This week we’re going to look at the frescoes of Giotto and riff on simultaneity.
The spine of any book is a hinge between the two equal sides. The page and the spread. So in comics – each spread is like a diptych because the two pages are always viewed together. Bound.
Mapping the squares of each page and of the whole proportion together insures a harmonious flow across the spread. It allows for the true marking of time. The two sides of the diptych have identical harmonic points. So it is possible to construct an internal rhythm on each page that relates directly to the next “beat” in the sequence. The spread is a full measure. The page is a half measure.
The mapping of each page and spread together can also be seen like building the walls of a house. When you build a house, you place the support studs 16 inches apart. For every wall. You don’t build one wall with differently placed support studs because it “looks right”. You follow the plan. You measure. The pages – walls – construct rooms. The rooms contain the stories, if you will. The timing, sequencing, width & height of the images is determined by the very architecture of the house. The dimensions of the walls describe the size of the rooms – the size and scale of the story itself.
Stay with the walls metaphor & I think of Giotto’s fresco cycle on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. It’s a beautiful, life size comic strip & I was lucky enough to see it in person. You’re supposed to read it by beginning at the upper top left tier on the south wall and read it in a downward spiral clockwise motion. South wall, top tier, read across left to right – turn to the north wall and read left to right across the top tier – turn to the south wall and now go down to the middle tier and read left to right across, etc, until you finish reading in a downward, clockwise spiral. The walls and proportions of the chapel determine the number of panels.
It’s sort of impossible to read it correctly first – you read it all at once. It just looms above you – you can’t help taking it all in at once even after you’ve decided to focus on one panel at a time. Then – the walls relate to each other – they alternate left and right. The random way that a book is often approached or the direct “correct” way is accounted for in the conjunctions between panels and between walls.
So the simultaneity of the whole chapel (spread) and the rhythm of each wall (page) relate to the proportions of the panels. Think timing. The Scrovegni chapel’s north wall has 16 panels. If you face the north wall and take in all the panels at once and piece it together – you’re reading it “wrong” – but that is accounted for, I think, because the panels are each given equal weight. There are all equal panels. They unite and unfold at once AND in sequence.
The north wall, of course, relates directly to the south wall. The two pages of the spread, if you follow. Cathedrals are often called stone books. So the rhythm of this concrete book is, again, derived directly by the architecture of the chapel. The are six windows on the south wall – so that changes the arrangement of the panels. The panels on this wall are spaced differently. The tiers are the unifying guidelines on both walls but moreso in the south wall. The viewer is meant to read across the tiers – but again, it’s next to impossible to not let the other images affect you.
“The spectator has to perform much of the business of the storyteller or narrator by working out the relationships[…]” sayeth Jules Lubbock about Giotto in his book Storytelling in Christian Art.
I feel like the correct spiral reading of the Giotto frescoes is similar to the zig zag back and forth of turning pages in a book. Going forward and going “in” by going back to the left after every page turn. Even the zig zag of reading the grid is similar.
So this this back and forth, the zig zag of page turning reinforces the hinge idea – the diptych. Simultaneity should, I think, always be accounted for when composing. The reader pieces together the spreads, but the order which the reader decodes the story cannot by fixed by the maker. Except for the spread. And even then the reader can read it in any order he wishes, really. But the spread is the only fixed sequencing, bound by the book itself – two pages together. So as the reader zig zags back & forth through the book either “correctly” or “incorrectly” – the narrative one two beat of the spread determines conjunctions – evenly spaced, timed – that assist a sonorous flow to the images.
The Scrovegni Chapel is like the Sistine Chapel in a lot of ways. It was, apparently, the inspiration for the Sistine Chapel. At both chapels you can’t help but look at the other images while you are concentrating on one panel. You, the viewer, reader, are going back and forth “through the book” – piecing the story together. The Sistine Chapel is different in that panels are on the ceiling of course, but the idea that the very architecture of the chapel dictates the size and shape of panels remains the same. This framing got me really interested in Gothic Cathedrals and how harmonic they are – how modular they are – and how the idea of simultaneity is very present and accounted for – planned for. You can’t “fix” the way someone will “read” the images in the space – but the cathedrals are planned so that they unfold in sequence, in time, – in tune with all the other elements in the space – from the center out and from the edges in.
My personal experience with Giotto and Michelangelo and Gothic Cathedrals led me to thinking about comics and “all at once” reading. Stations of the cross, stained glass windows, panels within the architecture of the building – it’s all connected harmonically. I started going to Grace Cathedral on Broadway and 10th street in Manhattan to listen to Bach being played on the church organ. Every day at noon. No religious service, just Bach for half an hour. What was amazing was how the music fills the space and tuned my body in this way that made me feel the architecture and the colors in the stained glass windows more than when the music wasn’t playing. Weird. For me, it was this experience of allowing the harmonies of the music to rhyme with the architecture in the church. I’d hesitate to say that I felt shapes when certain notes were played but there was some strange connection I did feel between the music and the space itself.
But, remember, for all this music as comics talk – music is still fundamentally different than comics. Music exists in time. I think comparing murals or frescoes cycles like Giotto’s to comics is helpful because of the idea of “all at once” reading and harmonics is present. I’m going to get more into musical analogies – but I need the help of friends who can speak in musical terms. Stay tuned.
From last week:
I wanted to show how if you map harmonies and plan for them that you can connect images that were not made at the same time. The below images weren’t made to fit together – yet they do because the figures and backgrounds describe what is harmonic within the area.
What the above illustrates is that you can compose panels for a single page separately – but if you are aware of the harmonies the two panels will fit together seamlessly. Same goes for the spread, of course. This is the same principle at work in Gothic Cathedrals. There can be additions made to cathedrals at any point that will be in harmony with the rest of the space because everything is built out from the center square. Harmonies are planned for based on the square – in every direction. If you look at above mapping – the semi-circles describe the half squares in each area.
Over and out.