'The Stigmatisation of St Francis' and the Origins of the Florentine Renaissance

Although primarily in the Gothic style that continued to drive Florentine religious art in the 14th century, some elements within Giotto’s The Stigmatisation of St Francis (1317 to 1325), such as the depiction of the human form and the portrayal of a moment of heightened energy, would be common within the art that would define the Early Florentine Renaissance during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The Stigmatisation of St Francis should thus be seen a part of the transitions in style and technique that occurred within Florentine art, which would result in what we view as the Renaissance style. However, it would be wrong to purely understand the fresco as the start of a linear sequence leading to the monumental art produced by Florentine artists in Rome at the start of the 16th century, and ignore the key Gothic and Franciscan elements to The Stigmatisation of St Francis – for Giotto, it was a fresh instance of centuries of artistic representations of Franciscan beliefs and ideals,[1] rather than a defined step towards the neo-classical style. In turn, while The Stigmatisation of St Francis is primarily within the traditional Gothic style that was synonymous with medieval religious art, Giotto’s use of techniques that would go on to define the Early Florentine Renaissance shows that The Stigmatisation of St Francis should be understood as being somewhat typical of the Early Florentine Renaissance.

The fresco depicts St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscans and a deeply influential figure within Catholic belief, receiving the stigmata from Christ, who is depicted in the form of a seraphim. Having been praying, St Francis is shown sharply turning towards the levitating form of Christ, while in the background a rocky outcrop, representing Mount Alverno, adds to the drama of the moment, with the depiction of a chapel on the right side of the scene reminding the viewer of their devotional role towards both St Francis and Christ. The emphasis within the fresco is clearly on the act of the stigmatisation, which is literally highlighted by lines of light depicted in gold leaf transferring them from Christ’s body to St Francis’ – the candlelight within the Bardi Chapel would have heightened the reflective and luminous qualities of the gold leaf – contrasting with the earthy and naturalistic tones of the figures and the landscape. There is a clear effort by Giotto to link the two figures together, with St Francis’ outstretched hands mirroring Christ’s hands, attached to the crucifix; both individuals are looking directly at each other, creating the sense that the viewer is interrupting a deeply personal, sacred, and holy moment. However, St Francis’ feet fall outside of his robes and are perpendicular to each other, contrasting with the forced together legs of Christ on the crucifix, while the flowing loincloth of Christ lacks the weight and burden of St Francis’ habit, creating a sense of Christ’s power, and the mysterious and deeply spiritual nature of his presence within the scene.

Beyond the inherit drama of the physical act of St Francis’ stigmatisation, Giotto continues to reinforce the idea that this is a highly dramatic, important, and consequential moment throughout the fresco. The door to the chapel is open, with a dark space visible inside, contrasting with the light hues of the landscape, the gold leaf used to depict the act of the stigmatisation, and the halos worn by Christ and St Francis. It could be suggested that the shape of the rose window in the pediment of the chapel reflects the common motif of using a circle to depict the omnipresent and omnipotent qualities of God, which are key to the sudden arrival of Christ within the scene. This focus on ensuring the viewer is constantly reminded of the drama of a single event would continue within later Florentine religious art, such as Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1425) or Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi (1475), supporting the view that The Stigmatisation of St Francis is typical, in some ways, of the art of the Early Florentine Renaissance due to the fact that it depicts a single event in a heightened and dramatic manner.

Giotto’s depiction of St Francis’ form has a definition and energy to it not typically seen in religious art of the period. His earlier version of the same scene – completed between 1295 and 1300 for the Church of St Francis in Assisi – also depicted St Francis kneeling, but with his entire body positioned towards Christ, rather than twisting around to face him. This supports the idea that due to the ‘complexity’ of St Francis’ form,[2] The Stigmatisation of St Francis moves away from the traditional Gothic style. The shifting of his weight between his two legs, and the movement, energy, and form of his figure, is highlighted by Giotto’s emphasis on the folds in St Francis’ habit and the chiaroscuro around them. However, while some have gone as far to describe the pose as being contrapposto,[3] St Francis’ feet appear disconnected from the ground beneath him, in turn lessening the effect of the energy and movement depicted in his body – while Giotto depicts the light falling onto his robes, St Francis’ body itself does not cast any shadows around him, in turning showing that The Stigmatisation of St Francis should only be seen as being somewhat typical of the Early Florentine Renaissance, as it lacks a concerted sense of depth or positioning that would become a defining feature of Florentine art from the 15th century.

While Giotto’s depiction of St Francis does create a striking sense of dynamism and action within the scene, his depiction of the landscape and architecture, with the varying perspectives of both the chapel on the lower right of the scene and the mountain on the left hand side, do not show signs of the single-point perspective that would be key to later works of art in the Early Florentine Renaissance, such as Donatello’s St George Fighting Against the Dragon (1417) and Masaccio’s The Tribute Money (1425). Some have suggested that this is deliberate by Giotto, with Michael Hagiioannu stating that Giotto did not make the fresco ‘conform to sensory experience in the real world’ in order to emphasise the supernatural and mysterious elements of the scene. [4] Nonetheless, it still separates the painting from the art of the Early Florentine Renaissance, which were defined by their following of Brunelleschian principles and return to the Classical ideas of perspective from Antiquity, in turn supporting the view that The Stigmatisation of St Francis is only somewhat typical of the Early Florentine Renaissance.

Kenneth Clark was of the view that Giotto’s frescos in the Bardi Chapel were ‘the foundation of European academism’ and that they were ‘the basis of Raphael, Poussin, or even David’[5] – in many ways this is true; The Stigmatisation of St Francis should be seen as bridging the traditional Gothic style of religious art with the art of Renaissance. At the same time, however, it is important to recognise its place a work of Franciscan art. Arguably, there is a purity to the theological content of fresco lacking in some later works of Florentine religious art – for example, Masaccio’s The Tribute Money and Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi feature inserted portraits within the Biblical scenes that they depict, placing the secular interests of the patrons at the same level as the religious subjects with the scenes. This is not the case in The Stigmatisation of St Francis, with Jane Long suggesting that the primary focus of the fresco was a Franciscan one, with the secular interests of the patron not having any tangible effect on the treatment or depiction of the subject. [6] Even though the Bardi Chapel, and the frescos within it, were commissioned by a family of bankers, the focus on St Francis – and maintaining continuity with Franciscan representations of him – adds to the impact of the religious content of the fresco.

Giotto’s depiction of a single moment of tension and his treatment of St Francis’ form are all key elements that would define Renaissance art. However, these elements should not obscure the primarily Gothic nature of the scene. The Stigmatisation of St Francis is only somewhat typical of the Early Florentine Renaissance – Giotto’s depiction of the landscape around St Francis and Christ lacks the heightened order, structure, and detail of the Renaissance, while the overall composition of the scene does not have the sense of depth and perspective which would be common within later Florentine religious art in the 15th century. In turn, The Stigmatisation of St Francis should be viewed as being somewhat typical of the Early Florentine Renaissance.


[1] Jane Long, “The Program of Giotto’s Saint Francis Cycle at Santa Croce in Florence”, Franciscan Studies 52, (1992): 89.

[2] John White, “The Date of ‘The Legend of St Francis’ at Assisi”, The Burlington Magazine 98, no. 642 (1956): 347.

[3] Michael Hagiioannu, “Giotto’s Bardi Chapel Frescos and Chaucer’s ‘House of Fame’: Influence, Evidence, and Interpretations”, The Chaucer Review 36, no. 1 (2001): 31.

[4] Hagiioannu, “Giotto’s Bardi Chapel Frescos”, 32.

[5] Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (London: John Murray Publishers Ltd, 1969), 81.

[6] Long, “Giotto’s Saint Francis Cycle”, 124.

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