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July 10, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1267–1337) holds a front rank among the great painters of the Western tradition. Giotto’s work shows a mastery of form, color, volume, spatial arrangement, dramatic appeal, emotional expressiveness, and spiritual depth. Although his influences are obvious (e.g., Cimabue and the Assisi circle), the alchemy he performs with them is, like Suger’s St. Denis in Paris, a miracle of transformation.

Giotto and Fra Angelico are often mentioned in the same breath as artists in whom one sees a marvelous confluence of medieval luminosity, Byzantine formalism, and a new awareness of naturalism and perspective. The resulting whole is greater than the mere sum of its parts. Giotto’s work stands poised at a magical moment when the naïve innocence of medieval art and the stable, hieratic framework of the icon are still the order of the day, but when artists have acquired a new eye for shading, nuance of brushstroke, and depth of human psychology.

In the image above, a detail from one of the many scenes painted on the walls of the Scrovegni or Arena Chapel in Padua, we see Our Lady holding the Christchild with tender love and reverent awe. Her serene face tells us that she has not suffered the pains of childbirth, while the bright eyes of her Son and His preternaturally upright head tell us that He is no ordinary mortal boy, but the Promised One who fully knows Who He is, whence He has come, and whither He goes. As in Byzantine icons, He is wrapped in swaddling clothes that hauntingly suggest burial linens; He is about to be placed in a manger that anticipates His tomb.

The Virgin’s almond eyes burn with the fervor of her adoration and love, as if she could not possibly get enough of the sight of her Child’s countenance. The maid assisting her, though less intense and more intent on serving, is ineluctably caught up in the same wonder, the joy that keeps silence because no words are adequate to the Word made flesh. Even the dumb ox, symbol of the lower creation in its brute force, seems to take its cue from the Virgin and turns into a contemplative, pleased to be an animal-in-waiting at the humble court of the Lamb of God.

What a contrast with another wall painting from the same chapel, this one depicting the slaughter of the Holy Innocents! Here, Giotto exploits the new sense of depth, bright colors, and emotional drama to pull his viewer into the horror of barbaric bloodshed. Herod stands above the very scene and commands the evil with full premeditation. His soldiers, large, clumsy, brutish, scarcely human, seek out, clutch, and butcher the children, casting their dead bodies into a mounting heap of sorrow, the future of the town laid waste. Mothers in tight formation struggle to escape, weep in helplessness, and surrender to their anguish. Their children have been torn from their bosoms, torn almost from their wombs.

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The dignity of the boys is revealed in their nobly chiseled and highly individual features, reminding us that there is no such thing as a generic human being: each person is unique, made in the image of God, able to be remade in the image of Christ.

These particular boys, circumcised Hebrews of about the same age as the Christchild, are venerated by the Catholic Church as martyrs who died in His place and for His sake.

Giotto brings out all these aspects of the story and more, with an obvious understanding of and sympathy with the biblical story and the Church’s faith. This is what an artistic genius can do; this is what a great Catholic painter does.

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Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California (B.A. Liberal Arts) and The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC (M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy). He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria and the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, then helped establish Wyoming Catholic College in 2006. There he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history and directed the choirs until leaving in 2018 to devote himself full-time to writing and lecturing.

Today he contributes regularly to many websites and publications, including New Liturgical Movement, OnePeterFive, LifeSiteNews, Rorate Caeli, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News, and has published thirteen books, including four on traditional Catholicism: Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014, also available in Czech, Polish, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Belarusian), Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017), Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018), and Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over a thousand articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church.

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.

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