THE THIRD MORNING. BEFORE THE SOLDAN.
Giotto never succeeded, to the very end of his days, in representing a figure lying down, and at ease. It is one of the most curious points in all his character. Just the thing which he could study from nature without the smallest hindrance, is the thing he never can paint; while subtleties of form and gesture, which depend absolutely on their momentariness, and actions in which no model can stay for an instant, he seizes with infallible accuracy.
Not only has the sleeping Pope, in the right hand lower fresco, his head laid uncomfortably on his pillow, but all the clothes on him are in awkward angles, even Giotto's instinct for lines of drapery failing him altogether when he has to lay it on a reposing figure. But look at the folds of the Soldan's robe over his knees. None could be more beautiful or right; and it is to me wholly inconceivable that the two paintings should be within even twenty years of each other in date - the skill in the upper one is so supremely greater. We shall find, however, more than mere truth in its casts of drapery, if we examine them.
They are so simply right, in the figure of the Soldan, that we do not think of them; - we see him only, not his dress But we see dress first, in the figures of the discomfited Magi. Very fully draped personages these, indeed, - with trains, it appears, four yards long, and bearers of them.
The one nearest the Soldan has done his devoir as bravely as he could; would fain go up to the fire, but cannot; is forced to shield his face, though he has not turned back. Giotto gives him full sweeping breadth of fold; what dignity he can; - a man faithful to his profession, at all events.
The next one has no such courage. Collapsed altogether, he has nothing more to say for himself or his creed. Giotto hangs the cloak upon him, in Ghirlandajo's fashion, as from a peg, but with ludicrous narrowness of fold. Literally, he is a 'shut-up' Magus - closed like a fan. He turns his head away, hopelessly. And the last Magus shows nothing but his back, disappearing through the door.
Opposed to them, in a modern work, you would have had a St. Francis standing as high as he could in his sandals, contemptuous, denunciatory; magnificently showing the Magi the door. No such thing, says Giotto. A somewhat mean man; disappointing enough in presence-even in feature; I do not understand his gesture, pointing to his forehead - perhaps meaning, 'my life, or my head, upon the truth of this.' The attendant monk behind him is terror-struck; but will follow his master. The dark Moorish servants of the Magi show no emotion - will arrange their masters' trains as usual, and decorously sustain their retreat.
Lastly, for the Soldan himself. In a modern work, you would assuredly have had him staring at St. Francis with his eyebrows up, or frowning thunderously at his Magi, with them bent as far down as they would go. Neither of these aspects does he bear, according to Giotto. A perfect gentleman and king, he looks on his Magi with quiet eyes of decision; he is much the noblest person in the room - though an infidel, the true hero of the scene, far more than St. Francis. It is evidently the Soldan whom Giotto wants you to think of mainly, in this picture of Christian missionary work.
He does not altogether take the view of the Heathen which you would get in an Exeter Hall meeting. Does not expatiate on their ignorance, their blackness, or their nakedness. Does not at all think of the Florentine Islington and Pentonville, as inhabited by persons in every respect superior to the kings of the East; nor does he imagine every other religion but his own to be log-worship. Probably the people who really worship logs - whether in Persia or Pentonville - will be left to worship logs to their hearts' content, thinks Giotto. But to those who worship God, and who have obeyed the laws of heaven written in their hearts, and numbered the stars of it visible to them, - to these, a nearer star may rise; and a higher God be revealed.
You are to note, therefore, that Giotto's Soldan is the type of all noblest religion and law, in countries where the name of Christ has not been preached. There was no doubt what king or people should be chosen: the country of the three Magi had already been indicated by the miracle of Bethlehem; and the religion and morality of Zoroaster were the purest, and in spirit the oldest, in the heathen world. Therefore, when Dante, in the nineteenth and twentieth books of the Paradise, gives his final interpretation of the law of human and divine justice in relation to the gospel of Christ - the lower and enslaved body of the heathen being represented by St. Philip's convert, ("Christians like these the Ethiop shall condemn") - the noblest state of heathenism is at once chosen, as by Giotto: "What may the Persians say untoyour kings?" Compare also Milton, -
"At the Soldan's chair,
Defied the best of Paynim chivalry."
And now, the time is come for you to look at Giotto's St. Louis, who is the type of a Christian king.
You would, I suppose, never have seen it at all, unless I had dragged you here on purpose. It was enough in the dark originally - is trebly darkened by the modern painted glass - and dismissed to its oblivion contentedly by Mr. Murray's "Four saints, all much restored and repainted," and Messrs. Crowe and Cavalcasella's serene "The St. Louis is quite new."