Monday, September 23, 2013



Giotto paints a Last Judgment on the end wall of the Arena Chapel in Padua
in 1303-06 as part of the decoration of the entire chapel for Enrico Scrovegni, a Paduan banker.

His Last Judgment is organized as most Last Judgment scenes of the 14th century are in Italy:

ABOVE and LEFT:                              CENTER: CHRIST                BELOW RIGHT:
REALM OF THE BLESSED                                                              REALM OF THE DAMNED


It is probable that Giotto's version is strongly influenced by the
vision of Heaven and Hell he had seen in the Florentine Baptistery
mosaic of the Last Judgment. (He was Florentine.) In that earlier work, carried out sometime during the 13th century, the Devil eats damned souls in bodily form and the blessed are arranged in neat little rows as in Giotto's painting.                   Giotto, Devil in Scrovegni

Devil in Florence Baptistery, 13th cent. mosaic                               

 Blessed, right, Scrovegni chapel
Blessed, left Baptistery mosaic

Even Christ in a circular halo (normally called a "mandorla", (accent on the first syllable), which means an almond-shaped aura, but in both these cases more circle than almond) lifts the thumb of his right hand up as a gesture of approval toward the blessed and his left hand thumb down as a sign of disapproval of the damned in both works. Those gestures are taken directly from actual approval and disapproval signs of emperors in ancient Roman arenas. The right thumb up meant the highest authority would spare the gladiator's life; the left thumb turned down would mean disfavor from the emperor and could mean death. In the Christian context the gestures are judgments from God for souls in the afterlife. The Blessed are on the side of the right thumb up and their fate in the afterlife is pleasant; the Damned are those pictured on the left thumb side and their fate in the afterlife is full of pain and torture, punishment for their sins.



       Two things distinguish Giotto's Last Judgment from the Baptistery mosaic:
 1. The painter places his own portrait among the blessed.
 2. He paints a large scene of the patron, Enrico degli Scrovegni, giving a model of the church to the Virgin. This scene of donation is placed closer to the center, still on the left, but perilously close to the figures of the damned in Hell on the viewer's right.

Enrico Scrovegni had this chapel built and decorated in atonement for the sin of usury. A common practice now, usury (the idea of adding interest to borrowed money) was considered sinful by the church in the 14th century. Because it was creating something out of nothing (God's work) and because it was associated with non-Christian (often Jewish) banking practices, it was frowned upon by Catholic officials. Both Enrico and his father, Reginaldo degli Scrovegni, before him, were not Jewish, but they were bankers who charged interest when they loaned money. Their usury was offensive to the church but it also made the city council of Padua unhappy, probably because some members of the council owed money to both father and son. Shortly before the chapel was commissioned, the city council decided that the Scrovegni family would be declared bankrupt unless they agreed to certain city edicts:
1) they had to pay back the interest that had accrued on the loans to the city, 2) they had to build a chapel to atone for the sin of usury, and 3) they had to pay taxes to the city for the land on which the chapel would be built. Since church members who practiced usury were excommunicated from the church (meaning they were not allowed to participate in masses or receive bread and wine in the mass), and as there was no separation of church and state in Giotto's era, the disapproval of both church and council in Padua effectively meant the whole of Paduan society was angry with the Scrovegni family.  The pressure that the family felt to build and dedicate the chapel to Mary of Charity was both sacred and profane.
       Giotto's entire fresco cycle, then, is intended to win God's approval, Mary's approval, as well as that of the Paduan city-state, not to mention that of the church itself, for his patron, Enrico Scrovegni. Heavily weighted, then, the Last Judgment image on this wall. Giotto himself may be hoping that the work will win him a place among the blessed, too.
       But the proximity of Scrovegni himself to the horrors of Hell on the right and his offering in the center of the whole scene implies that Giotto left the "last judgment" on the sin of usury in the balance. (The cross even looks like a balance measure.)
    Scrovegni's anxiety to please explains why the very first drama painted by Giotto in the wall series in the chapel is the story of Joachim being expelled from the temple; Scrovegni is himself in danger of being expelled by the 14th-century equivalent of the temple, the Christian church.
Scrovegni's father, Reginaldo, was not childless as Joachim, but he was a greedy man who is said to have yelled as he was dying, "Give me the keys to my moneybox!"  Was Joachim's rejection and rescue by God
in Giotto's painting a parallel narrative to the reward envisioned by Enrico Scrovegni for the sin of his family greed? And, as Professor Vincent Scully used to say, "Do you think Giotto made a case for Enrico in heaven?"

Who is the last judge?
Surely not the monk who obligingly holds the model for Enrico as he kneels to the Virgin and 2 angels:

The viewer will be the last to judge.

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