The Entombment of Mary by Giotto di Bondone (1310)

For centuries wise men have praised and admired the one we now know as ‘the father of painting.’ Dante Alighieri, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Ghiberti, Vasari, Leonardo da Vinci or even Voltaire, just to name of few, all have written about Giotto in admiration of the modernity of his skill and his aptness in conveying the reality of religious scenes. Here we look at a work which best embodies the phenomenon, or even the miracle, that is Giotto – The Entombment of Mary.

Though Giotto was famous before this point, this painting is arguably his finest demonstration of skill and his deep philosophical understanding of religious events. In this work, we see the Virgin Mary being laid down in her casket surrounded by all the apostles, and angels. Moving away from Byzantine iconography,  Giotto utilizes naturalism to create a religious scene that is both personal and tender. That is to say, he specifically highlights powerful emotional metaphors and details in the figures that he depicts. For example, Mary’s son, Jesus Christ, is holding an infant which, without delving too far into metaphysics, represents her soul. Equally, notice how the apostle lowering Mary down, lays her so gently, looking into her eyes like a grieving child…

Giotto’s skill allows us to appreciate both the smallest facial details of many characters, but also the incredible sense of weight, space and presence that they have. By crafting every figure with such detail, Giotto brings life to the panel as a whole. For example, with the use of a white glaze in the folds of each drape, Giotto perfectly models each body on the panel, making them appear rounded and heavy. On the right, two apostles’ seem to be in conversation. Equally, on the left in red, we see Peter reading, burying his elbow into his side which causes his drape to fold. All of these features highlight the naturalism of the scene, and with it, breathe life into a work of art, ironically, about death.

This painting is entirely revolutionary. The naturalism and emotions of men and angels, the weight, and the creation of space are all innovations of arguably the greatest painter in history; Giotto. But perhaps to understand further just how innovative this painting appeared to people closer to the time, I should use the words we now see on Giotto’s cenotaph written by the great humanist Angelo Poliziano, almost a century after The Master’s death:

“I am he through whose merit the lost art of painting was revived; whose hand was as faultless as it was compliant. What my art lacked nature herself lacked; to none others was it given to paint more or better… But what need is there for words? I am Giotto, and my name alone tells more than a lengthy ode.”

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