Still Lost in a Fresco Cycle

Santa Croce Choir Gaddi Frescoes

Every day I get lost in a reverie of some memory of last summer.  Lately I keep thinking of standing on the scaffolding in Santa Croce, face to face with the figures in Agnolo Gaddi’s frescos, seeing them just as they were when the artist created them in 1380. While it is unforgettable to be standing nearly 300 meters high– and I don’t like heights –in the largest Franciscan church in the world, I was distracted   from any anxiety by being mesmerized by those 600 year old faces.

The fresco itself is massive, and while its subject is the Legend of the True Cross, it is a collection of portraits of the famous – Agnolo himself, Giotto, Taddeo Gaddi (Agnolo Gaddi’s father) and ordinary contemporaries of Gaddi’s. Gaddi was a student of Giotto, and the last major artist to paint in the style of that master.  While seeing the details of the work and standing where the artist stood himself were amazing, I was arrested by the frescoes celebration of contemporary medieval life.  From Giotto forward many artists put sacred scenes in their own contemporary settings, reflecting that synthesis of the divine and the mortal that would later become known as humanism, and reminding those who gazed on them that the people who participated in these events were ordinary human beings just as they were.  As I was standing looking at Gaddi’s faces, and then back to the faces of those in our group, the same synthesis occurred to me.  The faces of the frescoes became more real because of the flesh and blood faces of the people of the people I had come to know in the last few days.  We were staring at these fresco figures and talking to one another about this small miracle, while the figures in the fresco were conversing (even the horses) and sharing the wonders of the discovery that is the subject of the scene.

Climbing down the stairs from register to register, each with a new focus was like climbing down to earth literally and metaphorically. How did those painters feel at the end of a long day’s work, weary and ready to return home to…what? My mind still wanders there.  I wonder who was the woman in the hunting hat, riding on a white horse? What preoccupied her? Was her lifelong or short? And the man in the red jerkin? Who was he in actual life? What troubled him? What gave him joy? So many human stories beyond the one the fresco tells.  That always reminds me of what is true in the fresco is true of actual life – you only get to see the face but not the story of the people you see every day. Isn’t that one of the great gifts of art?  A 600 year old fresco informs us not only of the life, ideas and sensibilities of its own time, nor does it cause us to reflect merely on our own sensibilities as individuals, or just on the “universality” of being human in its most abstract sense but it extends our imagination to think meaningfully about the  lives of those around us – those we too often see as “extras” in our own diorama rather than individuals, with their complex stories, anxieties, sorrows, and joy, who knowingly or unknowingly are our companions in our shared time of living, our shared fresco cycle that we cannot yet see.

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