The joy of invention
The above quotation is one person's translation of the first paragraph of an essay by Julia Kristeva, entitled 'Giotto's Joy'. It sets the scene for a discussion on fundamental aspects of representation, perception and interpretation in the system involved in creating a picture and getting a textual response from its viewers. The ideological framework of this discussion is set out in Fig 1.
Fig 1 Diagrammatic representation of the semiotics of 'Giotto's joy'
Kristeva illustrates this system by analysing Giotto's use of an innovative Christian iconography in the frescoes that line the ceiling and walls of the Arena Chapel in Padua. He completed this project circa 1305. More of his frescos in this idiom can be found in Assisi and Florence where he depicted the life of St Francis. In particular, Kristeva attempts to explain the concept of jouissance, which is a term equated with the joy of innovation that overcomes an artist who has transgressed a previously accepted pictorial cannon. Giotto's deviations at Assisi departed from previous practice at Padua in that St. Francis, the Virgin Mary, and Christ, resemble the clothed peasants of Giotto's time. This moved away from the powerful convention that saints should be presented in richly coloured, embellished clothing, which emulated the growing wealth of princes and merchants of the time, who were more often than not the patrons of Giotto and his contemporaries. This very significant painterly innovation goes hand in hand with Giotto's disruption of previous norms of space and colour. Regarding space, Giotto is thought of as a founder of modern western painting because his work broke free from the stylizations of Byzantine art, which were dedicated to producing elaborate two-dimensional decorative images of Christ and the saints to be worshipped as holy icons in church. In this respect, Giotto may be regarded as the inventor of graphic art by introducing a convincing sense of drama involving clusters of interacting figures in a three dimensional space. Before Giotto's time, medieval graphic art appeared mainly in manuscript illumination, where for centuries, flat two-dimensional illustrations had been inserted in the margins of Bibles, stories of saints and other texts. Giotto's art liberated the images of biblical stories from the Bible. The stories now could be 'seen on stage' by everyone. This text-less format of story presentation was a critical step toward the later rediscovery of popular drama. Giotto's pictorial drama not only freed the images from text; it made the pictures speak and move with fluid human motion. It is not surprising in this context, that St Francis was a natural subject for Giotto to paint, because Francis also liberated text from the Bible. Francis lived simply according to the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. In his own life he presented Jesus as a model of behaviour for all people.
Giotto's mastery of the depiction of drama at Padua is seen in the group of figures surrounding Christ at his entombment (Fig 2). The innovation is obvious when compared with the stylised composition of earlier artists (Fig 3).
Fig 2 The Lamentation at the tomb (Arena Chapel)
Fig 3 Comparison of two representations of the drama of the entombment of Christ
(a) Manuscript circa 1275.
(b) Giotto- wall painting circa 1300
The first use of "histories of subjects" or "biographies", as well as the introduction of the principle of narrative into Christian art are ascribed to Saint Bonaventura. The latter's 'The Mind's Road to God' (1259) is a masterpiece of common place communication showing the way by which man as a creature ought to love and contemplate God through Christ after the example of St. Francis. In this respect it justified the admission of popular oral tradition into the Christian pictorial art of the time by disrupting the twelve-centuries-old, rigid Christian canon originating in Byzantium at the beginning of Christian evangelism.
There are pictorial biblical narrative episodes in the nave of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome (fourth century), but it would seem that the oldest story sequence pertaining to the old Testament is in the Church of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. This was the Imperial stronghold of Byzantine culture on Italian soil. In illustrated manuscripts of the sixth century, illuminations follow a logic of narrative episodes. These Byzantine mosaics, including those at St. Mark's Church in Venice, depict detailed scenes and sequences of dramatic and emotional scenes, but without any comprehensive story line to seal the entire fate of a particular character. In contrast, the narrative of the Giotto frescoes at Padua, which are simply and logically limited to the basic episodes of the lives of Jesus and his mother, suggests that the democratization of the Christian religion was effected by means of painterly biography. On the walls of Padua we find a masterful expression of personal itineraries. Within Giotto's pictorial sequence, the notion of individual history is, in fact, more developed in the Padua frescoes than in those at Assisi.
The final point regarding Giotto's graphic innovations is that in these works, particularly at Padua, colour disrupts and breaks with the chromatic codes operating in Christian iconography in the thirteenth century. In particular, the decentring influence of Giotto's bold use of the colour blue dominates one's first impression of Giotto's painting in its setting of the Arena Chapel (Figs 4 & 5). Kristova says we are overwhelmed by a coloured substance, rather than by the form or architecture. One is struck by the light that is generated, a light that catches the eye because of the dominance of the colour blue. Blue takes hold of the viewer at the extreme limit of the human range of visual perception, lessening both object identification and the ability to fixate on form.
Fig 4 Interior of the Arena Chapel
Fig 5 Rejection of Joachim's sacrifice
Colouring Versus Drawing
In Italian Renaissance art, the term "colorito" means "colouring", and since Giotto's time the word has come to be used to describe the priority accorded by 13th century Venitian artists to the mastery of colour pigments and tones in painting. The main alternative to colorito was "disegno", which favoured the art of drawing over colourism, because the former was deemed to be inseparable from the intellectual conception of the painting itself, and thus superior to the mere mastery of coloured paint. This debate, which raged throughout the Early Renaissance (c.1400-90) and the High Renaissance (c.1490-1530) was a very serious dispute over aesthetics, and was argued over by many of the leading exponents of academic art, until the 19th century.
The question as to which was more important in art, drawing (disegno) or colour (colorito), was answered differently according to whether you lived in Florence or Venice. The fact was, painters from different areas of Italy approached the depiction of nature quite differently and, as a result, created works of art that differ not only in technique and appearance but in their very conception. During the Renaissance in Florence, a city sandwiched between Siena and the Papal States, artists looked for inspiration to the re-discovered humanism and order of Classical Antiquity. For these Florentine painters "drawing" or "design," was seen as the key Greco-Roman starting point of artistic endeavour, the primary means for portraying nature as realistically as possible.
However, artists of the Renaissance in Venice had a completely different view. Their powerful northern Italian Republic, with its worldwide maritime trading links and overland trade routes, had close associations with Byzantine mosaic art, famous for its shimmering gold icons and its inattention to figurative realism. Not surprisingly therefore, Venetian art favoured a more colouristic approach, bolstered no doubt by its lucrative trade in pigments, such as Ultramarine (Lapis Lazuli), Chinese Red, Indian "Lac", Verdigris and Indigo. This Venetian colourism was further stimulated by the city's damp climate, which was less suited to fresco and tempera paints, and more suited to oil painting - a medium which thrived on sophisticated colour and tone.
For optimum naturalism, Venetian painters placed a particularly high value on the correct application of colour, without which they believed no artist could properly capture the real effects of light and thus the true appearance of the object. The Venetian School of painting therefore paid great attention to the process of layering and blending colours to achieve a glowing richness.
As to the origins of the pre-Giotto use of blue e have to look to the art of mosaic. Before Giotto, the application of blue on the scale of Padua was limited to Byzantine mosaics. Whereas Roman mosaics were mostly used as floors, the Byzantines specialised in covering walls and ceilings. This can be seen with great effect in the small chapel, the so-called mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. This small brick structure dates from around 430 AD, making it one of the oldest monuments in Ravenna. Galla Placidia, a powerful Roman empress, was never buried here but she likely commissioned the building. The interior of the mausoleum is covered with rich Byzantine mosaics, and light enters through alabaster window panels. The inside contains two famous mosaic lunettes, and the rest of the interior is filled with mosaics of Christian and Apocalyptic symbols. The most dominant mass of blue covers the ceiling, which represents a starry sky (Fig 6). The Mausoleum is built to a Latin cross plan, and the main symbol of the mosaic in the dead centre of the vaulted ceiling is a celestial cross that shines among the stars in the heavens. This is the world of eternal salvation, the heaven of the Kingdom of God described by St. John in the Book of Revelation.
Fig 6 Starry sky mosaic. Dome of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
Depicting the celestial realm
As soon as congregants entered the ancient churches of Ravenna, they stood in a three-tiered sacred cosmos. A starry night sky or a view of multi-hued clouds represented the first tier, the heavens, where celestial beings hovered; from this mysterious realm, the right hand of God emerged to bless the world. The second tier was an intermediary space over which the living Christ presided. The departed saints stood with him in the meadows of Paradise who visited to bless the living. The third tier was the floor of the church where worshippers stood in God's garden on earth.
This is the sacred cosmos represented in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia with the use of blue for meditating on the drama of the celestial realm. In looking at the celestial realm we see more than distant points of light. In gazing at the most distant reaches of space we encounter the most intimate parts of our human nature. The interior central dome displays a midnight blue sky that teems with gold stars. A simple Latin cross marks the centre apex of the sky, and the winged creatures of Ezekiel's apocalyptic heavenly vision -a lion, ox, eagle, and man- emerge from red and white clouds in the corners of the dome. Below the celestial heavens, arches frame half-moon lunettes that depict paradise: spiralling grape and acanthus vines grow abundantly, bushes are laden with fruit; deer and doves drink at fountains and pools; and saints stand in green meadows. In one lunette, Christ appears as a good shepherd, the last existing early image of him as a shepherd. He sits on a pile of stones in a shrub-covered, rugged landscape. His beardless, boyish face, framed by wavy shoulder-length hair, turns across his right shoulder toward a sheep that gazes at him from the rocky outcrops. With his left hand, he holds a shepherd's staff in the form of a cross-shaped labarum, and his right hand extends to touch the uplifted face of a sheep. Ancient visitors to this shrine would have stood, one level below on the stone floor looking up at the canopy of the heavens, and around at the paradise that was home to Christ and the departed saints. This was the destination of redeemed men and women.In this three-tiered universe, paradise had both a "here" and "not here" quality. Christians taught that paradise had always been here on earth. Sin had once closed its doors, but Jesus Christ had reopened them for the living. While Christians could taste, see, and feel the traces of it in ordinary life, they arrived most fully in paradise in community worship. With its terrestial art and buildings, the church conceptualisd a physical a space that united the living on earth with the heavenly beings and departed saints who surrounded and blessed the living. The risen Christ and a multitude of community witnesses embraced this life and lifted it to touch the heavens at every Eucharist. In that holy ritual, the community stood within the sacred cosmos, blessed by the fruits of the earth and the power of the saints.
What congregants did not see in these mosaics however, was a depiction of Jesus's death. Images of the Crucifixion did not appear in churches until the tenth century. In the sixth-century church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, twenty-six rectangular mosaics near the ceiling of the nave tell the life story of Jesus. On the right wall near the chancel, an image of the Last Supper begins the thirteen scenes of his Passion. At panel ten we encountered Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross for Jesus to Golgotha. We expected to see the Crucifixion on panel eleven. Instead, we were confronted by an angel who sat before a tomb. The apparition spoke to two women swaying forward like Gospel choir singers. The words of the angel are: "I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here" (Matt. 28:5-6).
There are no depictions of the Crucifixion in any of Ravenna's early churches. The death of Jesus, it seemed, was not a key to meaning, not an image of devotion, not a ritual symbol of faith for those pioneer Christians who worshipped among the churches' glittering mosaics. The Christ they saw was the incarnate, risen Christ, the child of baptism, the healer of the sick, the teacher of his friends, and the one who defeated death and transfigured the world with the Spirit of life. This Franciscan transfigured world is paradise reopened as the destiny of eternal life.
Legacy of the mosaicists
The legacy of working in mosaic with a dominance of cobalt blue in the firing of very small tesarae continued into 13th century art in Venice and Florence. As a citizen of Florence, this is where Giotto would have been reminded of the continuity of early Christian art and its icons (Fig 7).
Fig 7 Mosaic in Baptistry Florence circa 1240
Thus, Kristova says it is in conjunction with Giotto's innovations in the use of blue pigments that Western painting began to escape the constraints of narrative and perspective norm. Centuries later it was again through innovations in the application of colour that narrative and representation itself was changed (as with Cezanne, Matisse, Kandinsky, Mondrian Rothko) and new creative joys were released in each and every innovator. Matisse spells it in full: it is through colour-painting's fundamental "device," in the broad sense of "human language"-that revolutions in the plastic arts come about.
"When the means of expression have become so refined, so attenuated that their power of expression wears thin, it is necessary to return to the essential principles which made human language. They are, after all, the principles which "go back to the source," which relive, which give us life. Pictures which have become refinements, subtle gradations, dissolutions without energy, call for beautiful blues, reds, yellows, -matters to stir the sensual depths in men".
So much for the insight of Matisse. For Kandinsky, blue is the colour of spirituality. After all it was invariably the colour of the inner garment of the Maddona. The darker the blue he said, the more it awakens human desire for the eternal. "The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural... The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white."
Indeed, modern research shows that blue light interacts with the brain centres responsible for processing emotion. In these experiments volunteers were exposed to green or blue light while a neutral or angry voice recited meaningless words. As expected, the brain responded more strongly to the angry voice, but this effect was amplified by blue light.
The thread from first naming
Semiotics is a branch of linguistics which puts us in touch with the truism that words are separate from the things that they represent. The semiotic relationship between words and things is amplified when trying to describe abstract concepts like the artistic use of sound, colour, or language itself. This is the area in which Kristeva places the artistic process of arranging "into signs what the subject perceives as separate reality'. In fact it is with full understanding of the futility and ridiculousness of this endeavour that we toss ourselves haphazardly down the path of attempting to nail words onto art by retracing "the speaking thread, and put back into words that from which words have withdrawn".
Exploring the space between painter and academic, all that an individual can do is trace a scholar's interpretation of the origins of a picture from the first mental vision of the artist ending up with the two dimensional expression of his invention in form and colour. The human species is known as Homo sapiens sapiens, which basically means "a being that knows their knowing". What distinguishes us creatively from other forms of life is our capacity for metacognition-the ability to stand off and examine our own thoughts while we engage in them.
Occurring in the neocortex, metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is our ability to know what we know and what we don't know. It is our ability to plan a strategy for producing the information that is needed for knowing, to be conscious of our own steps and strategies during the act of problem solving, and to reflect on and evaluate the productiveness of our own thinking.
The major components of metacognition come into play when we are confronted with a problem to solve, developing a plan of action, maintaining that plan in mind over a period of time, and then reflecting on and evaluating the plan upon its completion. Planning a strategy before embarking on a course of action, whether the intended outcome is a work of art or a motorway, helps us keep track of the steps in the sequence of planned behaviour at the conscious awareness level for the duration of the activity. It facilitates making temporal and comparative judgments; assessing the readiness for more or different activities; and monitoring our interpretations, perceptions, decisions, and behaviours in relation to the intended outcome. This is the route of thinking and monitoring progress that Giotto insists we take when viewing his pictures.
Historians of art, like all thinkers, reflect on and evaluate the quality of their own thinking skills and strategies. Metacognition means becoming increasingly aware of one's actions and the effect of those actions on others and on the environment; forming internal questions in the search for information and meaning; developing mental maps or plans of action; mentally rehearsing before a performance; monitoring plans as they are employed (being conscious of the need for midcourse correction if the plan is not meeting expectations); reflecting on the completed plan for self-evaluation; and editing mental pictures for improved performance. In her essay, Julia Kristeva reflected on Giotto's process of picture making in the spirit of metacognition.
The mental map in Fig 1 is the application of metacognition to the production of a knowledge framework for taking this further. In Fig 8 this map can now be particularised to trace the speaking thread from the first mental meaning that activated Giotto to apply paint to a wall in the hope of releasing a burst of jouissance, a process which leads to the words of the art critics verbal comment on the artists creativity.
Fig 8 'Giotto's Joy '; the speaking thread from first naming