The Florentine painter, sculptor, and architect Giotto di Bondone was the most celebrated artist of his day. By the time this altarpiece was painted, around 1310, he was known throughout the Italian peninsula as the best and most innovative painter. Poets and chroniclers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries praised his ability to paint figures and gestures ‘al naturale’, in a lifelike manner, as well as his success and fame. What distinguishes Giotto’s paintings from those of his Florentine predecessors such as Cimabue is the sculptural quality of his figures, their classicizing proportions, and striking emotional psychological realism. These qualities in Giotto’s art have led generations of art historians to credit him with sparking an artistic revolution known as the Renaissance that occurred in Italy during the period 1200 to 1550.
The present work shows the frontal blessing Christ at the center flanked by St. John the Evangelist and the Virgin to his right and St. John the Baptist and St. Francis to his left. The presence of Francis along with the two saint Johns strongly suggests that this five-part painting (known as a polyptych) was commissioned for the Peruzzi chapel in the great Franciscan church of Santa Croce, Florence (founded in 1294), whose two titular saints were John the Evangelist and John the Baptist.
The Peruzzi were among a small number of elite Florentine families who paid for the rights to establish an altar along the east end of Santa Croce, in the privileged real estate to either side of the high altar. These families competed with each other to commission the most lavish decorations for their chapels, in the decoration of their side chapels, commissioning leading artists to create frescoes, altarpieces, and stained glass that combined to dazzle viewers standing both inside and outside these private spaces. In Santa Croce the Peruzzi chapel is two chapels to the right of the main altar chapel. Details about the family’s plans for its embellishment are scarce, but around 1311–1315 Giotto painted the walls with scenes from the lives of the two St. Johns in fresco. For this reason, many scholars believe that Giotto’s altarpiece now in Raleigh was created for the same chapel as part of an integrated program because it is datable to around 1310 on stylistic grounds and represents these two saints along with St. Francis—founder of the monastic order that built Santa Croce. Situated atop the altar as the focal point of this private devotional space, it served as a visually compelling backdrop for the family’s celebration of the Mass.
Giotto worked for Franciscan patrons throughout the first half of his career. The Raleigh polyptych is one of the few complete altarpieces by Giotto and his workshop that has survived, and it is the only one preserved outside of Europe.
About St. Francis of Assisi (1181/82–1226; canonized 1228):
He was the son of a successful cloth merchant who led a life of leisure up until his young adulthood, when he took a vow of poverty and began to pursue a life as a Christian missionary. In 1209 he founded a religious order, the Friars Minor or Franciscan Order, whose primary purpose was to minister to the laity. Franciscans were mendicants (beggars), similar to the Dominicans, founded by St. Dominic of Caleruega, Castile in 1215. Whereas earlier monastic orders lived in isolated communities in the countryside on income generated by their properties, monks of the Franciscan and Dominican orders settled in cities and begged for a living. After Francis’s formal admission to the canon of saints in 1228, he became one of the most widely venerated saints on the Italian peninsula, and the churches built in his name spawned a wave of art and architectural patronage that contributed to the pictorial revolution associated with the Renaissance.