, could not be by the same hand, and the new trend toward skepticism of Vasari's statements led to the position that rejected all the Assisi frescoes and dated the St. Francis cycle to a period after Giotto's death. This extreme view has been generally abandoned, and, indeed, a dated picture of 1307 can be shown to derive from the St. Francis cycle. Nevertheless, many scholars prefer to accept the idea of an otherwise totally unknown Master of the St. Francis legend, on the grounds that the style of the cycle is irreconcilable with that of the later Arena Chapel frescoes in Padua, which are universally accepted as Giotto's. This involves the idea that the works referred to (in Giotto's lifetime) by Riccobaldo cannot be identified with anything now extant and must have perished centuries ago, so that the early 15th-century sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, Vasari, and others mistakenly transferred the existing St. Francis cycle to Giotto. Five hundred years of tradition are thus written off.

Still more difficult, if Giotto did not paint the St. Francis frescoes, major works of art, then they must be attributed to a painter who cannot be shown to have created anything else, whose name has disappeared without trace, although he was of the first rank, and, odder still, was formed by the combined influences of Cimabue, the Florentine sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio, and the Roman painter Pietro Cavallini--influences which coalesce at Assisi and may be taken as the influences that formed Giotto himself.

Arising out of the fusion of Roman and Florentine influences in the Assisi frescoes, there was later a tendency to see the hand of Giotto, as a very young man, in the works of the Isaac Master, the painter of two scenes of "Isaac and Esau" and "Jacob and Isaac" in the nave above the St. Francis cycle. If this theory is accepted, it is easy to understand that Giotto, as a young man, made such a success of this commission that he was entrusted with the most important one, the official painted biography of St. Francis based on the new official biography written around 1266 by St. Bonaventura. In fact, the whole of today's mental picture of St. Francis stems largely from these frescoes. Clearly, a man born in 1276 was less likely to have received such a commission than one 10 years older, if, as was always thought, the commission was given in 1296 or soon after by Fra Giovanni di Muro, general of the Franciscans. The works in the Lower Church are generally regarded as productions of Giotto's followers (there are, indeed, resemblances to his works at Padua), and there is real disagreement only over the "Legend of St. Francis." The main strength of the non-Giotto school lies in the admittedly sharp stylistic contrasts between the St. Francis cycle and the frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua, especially if the Assisi frescoes were painted 1296-c. 1300 and those of the Arena c. 1303-05; for the interval between the two cycles is too small to allow for major stylistic developments. This argument becomes less compelling when the validity of the dates proposed and the Roman period c. 1300 are taken into account. As already mentioned, the Assisi frescoes may have been painted before 1296 and not necessarily afterward, and the Arena frescoes are datable with certainty only in or before 1309, although probably painted c. 1305-06; clearly, a greater time lag between the two cycles can help to explain stylistic differences, as can the experiences that Giotto underwent in what was probably his second Roman period.

"The Assisi Problem."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Inc.   November 26, 2002.