Giotto’s Stefaneschi Triptych (c.1315)

Giotto di Bondone has always been lauded as a revolutionary who changed the face of painting by bringing rounded form and a deep feeling for humanity into Western art. In essence, he began the illusion that has tricked viewers and experts ever since, that art copies what we see.

This altarpiece, 8 feet tall unframed, is highly significant too. It was painted for the high altar (or Canon's altar) of Old St. Peter's Basilica in Rome before the building was demolished in the sixteenth century to make way for today's cathedral. The elaborate frame for the painting has since been lost but we know what it looked like......

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Captions for image(s) above:

Giotto, The Stefaneschi Triptych (c.1315) Verso. Tempera on wood. Vatican Museum, Rome

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......because the patron, Cardinal Stefaneschi, can be seen offering the framed painting to St. Peter. That's right. The painting we see is depicted inside the painting itself and in the principal panel too. Note also how Giotto has made a painting so sacred that the Cardinal (his alter ego) uses a cloth in offering it to St. Peter. Even the cardinal dare not touch Giotto's creation.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Giotto, Detail of The Stefaneschi Triptych (c.1315) Verso

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On the back or recto, which two scholars recently suggested may have been the front or verso1, Christ sits on a throne, the design of which is an exact replica of the painting's frame as though, in one sense, this Christ is a painting adored by the heavenly figures. These internal references to the painting on both sides make the painting the subject of the painting.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Giotto, The Stefaneschi Triptych (c.1315) Recto

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No doubt that's why the saint on the far right holds his quill like a brush while his other arm, bent like a palette-arm, holds a book which though vertical is flat like a palette. On the allegorical level, like many later figures of saints discussed on this site, he could even be "painting" himself.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Giotto's Stefaneschi Triptych (c.1315) Verso.

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Two of the saints on the surviving portion of the predella below hold their quill and palm leaf like a brush as well. Whatever Giotto's larger meaning, his altarpiece for Christendom's holiest cathedral is at the very least self-referential. Though little known today, its influence must have been great, yet more evidence that the subject of significant art was then, as now, the creation of art itself.

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of the predella on Giotto's Stefaneschi Triptych (c.1315) Verso.

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More Works by Giotto

Notes:

1. Bram Kempers and Sible de Blauuw, "Jacopo Stefaneschi, Patron and Liturgist: A New Hypothesis Regarding the Date, Iconography, Authorship, and Function of His Altarpiece for Old St. Peter's", Mededelingen van het Nederlands Instituut te Rome 47 (1987), pp. 88-89

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 30 Sep 2012. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.