THE THIRD MORNING. BEFORE THE SOLDAN.
The fact was, he saw light so intensely that he never for an instant thought of painting it. He knew that to paint the sun was as impossible as to stop it; and he was no trickster, trying to find out ways of seeming to do what he did not. I can paint a rose, - yes; and I will. I can't paint a red-hot coal; and I won't try to, nor seem to. This was just as natural and certain a process of thinking with him, as the honesty of it, and true science, were impossible to the false painters of the sixteenth century.
Nevertheless, what his art can honestly do to make you feel as much as he wants you to feel, about this fire, he will do; and that studiously. That the fire be luminous or not, is no matter just now. But that the fire is hot, he would have you to know. Now, will you notice what colours he has used in the whole picture. First, the blue background, necessary to unite it with the other three subjects, is reduced to the smallest possible space. St. Francis must be in grey, for that is his dress; also the attendant of one of the Magi is in grey; but so warm, that, if you saw it by itself, you would call it brown. The shadow behind the throne, which Giotto knows he can paint, and therefore does, is grey also. The rest of the picture [Footnote: The floor has been repainted; but though its grey is now heavy and cold, it cannot kill the splendour of the rest.] in at least six-sevenths of its area - is either crimson, gold, orange, purple, or white, all as warm as Giotto could paint them; and set off by minute spaces only of intense black, - the Soldan's fillet at the shoulders, his eyes, beard, and the points necessary in the golden pattern behind. And the whole picture is one glow.
A single glance round at the other subjects will convince you of the special character in this; but you will recognize also that the four upper subjects, in which St. Francis's life and zeal are shown, are all in comparatively warm colours, while the two lower ones - of the death, and the visions after it - have been kept as definitely sad and cold.
Necessarily, you might think, being full of monks' dresses. Not so. Was there any need for Giotto to have put the priest at the foot of the dead body, with the black banner stooped over it in the shape of a grave? Might he not, had he chosen, in either fresco, have made the celestial visions brighter? Might not St. Francis have appeared in the centre of a celestial glory to the dreaming Pope, or his soul been seen of the poor monk, rising through more radiant clouds? Look, however, how radiant, in the small space allowed out of the blue, they are in reality. You cannot anywhere see a lovelier piece of Giottesque colour, though here, you have to mourn over the smallness of the piece, and its isolation. For the face of St. Francis himself is repainted, and all the blue sky; but the clouds and four sustaining angels are hardly retouched at all, and their iridescent and exquisitely graceful wings are left with really very tender and delicate care by the restorer of the sky. And no one but Giotto or Turner could have painted them.
For in all his use of opalescent and warm colour, Giotto is exactly like Turner, as, in his swift expressional power, he is like Gainsborough. All the other Italian religious painters work out their expression with toil; he only can give it with a touch. All the other great Italian colourists see only the beauty of colour, but Giotto also its brightness. And none of the others, except Tintoret, understood to the full its symbolic power; but with those - Giotto and Tintoret - there is always, not only a colour harmony, but a colour secret. It is not merely to make the picture glow, but to remind you that St. Francis preaches to a fire-worshipping king, that Giotto covers the wall with purple and scarlet; - and above, in the dispute at Assisi, the angry father is dressed in red, varying like passion; and the robe with which his protector embraces St. Francis, blue, symbolizing the peace of Heaven, Of course certain conventional colours were traditionally employed by all painters; but only Giotto and Tintoret invent a symbolism of their own for every picture. Thus in Tintoret's picture of the fall of the manna, the figure of God the Father is entirely robed in white, contrary to all received custom: in that of Moses striking the rock, it is surrounded by a rainbow. Of Giotto's symbolism in colour at Assisi, I have given account elsewhere. [Footnote: 'Fors Clavigera' for September, 1874.]
You are not to think, therefore, the difference between the colour of the upper and lower frescos unintentional. The life of St. Francis was always full of joy and triumph. His death, in great suffering, weariness, and extreme humility. The tradition of him reverses that of Elijah; living, he is seen in the chariot of fire; dying, he submits to more than the common sorrow of death.
There is, however, much more than a difference in colour between the upper and lower frescos. There is a difference in manner which I cannot account for; and above all, a very singular difference in skill, - indicating, it seems to me, that the two lower were done long before the others, and afterwards united and harmonized with them. It is of no interest to the general reader to pursue this question; but one point he can notice quickly, that the lower frescos depend much on a mere black or brown outline of the features, while the faces above are evenly and completely painted in the most accomplished Venetian manner: - and another, respecting the management of the draperies, contains much interest for us.