Sunday, September 22, 2013



        Ambrogio di Bondone (Giotto) (1266/7-1337) paints the interior side walls, ceiling, altar arch, and apse entry wall of the private chapel of the Scrovegni family between 1303-6 in Padua. (It's possible he's the architect as well.)
For the most beautiful chapel painted before the Sistine, the artist faced numerous challenges: how to organize, design, and paint a series of stories about Christ and the Virgin Mary to give an aesthetic and clearly legible inner lining to a large sacred space? Giotto manages, in just two-three years, to present the chapel as an illuminated manuscript through which a viewer can follow easily the narrative dramas on the walls while admiring at the same time the beautiful illustrations designed by the painter. As Professor Howard Davis' lectures (at Columbia University) used to instruct, Giotto divides each wall structurally into visual components that separate the individual scenes as well as unite the chapel into one work of art. Since today's chapel is only open for 15 minutes a group, this blog will point to the crucial scenes that a new viewer should look for during a visit.
        The Chapel, sometimes known as the Arena Chapel because it was built on the site of an ancient Roman arena, was dedicated to the Virgin, Santa Maria della Carita (Saint Mary of Charity).
Left -View of Roman wall of original arena (notice the curve).
Right - Print of chapel attached to arena wall and Scrovegni palace (now destroyed).
When you arrive on the site, notice the pink and white exterior of the building from the front because when you go inside you will see a small pink and white model of it painted from the front by Giotto (play within a play) on the Last Judgment wall.

Giotto shows the patron here, Enrico degli Scrovegni, handing the model of the church to the Virgin as a gift.
            When you finally get into the chapel, face the Last Judgment wall and look at the wall on your left. It is divided horizontally into three tiers: The top tier begins the LIFE of the VIRGIN on the left and the stories of Mary's life continue from left to right horizontally on the top tier around onto the right wall. Mary's life is important to include because the church is dedicated to her. The stories of the LIFE Of CHRIST take up the second and third tiers beginning on the left and continuing around the building. The organization is:    LIFE OF VIRGIN (at top)
                                 EARLY LIFE OF CHRIST
                                 LAST DAYS OF CHRIST (at bottom)
Over the altar arch you will find the Annunciation, the scene that connects Christ's life with his mother's.

 Now look up at the ceiling, the most expensive part of the fresco cycle:
The ceiling is meant to resemble a deep blue sky (made from ground lapis lazuli) studded with golden stars (gold leaf). It is the cosmos. Now for the stories taking place underneath that cosmos:
Most poignant scenes: 
Joachim, the Virgin's father (here in gold halo), is rejected by the rabbi at the temple because he is childless. He can't face telling his wife the news, so he goes out into the country to visit his shepherds.

The two shepherds look at each other as if to acknowledge Joachim's depression. Joachim walks towards them with his head hanging down and he doesn't even notice his little dog, who approaches him joyfully up on his hind legs. (The two shepherds are the first example of "witness figures" in Western art.)
After offering a sacrifice to God, God grants Joachim's prayers for a child, and Joachim reunites with his wife Anna at the gate of a city under a golden arch. Their faces are melted together into one face by Giotto as a symbol of the new child they will bring into the world, Mary.


The two tiers of the Life of Christ are connected both horizontally and vertically. Giotto plans the scenes from the two stages of Christ's life in duets: the Early life scene above is thematically related to the Last Days scene below and the figures in both sets are arranged in similar ways all around the chapel.
Just look at 2 EXAMPLES.

ADORATION OF THE 3 MAGI from the EARLY LIFE OF CHRIST is set above the
WASHING OF THE FEET scene from the LAST DAYS OF CHRIST. Let us see how Giotto goes about uniting them. On the left wall as you face the Last Judgment

we can see in the middle tier furthest left in the photo the Magi paying homage to Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, and 2 angels:

Directly below that scene the figures in the Washing of the Feet are arranged in similar fashion, with two standing apostles instead of the 2 standing kings and a kneeling Christ washing Peter's feet where the oldest king knelt.  Instead of the holy family on the right with the two angels, we find 3 apostles and a hidden apostle with halo behind the halo of the far right apostle.  The two scenes are about paying homage: in the early scene above, the 3 Magi bring gifts to the Child, in the later scene below, Christ brings his gift of love in washing the feet of the apostles. Christ has transformed from child to holy man and age has changed him from receiver to giver, from child to King. The rest of the apostles in the later scene take the places of the companions of the kings, the entourage that includes a recalcitrant camel behind the young and middle-aged kings. This bit of stage business is echoed by the apostle below who is fiddling with his recalcitrant sandal-lace.

In simple gestures and expressive dramatic layouts, Giotto conveys both stories with great effect and manages to connect what would otherwise be disparate historical events into a harmonic melody. He uses the wall as Bach might, in a later age, work his notes contrapuntally to align them for his music.
        There is an added layer of meaning in Giotto's arrangement of figures in this particular case. You might be led to ask: What is the point of the added person hidden behind the architectural element in each scene? In the Adoration it is an angel; in the Washing it is an apostle. You can argue that another apostle is needed to make 12 altogether, but there is no immediate need to place another angel behind the holy family.  If you map out the arrangement of the right side figures in the 2 stories here, you discover the angel and apostle are placed there by Giotto to complete the design of a secret cross.

Built into the images of the Adoration of the Magi and the Washing of the Feet, then, is a reminder of the ultimate end of Christ's life; for a 14th-century Christian the purpose of knowing about Christ's stories is to realize the sacrifice of his life for the sins of all people. Underlying the narrative of the chapel, literally, then, is the signal of the most intense code of sacrifice. The Kings are giving gifts, Christ is washing feet, Scrovegni gives the chapel, but the most important gift to remember is the one given on the cross by the godhead.

2nd EXAMPLE to look for, this time on the right wall as you face the Last Judgment:
The theme of both paintings is Resurrection; in the middle tier Jesus resurrects Lazarus from the dead.
We see Jesus on the left raising his hand in blessing as Lazarus emerges from the tomb-cave swaddled in white burial cloths on the right. Giotto records the reactions of the people: some cover their noses from the stench of the newly-dead Lazarus, some bow down in front of Christ in wonder at his powers. And then Giotto paints something intangible:  the electricity that sparks between the gaze of Christ and the gaze of the reviving Lazarus, the atmosphere between the two, the air between life and death. You can almost hear the booming of Christ's voice across the space: "Lazarus, come forth!"
In similar fashion he paints the Resurrection of Christ after three days being dead. The two angels sit on Christ's tomb while the Roman soldiers sleep. The Resurrected is on the right; we see the holes made in his feet and hands by the nails on the cross; we see the new plants springing up beneath and around his person on the ground, signs of new life.  Mary Magdalene reaches out to touch him and the gesture of his right hand towards her is consistent with the text in John 20:17 where he says, "Do not touch me (Noli me Tangere) as I have not yet ascended to my father." He, like Lazarus, is dressed in white and Mary bows down to him as do several worshippers in the Lazarus scene. These two dramas are related thematically because they are both about someone coming back from the dead. And they are related vertically and compositionally by the placement of the resurrected person on the right and isolated in white. The gestures tell the Magdalene story here, too, and the artist leaves a space between the hand of Christ and the hands of Mary Magdalene to convey Christ's interdiction about touching and to convey the frisson of her seeing him alive again after her grief over his death. Powerful and simple, like the idea of no death for human beings.

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