Key Ideas about this Work of Art
- Giotto di Bondone was the most famous artist of his time in Florence, Italy. He was best known for his ability to paint lifelike, natural-looking figures. Renaissance-era painting became known for this painting style, often called realism or naturalism.
- This three-foot tall, eight-foot wide altarpiece was made from wood painted with tempera paint and gold leaf. An altarpiece is a work of art that decorates the space above and behind the altar in a church. This five-panel altarpiece is also called a polyptych (pol-ip-tik), which means it is a painting with more than three panels. The golden background symbolizes the location of the figures in the heavenly realm.
- Altarpieces like this one would have served as the backdrop for a family’s celebration of Mass, to help focus their attention on Christ and the saints (in this case St. John the Evangelist, the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, and St. Francis).
- This work of art is known as the Peruzzi Altarpiece because it was commissioned by the Peruzzi family, who owned a banking empire throughout Europe. The altarpiece, made for their private chapel in the Church of Santa Croce, would have served as a backdrop for the Peruzzi family’s celebration of the Holy Mass.
- This altarpiece was designed for a church in the Franciscan Order, in which the friars (members of a religious order, similar to monks) took vows of poverty and begged for the little money they needed in order to live. The church itself, like many elaborately designed churches, was funded by wealthy patrons.
The Florentine painter, sculptor, and architect Giotto di Bondone was the most famous artist of his time. By the time he created this altarpiece (around 1310), his paintings were known throughout Italy. Poets and other writers from the 14th and 15th centuries praised his ability to paint figures and gestures al naturale, or in a very lifelike manner. What makes Giotto’s paintings different from his Florentine predecessors is the sculptural quality of his figures, whose proportions remind viewers of the realistic-looking sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome. The facial expressions of the figures in his paintings are also depicted in a realistic way. These qualities in Giotto’s art have led generations of art historians to credit him with sparking the artistic revolution known as the Renaissance.
The center panel of this polyptych (five-panel painting) depicts Jesus Christ giving his blessing. The female figure to his left is the Virgin Mary, and to her left is St. John the Evangelist. To the right of Jesus are St. John the Baptist and St. Francis. The imagery of St. Francis and the two St. Johns suggests that this painting was commissioned by the Peruzzi family, for their private chapel in the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. The saints depicted in this painting were especially important to this specific church. The Peruzzi Altarpiece is one of the few complete, surviving altarpieces by Giotto, and it is the only one preserved outside of Europe.
The Peruzzi family is 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 front of the church. It was considered a privilege and a sign of high status to have a private seat in the front of the church next to the high altar. Wealthy families competed with each other to commission the most lavish decorations for their private seating areas, or chapels. They commissioned well-known artists to create frescoes, altarpieces, and stained glass that combined to dazzle viewers standing both inside and outside these private spaces.
Resources for Teachers:
- Learn more about Giotto Di Bondone and his work.
- Listen to an audio description of the Peruzzi Altarpiece.
- Watch a short documentary about the artist’s life and art.
Resources for Students: