Bondone, di Giotto: The Meeting at the Golden Gate (1305)

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About the artist

Your favourite kiss in art? Perhaps it's Gustav Klimt's.

The clinch is close.

The couple are enveloped and almost demate-rialising under the mass of gold-ornamented fabric. But it's true that their mouths aren't actually kissing. The gentleman bends - and it's as though Klimt couldn't quite bring himself to loose sight of the lady's lips. Or perhaps it's Edvard Munch's. Here, the lovers are kissing and more. Their faces flow into one another, merge into a single, undivided blob, like two pierced yolks in a mixing bowl.

Or go to sculpture. There's Auguste Rodin's clamped smacker, between a pair of giants who grapple on a Promethean rock, their bodies surging with Michelangelo muscle. There's also Constantin Brancusi's minimal "reply" to these heroic lovers. It's an object about a foot high, in which two little cuboid figures are pressed together in a toddler embrace, flat face bumping against flat face, froggy arms wrapped round each other's backs.

These four famous kisses are all entitled The Kiss. And they all date from around the turn of the last century. No coincidence. It was then that mouth-to-mouth, man/woman kissing - kissing for its own sake, so to speak - first became an established artistic theme. The kiss, which is for us a crucial threshold in every affair, and a general symbol for sexual love, and a staple of the movies, is rare in European art before then. These flagrant fin-de-siècle kisses are consciously novel and daring.

The sexual mouth kiss does appear in earlier art, but it's not kissing for it's own sake. It has a pointed, outré meaning. It isn't simply what we do when we're in love. It signifies as grossly lustful, wickedly lascivious, uninhibitedly carnal - something done by sinners, pagans, randy monks and peasants, not nice, normal couples. There are some "good" kisses, though, and one of them can claim to be the most powerful kiss in art. You have to go back to the start of European painting, to Giotto.

The Meeting at the Golden Gate is one of the hardest to see of the frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. It's in the topmost of the three bands of pictures, and at the end of a row, and your natural viewing position is by the entrance of the chapel, where there isn't room to stand back enough. Only the elevated, four-square eye of the camera can reveal what Giotto and his assistants saw when they painted it 700 years ago. As with many of Giotto's effects, the power of this kiss derives from how he does bodies.

The enormous solidity of Giotto's figures has always been appreciated. An early commentator, Cennino Cennini, said that Giotto had "translated the art of painting from Greek into Latin", meaning that he'd changed it from the flatness of a Greek-Byzantine icon to the solidity of a Roman statue. But the solidity wasn't consistently admired. To later, anatomically sophisticated eyes, the stout Giotto body could look like inarticulate bulk. The Irish neoclassical painter James Barry observed that, in Giotto, "all the parts of the body are much confounded together... they are (particularly in their flexures) as inartificially drawn as if copied from the bendings of a sandbag". What a brilliant description of Giotto's elbows: the bendings of a sandbag.

But for some 20th-century artists, this stout sandbag quality was exactly what they liked, and tried to imitate. It looked honest, primitive, childlike. It's Giotto who inspires Stanley Spencer's tubby, cuddly characters. "What ho! Giotto!" was his cry, when he got the commission to paint the Sandham Memorial Chapel. It was a dream come true, a chance to do a modern version of the Padua frescos.

The actual figures in Padua are too solemn to be cuddly. But their inflexible massiveness gives them a slowness of manoeuvre, a steadiness and a carefulness in the way they make contact with the world and each other. They seem incapable of committing or suffering violence (and it always feels wrong when the story compels them to be violent). Their characteristic gesture is the laying on of hands. They are great huggers.

The hug and kiss in The Meeting at the Golden Gate are between by St Joachim and St Anne, the parents of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is an extremely significant kiss: if it hadn't been, Giotto would not have painted it. According to Christian doctrine, Mary was born "immaculate", without the inherited taint of human sin. And according to Christian legend, her parents conceived her without having sex. An angel directed the childless couple to go separately to the Golden Gate in Jerusalem. When they meet, they kiss - and out of this kiss Mary is engendered.

The picture has striking details: the gateway's golden arch, the use of black in the cloak of one woman, and the herdsman (he's a figure in the story, too) who enters half cut-off by the picture's edge. But the foreground embrace is the main event. As these two massive bodies gently lay hands on each other, Giotto unites their forms into a single pointed arch.

The fusion of faces is even more forceful (look as close as you can). Their haloes intersect. Their hairlines join up. Their eyes meet to make a single pair of eyes. And there's a crucial volumetric impossibility, in the way that face touches face. For it seems that Anne's head passes behind Joachim's, as if she's just giving him a kiss on the cheek. Yet, at the mouth, her lips have come forward, and are directly pressed against his lips.

The faces squash. The volumes of brow and cheek and nose that would get in the way of this contact are somehow elided, compacted. With a flat icon, it wouldn't be felt, but with these so solid Giotto heads, you're made to experience a great passionate pressing and locking together of two separate beings.

About the artist

Giotto di Bondone (c1267-1337) is a founding presence in Western painting. The Florentine master introduced 3D, in the solid volumes of his bodies and receding depths of his spaces. Legend cast him as a simple shepherd boy, discovered in the hills by the artist Cimabue doing pictures of sheep. His most famous work, the Navicella in St Peter's, Rome, decayed and has been repainted beyond recognition. But the great fresco cycles in Padua, Florence, and Assisi still survive.

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