The devil is in Giotto’s details

A restorer working on a fresco by Giotto di Bondone in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi has discovered a the face of a devil hidden in the clouds. Medievalist and St. Francis expert Chiara Frugoni divined the demonic presence in fresco number 20 out of a series of 28 depicting the life of St. Francis as written by St. Bonaventure. Bonaventure was the seventh Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor and was commissioned by the Order to write the official biography of St. Francis in 1260. Fresco 20 is the death and ascension of St. Francis, painted by Giotto between 1296 and 1304.

St. Francis is shown lying on his death bier, surrounded by mourning friars while his soul is taken to heaven by a host of angels. Bonaventure described the scene in Chapter XIV of the hagiography: “In the hour of transit of the blessed Francis a friar saw his soul ascend to the heavens in the form of an enormously bright star.” The profile of the demon is on the right side of a cloud underneath the bright star, staring at the crotch of an angel.

“It’s a powerful portrait, with a hooked nose, sunken eyes and two dark horns,” Ms Frugoni said in an article in a forthcoming issue of the St Francis art history periodical.

“The significance of the image still needs to be delved into. In the Middle Ages it was believed that demons lived in the sky and that they could impede the ascension of human souls to Heaven.

“Until now it was thought that the first painter to use clouds in this way was Andrea Mantegna, with a painting of St Sebastian from 1460, in which high up in the sky there’s a cloud from which a knight on horseback emerges. Now we know that Giotto was the first (to use this technique).”

The figure hasn’t been seen until now because it’s almost impossible to spot looking up from the floor of the basilica. It took carefully examination of close-up photographs to find the little devil.

Sergio Fusetti, the chief restorer of the basilica, notes that theology may not have been Giotto’s entire motivation. He could have included the demon as a private joke, perhaps to spite someone who had done him wrong, or perhaps just for the fun of having a hidden image in the clouds.

There are some more pictures — unfortunately all of them small — on the Franciscan website.