MARY A MASTERPIECE – ‘Ognissanti Madonna’ by Giotto di Bondone, c 1310, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

 The arts have been ruled by great artists like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, etc. but the ‘father figure’ they sought began his life as a shepherd boy. He used his brush to bring the Bible to life and made art more natural, more real. His name was Giotto. It is important to note that although Giotto was not a full-fledged Renaissance painter, he is still regarded as the ‘Father of the Renaissance’, because of his undeniable contribution to its origin.

One of Giotto’s greatest masterpieces is the Ognissanti Madonna painted for the Church of Ognissanti (All Saints) in Florence. The painting was commissioned by an obscure religious order called the Humiliati who were known to use art to stimulate devotion. The ten-feet painting was initially placed at the front of the Church as an altarpiece. Today it is on display in the Galleria Degli, Uffizi in Florence.

Now the theme of the canvas is similar to the previous painting by Cimabue. The Ognissanti Madonna represented Mary in Majesty, popularly called the Maestà. Adhering to the Italio-Byzantine traditions, Giotto presents the Blessed Mother against flat gleaming gold. Its shine and splendor solemnly mirror heaven. Retaining the hierarchy of the scale, the artist centralizes the Madonna and the Child and depicts them larger than the surrounding angels and saints. We are clearly in a space beyond time.

Intriguingly Giotto breaks tradition here. He attempts to accord human attributes to divine characters, thus bridging the gap between the temporal and the spiritual and revolutionizing western art forever. Let’s understand this newfound naturalism through the painting.

The Blessed Virgin is seen seated on a Gothic throne representing a Tabernacle. Scripturally the attribute acknowledges the Blessed Virgin as the new Ark of the new Covenant. However, unlike the paper-like, flat Gothic representation, Giotto depicts the Blessed Mother and Christ Child with volume. The drawing seems more sculptural. The Madonna is monumental, solid, and occupies space. Her knees are foreshortened while her drapery is rendered with modeling enhancing the transition of light and shadow as well as the illusion of space.

Christ Child is seen seated on the Virgin’s lap. His right hand is raised in benediction. In the left hand, he holds a scroll, symbolizing wisdom. Thus here is the Source of Wisdom seated on the Throne of Wisdom.

Remarkably, for the first time in the history of Western painting, the artist acknowledges the presence of the viewer and makes room for us in his painting. He does this by associating the spectator with the architecture he portrays. Notice that we can observe a little more of the window of the throne to our right. Thus we know we are favored to the left, wherein Christ Child directly faces us. In this way, the artist encourages us to share a relationship with the Divine.

Around the Tabernacle stand a group of angels and saints, hearkening to the Church of the Ognissanti (All Saints) for which it was painted. Now unlike Cimabue, the artist presents the Old Testament prophets on either side of the throne. We can see their faces framed in the wings of the throne. The angels, who are kneeling at the foot of the throne, offer vases of roses (charity) and lilies (purity) while the ones that flank the throne hold out a crown and a pyx, symbols of the Eucharistic Lord.

Notice the angels and the saints as they bend their backs and tilt their heads to look up to Mary and her Son. The intensity of their gazes reflects the perfection in their adoration. As the artist draws us into this scared space, he invites us to join the heavenly in devotion to the Blessed Virgin. In reflection, we could repeat the famous words of the poet Dixon Thayer      

Lovely Lady dressed in blue

Teach me how to pray

God was your little boy

And you know the Way!


© – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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