Giotto painted the monumental crucifix of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, around 1290. The impressive cross, almost six metres high, was probably displayed above the main nave on a rood screen or an iconostasis beam, slightly tilted towards the ground so as to be easily visible from the congregation. Similar objects could be found in most major Italian churches during the thirteenth century. Despite falling gradually out of fashion during the fifteenth century, monumental crucifixes were an important part of church decoration and were used to foster the empathic reaction of the worshippers during a variety of religious celebrations. Usually, the altar would be hidden behind a screen, or tramezzo, so that images of this kind could allow the viewer to picture mentally the sacrifice of Christ and his presence through the host.
Santa Maria Novella crucifix – Giotto – ca. 1290 – tempera on panel
Despite the traditional subject and format, Giotto’s panel introduced important elements of novelty. The realism of Christ’s body is striking and shows the extent of the painter’s control over the pictorial technique. The foreshortening is quite precise and the artist employed sfumato effects to suggest the recession of forms and the contour of the figure while avoiding bold, dark lines typical of earlier works. Indeed, the art-historian Bruce Cole has called the painting “the first fully realistic portrayal of Christ in the history of Western painting”. Despite the emphatic tone of this statement, Giotto’s crucifix clearly shows a new sensibility which moves beyond the pure concept of “religious truth” (Cannon), introducing a rather naturalistic depiction of the human body.
Detail of the Calvary and Adam’s skull
The crucifix also presents innovative iconographic features. For example, Giotto used a trapezoid base, filled with a depiction of Mount Calvary. At the bottom, the artist placed Adam’s skull, whose dismembered jaw welcomes Christ’s blood, thus referencing the ritual of the Communion. This is a scene of fulfilment, showing the first man, mortified to the state of death because of his sins, being saved by Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. The triple titulus is another element of novelty. Normally, this is written in Latin only, or Latin and Greek in some rare instances. In this case, Giotto used both languages and added Hebrew too. He was probably directed by the Dominican friars who commissioned the artwork. In the thirteenth century, they were among the few learned men in Europe who knew all the three biblical languages.
Crucified Christ – Giovanni Pisano – 1285-1300 – ivory
While some of Giotto’s innovations can be connected to his patrons, Dominican friars with a solid scholarly background, other features have less clear origins. The naturalist style is indeed a novelty and there is no immediate answer to why the painter decided to implement it. Max Seidel has pointed out that reflectographies show complex underdrawings, probably made after a live model. Given the more-than-life dimensions of the panel, it is unlikely that Giotto has actually produced the underdrawing directly in front of a model but this does not exclude that he may have copied and perfected a design of smaller format.
Scholars have suggested that there may be a connection between this piece and contemporary sculpted crucifixes and relief crucifixion scenes found in French Gothic cathedrals. One may wonder how Giotto saw these objects since they were immovable monumental objects and, as far as we know, he never travelled to France. In “Symbiosis across Scale”, Paul Williamson suggests that such artworks were often reproduced into smaller, portable formats. Therefore, a monumental crucifixion scene could be scaled down into a portable ivory panel or crucifix, such as the famous Giovanni Pisano one in the V&A. Therefore, Giotto may have known a variety of foreign compositional solutions through the example of French models which traveled throughout Italy thanks to ivory and wood reproductions.
Soissons Diptych – Unknown artist – ca. 1270 – ivory
The Santa Maria Novella crucifix shows the interconnected nature of the Medieval world. In a time of limited transportation means and unsafe routes, ideas circulated with a surprising ease and allowed distant worlds to communicate through mutual visual influences. Giotto’s work opened the way to more naturalistic depictions, using realism to foster the religious experience. Travelling artistic models allowed the encounter between his artistic sensitivity and foreign taste, thus creating unprecedented masterpieces. This highlights that artists often looked beyond their artistic milieu and that innovation does not come from a clear linear development. Artworks are contingent artefacts, whose history is shaped by the particular vicissitudes of the men who have produced them. Their power is indeed telling a story which goes beyond the limits set by their original context.