Giotto’s “The Epiphany” (see Fig. 1), a tempera panel on wood with gold ground, is described by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as being a part of a series of scenes from the life of Christ of which six other scenes are known: The Presentation in the Temple (Gardner Museum, Boston), The Last Supper, The Crucifixion, Christ in Limbo (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), The Entombment (Villa I Tatti, Florence) and The Pentecost (National Gallery, London). The Metropolitan goes on to state that:
In the distinctly described space and the free movement of the figures these scenes relate closely to Giotto’s frescoes in the Petruzzi Chapel in Santa Croce, which are usually dated about 1320. The appearance of Saint Francis with two donors in the Crucifixion has led to the suggestion that the panels come from one of four altarpieces by Giotto recorded in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce, but conformation for this is lacking. In the book, The Renaissance in Italy and Spain,. museum curators go on to say that “The Epiphany” combines a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi with one of the Annunciation of the Shepherds.
The kneeling magus is the focus of the composition. He has removed his crown and kneels to the left of the infant quite set apart from his fellow travelers who form a single compositional unit on the right. The glances and gestures of other figures who form a semi-circle around the magus and Christ are all directed at this action. Behind the principle scene, isolated against gold background, two Shepherds respond with awe to the announcement of divine birth (The Renaissance in Italy and Spain, 17). This picture… belongs to a series of seven panels…
which seems to have been painted around 1320 when Giotto was at the height of his powers and enjoyed an unparalleled reputation throughout Italy. The panel is characterized by a clear organization of space—the hill is divided into a series of plateaus and the stable is viewed as though seen from slightly to the right of center—and a concern for simplified shapes that sets it apart from the majority of works produced in the fourteenth century. No less innovative is the manner in which the eldest magus doffs his crown, kneels down, and impetuously lifts the Christ Child from the manger (Curatorial Staff, 112).
In “The Epiphany” two magi are standing to the right at the bottom of the panel and the third, at the bottom center, is kneeling and lifting the Infant from His cradle. Joseph stands to the left (facing) with three goats at his feet in front of him. He is holding the kneeling magus’ gift. The Madonna lies on a long reddish color cushion which extends horizontally across the picture plane. She is directly above the Infant and her body show both weight and roundness in her elongated, downward curving form.
She is reclining within a simple wooden manger and to her upper left, silhouetted against the gold sky, are two shepherds, both simply dressed. One shepherd looks skyward at the rejoicing angels and their bodies, if connected, would form a linear arch that bends upward. To the far left, an angel appears from behind the roof of the manger, his body partly hidden. All figures form a circle around Christ. In addition, the movement of the figures to the left of the composition form two half circles which curve downward, focusing on the Child.
The figures on the left, from the two angels to Joseph and the kneeling magus, form a plane which points directly to the magus holding the Infant. Another compositional factor is provided with a series of triangular forms, the most obvious of which are in the upper framework of the manger. This triangulation is balanced on the right with an inverted, larger triangle formed by the heads of two magi at the bottom and an angel at the top. The movement throughout this panel is complex and subtle with clearly defined, elegant figures that interact without the benefit of either sound or motion.
The subject of “The Epiphany” is realistic and the figures are concerned as sympathetic spectators watching the reception of the Child. Even the animals look at and form a circle around the Infant; all, that is, except one who turns his head to look at Joseph. The figures show warmth; their action is natural and relaxed. Gestures are self-contained. The Child is wrapped in white – bound, inactive, but alert. Although attentive, the figures are silent with all painted in profile except the Infant, Madonna and one magus. The communication between the figures is that they are focused on the infant.
Hands which are clasped, holding gifts or raised skyward reflect a potential activity. The colors are deep blue, red, green, pink and gold, with the shepherds painted as humble people in various earth tones around the spectrum of dark brown. Highlights are painted in orange and cream with the deepest shadow and brightest highlights in the angels’ wings, hands, necks, and faces looking towards the heavens. The sense of perspective is provided with generous incidents of overlapping of figures, animals, landscape and structure. The manger recedes into a narrow plane.
The viewer is brought into the center of the action, and the placement of figures from top to bottom indicate that those at the top are further away from the viewer than those directly at the bottom of the panel.
Andrew Ladis, “The Legend of Giotto’s Wit and the Arena Chapel,” The Art Bulletin Volume LXVIII, no. 4 (December 1986): 581-596. Canaday, John. Late Gothic to Renaissance Painters. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969 Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey, Gardner’s Art through the Ages, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich