Italy. Santa Croce. Giotto. Does a halo move like a hat?

Spring and my thoughts turn to Florence, Italy, my favorite city. I’ll cover a few of my treasured memories of Florence in the next few posts.

Let’s start with Santa Croce (Holy Cross).

This is a church and compound dedicated to St. Francis. Some say, St. Francis of Assisi actually started construction on the original church on the site. This iteration was probably started in 1220-ish. By 1252, it was completed. Franciscan Monks still live at Santa Croce. The robes (and I think I recall, the sandals) of St. Francis are on view in an ornate reliquary in the sacristy, a room off the main sanctuary.

The Cimabue Crucifix

Crucifix by Cimabue. Created in 1280 for the altar. Heavily damaged in the flood of 1966. Now in the first room of the Santa Croce Works Museum.
Crucifix by Cimabue. Created in 1280 for the altar. Heavily damaged in the flood of 1966. Now in the first room of the Santa Croce Works Museum. Cimabue, Crocifisso, 1280, tempera su tavola, 390 cm, basilica di Santa Croce, Firenze.

For me, one of the most powerful pieces of art of all time is the Cimabue cross. I believe it was created for the Pazzi Chapel. The Cimabue piece is a knee-buckling crucifix—my expression for art that brings you to your knees. I am not Catholic, yet there is something so somber, so evocative of this piece that it pulls me to my faith.

In a future post, I’ll discuss the Pazzi family in greater detail. They plotted against the Medici and now the word in Italian for “insane” is: Pazzi. Note to self: don’t cross the Medici.

The Cimabue cross suffered tremendous damage in the flood of Florence in 1966. It was out of the church for years. It has had much attention and repair. It is not restored as the damage from the flood is still evident, but it remains immensely powerful. It is a piece that Graham T. Mason and I have always planned to reproduce—perhaps in full size—to hang in some future home of his or mine. This piece was a turning point for me opening my eyes to the beauty and power of the pre-Renaissance, Byzantine style using the iconic stylized, “scripted” qualities to convey a message universally understood by Christians of the era.

After seeing the Cimabue cross, I expanded my study of Italian art. It had been primarily Florentine, from the 1400s forward. Now my interest includes the art back to the early Roman days. I can understand if you don’t “get it.” I didn’t until I stood in front of the Cimabue crucifix.

Notables Entombed at Santa Croce

Some of the most famous people in the world are buried in the sanctuary of this church. Michelangelo, who died in 1564, is buried here in a magnificent tomb. Allegorical figures representing great artistic endeavors—sculpture, painting, and architecture—surround the site. Giorgio Vasari, the historian and fellow artist of the era, created the tomb. Vasari’s life itself is fascinating. A contractor to the Medici’s, it is astonishing his head didn’t roll by the hand of the most powerful family in Italy. But, I digress…

Others buried in the sanctuary include Galileo Galilee, Niccolò Machiavelli, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Gioacchino Rossini. Dante is honored there, although I think his remains are elsewhere. Florence Nightingale, named for the city of Florence, is also honored there.

The Giotto Frescoes in the Bardi Chapel

Brothers attending to the death of St. Francis by Giotto approx. 1325.  These frescoes were whitewashed in 1700s, through an order of the Medici, in an effort to modernize and simplify the interior of the great churches in Florence. The whitewash was removed in 1852 and the art was restored. In the 1960s they were repaired from the restoration in 1852. In 1966 the great flood damaged much of the church. That cleaning work lasted at least 10 years.
Brothers attending to the death of St. Francis by Giotto approx. 1325.
These frescoes were whitewashed in 1700s, through an order of the Medici, in an effort to modernize and simplify the interior of the great churches in Florence. The whitewash was removed in 1852 and the art was restored. In the 1960s they were repaired from the restoration in 1852. In 1966 the great flood damaged much of the church. That cleaning work lasted at least 10 years. Source: Scenes from the Life of Saint Francis, Death and Ascension of St Francis, (detail), c. 1325, fresco, 280 x 450 cm, Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence.

One of the most well-known aspects of Santa Croce is the Bardi Chapel. Glorious expressive frescoes in the chapel are by Giotto di Bondone. This is the artist generally known as Giotto. Unusual for the era, Giotto instilled much emotion in the figures in his work, particularly through the eyes. The eyes of his subjects seem to carry the weight of the drama and storyline in the scene. In the fresco by Giotto of the death and ascension of St. Francis, his fellow friars are distraught and bent over with grief at the suffering of Francis. The scene is compelling and alive with angst

The one-dimensional aspects of the work (the faux patterning on the wall) are realistic, accurate representations of marble or painted plaster on a wall. Three-dimensional aspects still present a challenge at this point in the advancement of Western art, circa 1325. Perspective and conveying a sense of “mass” have not been conquered yet. For example, in addition to the problems with everything seeming to be in the foreground, there are no shadows yet under any people, objects, or buildings. People appear pasted one on top of another. There is a realistic suggestion of color changes as fabric folds around their bodies, but there is neither roundness nor space suggested between the people.

Pondering Halos. Do they move like plates on a plane or hats on a head?

Another notable observation is in the halo of St. Francis. It is a fascination to me to follow the development of the depiction of halos through the history of art. In this era, we see the articulated gold halo with a geometric pattern (radiating lines) sitting it seems on the plane of the painting. If the subject were to move his head, the halo would remain in the same position and the head would move through the halo.

It is sort of like that “invisible plane” at the end zone of a football field, or the plane of the surface of water–no matter your body position as you crash through the “plane,” the plane stays in the same place. Halos painted later began to be fixed on the head and moved as the head moved.

Coronation of the Virgin Mary, Maso di Banc, Bardi di Vernia Chapel.  Note the halo and the Moorish influence in the decorative elements. The missing pieces represent some of the damage from the flood of 1966.
Fresco of the coronation of the Virgin Mary, Maso di Banc, Bardi di Vernia Chapel.
Note the halos. In the lower right edge, the head is turned and the halo maintains its “plane.” Also note the Moorish influence in the decorative elements. The missing pieces represent some of the damage from the flood of 1966.

Yet, presumably we rarely see halos, so I’m not sure if the greater sophistication in painting halos truly represents how halos work. The sophistication reflected the greater realistic representation of the human form and how elements attached to the form, like, let’s say a hat, will move with a head. Hats don’t stay in a fixed plane. They stay attached to the head.

(FYI — let me insert here that whether you believe halos exist or not, there still needs to be a way to depict them in art. To tell the stories, we need a way to convey the image of a unicorn, or the super powers of a hero, or the change that happens to a werewolf.)

The sophistication reflected the greater realistic representation of the human form and how elements attached to the form, like, let’s say a hat, will move with a head. Hats don’t stay in a fixed plane.

But I am quite curious if a halo is like a hat or has a completely different spiritual complexity.  I would think it may have a unique underlying principle to guide its movement and maybe it “breathes” or is more like a sphere (a balloon) encompassing a head. Or radiates in the way a street light shines with soft edges in a foggy night.

These types of decisions, such as how to convey the concept of a halo, are choices artists make. The leading contender of the day is followed and emulated. Thus the creation of “icons” to signify an underlying concept.  We accept a ripping green shirt as Marvel Comic’s Incredible Hulk. In the same way, watching the changing iterations of halos is a way to understand what the culture is awarding at that time in terms of style and interpretation of a spiritual concept.

Byzantine and Moorish Influences

View of the Bardi di Vernio Chapel, or the Chapel of St. Silvester,  at Santa Croce.  The frescoes were created by Maso di Banco, 1340.
View of the Bardi di Vernio Chapel, or the Chapel of St. Silvester, at Santa Croce.
The frescoes were created by Maso di Banco, 1340.

Other patterns in the frescoes in various other chapels at Santa Croce, illustrate the Byzantine and Moorish influence of African-based patterning (geometric circles and repeating small patterns). These seem to carry a more traditional style, not appearing as the breakthrough new style Giotto was incorporating at this time into his own work. Perhaps they are included to bridge the visual gap from the traditional to the new. Perhaps it was an easy way to separate the elements in the stories. Or probably it was simply how frescoes and similar murals were “supposed” to be painted.

The Piazza at Santa Croce

Jousting in the piazza in front of Santa Croce, in the 1800s.
Jousting in the piazza in front of Santa Croce, in the 1800s.

The large piazza in front of Santa Croce is also well known. Historically it was the scene of many jousting matches.

Currently the Florentines hold other games and activities in the piazza, including a celebration of flags each year. During the day, many eat lunch, stroll around, sketch, have a coffee or snap selfies.

I lived near Santa Croce when in Florence and found it had a powerful draw for me. I visited on many, many occasions.

The same piazza in front of Santa Croce years earlier, before the facade of the church was updated starting in 1857.  Emilio Burci, View of the Piazza Santa Croce, mid-19th century, copper engraving, 9.9 x 16.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Firenza.
The same piazza in front of Santa Croce years earlier, before the facade of the church was updated starting in 1857.
Source: Emilio Burci, mid-19th century, copper engraving, 9.9 x 16.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Firenza.

There is so much more to this church and lively community in Florence. My choices highlighted here represent a small collection of the objects I am most drawn to. That’s why I visited it over and over, and I always return whenever in Florence.

Do you have favorite memories or images of Santa Croce to share?


For more reading on Italian art, see my post on the Fibonacci series of numbers and Vitruvian Man, Fibonacci intersecting nature and art.

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About artinthecenter

I am a lifelong artist having studied painting, photography, drawing, and other media, in schools in the US and Italy. I won my first art contest when I was five--at a museum-- and my point of view tends to be as a five-year-old creative child embracing life. Creativity is a core response for me. How can we bring the infinite knowledge and excitement held by our museums and academics into the heart and minds of everyone? There is so much to share. Let’s ask questions, and discuss. Follow me on twitter @janemmason. Check out all sort of artsy information at: www.watchingpaintdry.com +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ This policy is valid from 1 January 2016 This is a personal, educational, blog written and edited by me, Jane M. Mason. For questions about this blog, please contact: jane@watchingpaintdry.com. Sincere effort has been exerted to cite, recognize, and thank all sources of content, including images, quotations or concepts that are not those of Watching Paint Dry LLC (WPDLLC), including Jane M. Mason. If you feel we have included something in this blog that has not been accurately noted or recognized to be from a source other than the intellectual property of WPDLLC, please let me know and I will adjust the citation when presented with specific citation sources and details. As an artist and writer, a core principal of mine is to respect and recognize intellectual content of others. If you are interested in using concepts, photos or other intellectual property from this blog, please contact, Rights Manager, Danielle Raub at Hello@watchingpaintdry.com. This blog does not contain any content that is likely to present a conflict of interest, although opposing points of view, as long as they are respectful, are welcome. This blog does not accept cash or paid topic insertions. However, we will consider accepting and keeping free products, services, travel, event tickets, and other forms of compensation from companies and organizations. The compensation received will not influence the content, topics or posts made in this blog. All advertising is in the form of advertisements generated by a third party ad network. Those advertisements will be identified as paid advertisements. The owner of this blog, WPDLLC, is not compensated to provide opinion on products, services, websites and various other topics within the content of this blog. The views and opinions expressed on this blog are those of Jane M. Mason or the associates of WPDLLC. If we claim or appear to be experts on a certain topic or product or service area, we only endorse products or services that we believe, based on our expertise, are worthy of such endorsement. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. This policy has been adapted from DisclosurePolicy.org. For your own policy, go to http://www.disclosurepolicy.org

3 Responses

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