In his essay "The divine Dante", Mark Vernon says

Dante’s hometown ... was a crucible of the Renaissance, nurturing artists such as Giotto, who pioneered the painting of individuals with inner lives that we recognise as our own.

What kind of paintings are these being described as?  Did he make abstract paintings of the souls of individuals or is there some other meaning attached to it?

For once I thought that he started to make paintings of individuals having inner lives (souls) but somehow it isn't making sense.  Also is the interpretation of inner lives as souls correct or does it mean something else here in context?

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2 Answers 2


You may grasp the meaning of individuals with inner lives from this Wiki excerpt:

Giotto's depiction of the human face and emotion sets his work apart from that of his contemporaries. When the disgraced Joachim returns sadly to the hillside, the two young shepherds look sideways at each other. The soldier who drags a baby from its screaming mother in the Massacre of the Innocents does so with his head hunched into his shoulders and a look of shame on his face. The people on the road to Egypt gossip about Mary and Joseph as they go. Of Giotto's realism, the 19th-century English critic John Ruskin said, "He painted the Madonna and St. Joseph and the Christ, yes, by all means... but essentially Mamma, Papa and Baby". Wiki

The people Giotto paints aren't "place holders" or approximations of, say, a generic Madonna and Joseph, where one male or female face might be switched with any other, but rather individual humans whose depictions capture emotions, a life of experience, and inner thoughts—humans as we see them in later realistic schools of painting and recognize in ourselves and others. Facial expressions tell the story as much as the work's other elements and composition.

You can rule out abstractionism by looking at illustrations of Giotto's works or by looking at the dates he was active and the dates of the first abstact paintings.

  • "humans as we see them in later realistic schools of painting and recognize in ourselves and others" , what do you mean by this line , the realistic school and recognizing ourselves ? how are we recognizing ourselves through paintings ? Also the paragraph which you have quoted what is meant by the last line that "He painted the Madonna and St. Joseph and the Christ, yes, by all means... but essentially Mamma, Papa and Baby" What does Mamma, Papa and Baby symbolize here ?
    – Fin27
    Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 0:23
  • We see the faces of ordinary people, not "perfect" or ideal images---faces that we may see in strangers, friends, family, and possibly ourselves, if not whole faces, perhaps an expression, some trait or feature, a simle, or a look of contemplation that reminds us of someone.// Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child could be put in other clothes, another setting and another time and convince us as plausible, ordinary parents with their child rather then austere, cold, symbolic figures.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 0:55

An inner life is an idiom meaning one's character, worries, knowledge, circumstances and all that we experience and think about, and which is held in our mind (hence, inner = internal) and forms us as individuals. It has similarities to the concious and subconscious.

OED (from the entry "inner" )

2.a. Said of the mind or soul (as the more inaccessible or secret, or as the more central or essential part of man, or as distinguished from the external or outer world), and of things belonging or relating thereto; hence often = Mental or spiritual.

1899 W. James Talks to Teachers ii. 15 There is a stream, a succession of states, or waves, or fields (or of whatever you please to call them), of knowledge, of feeling, of desire, of deliberation, etc., that constantly pass and repass, and that constitute our inner life.

1927 B. Russell Outl. Philos. ii. 20 We all have an inner life, open to our own inspection but to no one else's.

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