Fragments of Light

Painting as Theological Thought, Part 2

Giotto, Anna and Joachim Meeting at the Golden Gate.
Giotto, Anna and Joachim Meeting at the Golden Gate.


“In Giotto and Duccio, for the first time in the history of art, we find depicted the fully developed person acting to some moral purpose toward coherent and understandable ends.” —John W. Dixon, Jr., “Painting as Theological Thought: Issues in Tuscan Theology” in Art, Creativity and the Sacred, Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, ed.

In his essay, “Painting as Theological Thought: Issues in Tuscan Theology,” John Dixon explores the work of Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337) and Duccio di Buoninsegna (born 13th century,—died c. 1319). Poised as they were for the opening acts of the development of early Renaissance Humanism, ​these artists contributed a new visual expression which still speaks today. Dixon comments on their use of visual language to arrive at theological expression:

“Artistic drama is not the imitation of the externals of an action, which would be no more than illustration. It is a making manifest, for good or evil, the moral purpose of human acts. To this end several artistic instruments are available to the artist. For both Giotto and Duccio the basic instrument is gesture, the expressive act and attitude that reveals the inner moral purpose. Procedural​ly​ this means the most intense and precise observation of human conduct and attitude. True gesture is unattainable as a general idea, a general principle. It depends rather on the most intense immediacies of relation to life as it is experienced.”

Dixon speaks first of scenes from Giotto’s famous fresco cycles: “In the Arena Chapel, Anna, with infinite tenderness, touches the face of Joachim returning. Equally, too, the great arch encloses the figures, the circle wraps their upper bodies together. Gesture is Giotto’s principal dramatic instrument, but composition serves as well. Joachim is expelled from the temple with the coarse repelling gesture of the priest’s inverted hand; Joachim resentfully looking back while lovingly holding the rejected sacrificial lamb. But he is also thrust into emptiness, an emptiness so unprecedented that historians were convinced for years that there must have been a figure painted there but which undeniably is Giotto’s sign of the loneliness of rejected man. Another example, one of the finest of all, is the Noli Me Tangere, with Mary reaching out in infinite longing, and Jesus simultaneously moving away, holding her off, blessing her with infinite compassion and love.”

Thus, the use of gesture and composition illuminate the dramatic narrative resulting in the representation of individuals infused with what Dixon calls, “the moral gravity of true personality.”

Comments welcome.


Giotto, Rejection of Joachim's Sacrifice.
Giotto, Rejection of Joachim’s Sacrifice.


Giotto, Noli me tangere
Giotto,​ Noli me Tangere.

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