Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 2 of 4)

With their emotion, gestures, mass, and volume, Giotto’s people seem real—and time moves with them.

Giotto, Narrative Cycle, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, Padua, c. 1305

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:09] The narrative cycle begins on the right altar side, in the top register. It introduces Joachim and Anna, the grandparents of Christ.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] Mary’s parents.

Dr. Zucker: [0:15] Joachim begins by being thrown out of the temple.

Dr. Harris: [0:18] For his childlessness.

Dr. Zucker: [0:19] He’s grown old without children. Don’t take this too literally, it’s not in the Bible. These are the extra stories that were added to the biblical narrative because people wanted to know what happened in between the events that really are mentioned in the Bible.

Dr. Harris: [0:34] Much of this is from a book called “The Golden Legend” that filled in that narrative.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] Let’s focus on the last scene of the upper register, which is the Meeting at the Golden Gate. To get here, what’s happened is that Joachim has prayed to God really wanting a child. Anna, his wife, has done the same. They’ve both been visited and been told that there is hope.

[0:56] Joachim is shown in the wilderness with his sheep — he’s a shepherd. Anna is shown at home, and they’re shown coming together for the first time in front of Jerusalem, in front of the Golden Gate.

Dr. Harris: [1:06] Each now with the awareness that their desire for a child has been fulfilled.

Dr. Zucker: [1:12] We see their faces together. It is a kiss. It is incredibly intimate, so personal. Their faces come together, they touch and almost become a single face.

Dr. Harris: [1:22] We sense the warmth of their embrace, the warmth of the figures around them who watch, and figures who have mass and volume to their bodies, who exist three-dimensionally in space.

[1:36] Gone are the elongated, swaying, ethereal bodies of the Gothic period. Giotto gives us figures that are bulky and monumental, where drapery pulls around their bodies, and taken together with the emotion in their faces, it’s almost like we have real human beings in art for the first time in more than a thousand years.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] Giotto — we think — was Cimabue’s student, and learned from that great master, who had begun to experiment with chiaroscuro, this light and shadow, this ability to model volume and form and mass, but nothing like what Giotto has achieved here.

[2:15] It is the coming together of both the chiaroscuro as well as the emotion, as well as the human interaction, that creates the sense of the importance of our existence here on earth.

Dr. Harris: [2:27] I would also add the clarity of the gestures and the narrative.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] Look at the way in which the city is not rendered in an accurate way. We have a schematic view, and yet it’s everything we need. We have the gate of Jerusalem. Now, of course, Giotto had no idea what the architecture of Jerusalem looked like. Yet, from legend, he has created this golden arch and this medieval-looking fortified city.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] The forms are simplified.

Dr. Zucker: [2:52] It’s a stage set. He wants those figures to be front and center. They are what’s most important. If we move across to the other wall, the upper register continues the narrative.

[3:02] Mary is born, she’s presented in the temple, she’s married. Then we get back to the altar side of the chapel, and there we reach the triumphal arch. We’re back to God the Father now. Below that, we have the Annunciation.

Dr. Harris: [3:17] In the register below now we see scenes from Christ’s childhood, including…

Dr. Zucker: [3:23] the Circumcision, the Flight into Egypt…

Dr. Harris: [3:26] …the Massacre of the Innocents. And then moving to the next wall, we begin the story of the ministry of Christ and his miracles.

Dr. Zucker: [3:34] We have Christ Preaching to the Doctors in the Temple, the Baptism, and one of my favorites, the Raising of Lazarus.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Then the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem.

Dr. Zucker: [3:43] As the story unfolds from scene to scene, Christ is often shown in profile, which is derived from the Roman tradition of coinage, which is the most noble way of representing a figure.

[0:00] He’s shown moving from left to right, which is the way that we’re meant to read the scenes.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Giotto is helping us to move through the narrative, from one scene to the next. Here we see Christ on a donkey, with the apostles behind him.

Dr. Zucker: [4:09] You’ll notice that Giotto does not care to depict every single one of the 12 apostles. He’s really giving us only three or four faces, and the rest are just an accumulation of haloes.

Dr. Harris: [4:20] There’s that legacy of symbolic representation that we think of as more medieval.

Dr. Zucker: [4:25] Symbolic representation is also clearly evident in the way that the gate of the city of Jerusalem is shown once again. We last saw it with the kiss in front of the Golden Gate. Now we see Christ entering. There’s a continuity.

[4:37] Look at the way in which the figures in the lower right begin to pull off their outer garment. One man is pulling his arm out of his sleeve. The next is taking the garment off his head.

[4:59] The final one is placing that garment at the feet of the donkey in an act of respect. It is almost cinemagraphic. That is, part of the chapel as a whole is about the movement of time. This is one of the most innovative aspects of the entire chapel, I think.

Dr. Harris: [5:03] We also have a sense of the figures pouring out of the gate of the city, welcoming Christ. And a real humanity to their excitement at seeing Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [5:13] If you look at Christ, there is a blue garment that’s wrapped around his waist. But the blue is almost entirely missing, and that’s because the Arena Chapel is painted in “buon fresco,” true fresco. That is pigment is applied to wet plaster.

Dr. Harris: [5:27] When that happens the pigment binds to the plaster, and the paint becomes literally part of the wall.

Dr. Zucker: [5:33] That’s right. The wall is stained. The problem is that blue was really expensive. Ultramarine blue came from lapis lazuli, which was a very expensive semi-precious stone. Enrico Scrovegni, when he drew up the contract with Giotto, did not want the blue’s brilliance to be diminished by being mixed with the plaster, so he asked that it be applied as secco fresco…

Dr. Harris: [5:53] Dry fresco.

Dr. Zucker: [5:54] …on top of the wall.

Dr. Harris: [5:55] It didn’t adhere to the wall as well as the paint that was applied to the wet plaster. Sadly, that’s been flaked off and we have to use our imagination to fill in a brilliant blue on that drapery.

Dr. Zucker: [6:06] Let’s move on to the bottom register, to the end of Christ’s life. On the lowest register, the register that’s devoted to the scenes of the Passion, is the Arrest of Christ, also known as the Kiss of Judas.

Dr. Harris: [6:24] This is the moment when Judas leads the Romans to Christ, and they arrest him, take him away, torture him, and ultimately crucify him. Judas is one of the 12 apostles, one of those considered closest to Christ. He betrays him for 30 pieces of silver.

Dr. Zucker: [6:40] And so it is all the more horrific — a terrible betrayal — because this is one of the people that Christ trusted most, and Judas has betrayed Christ, not by pointing at him from afar, but with a kiss. The embrace is really important.

[6:50] Look at the way that Giotto has the figure of Judas’s arm and cloak wrapping around him, embracing him, enveloping him, and — importantly — stopping him. Remember that in almost every scene we have noticed Christ moving from left to right in profile, but here Judas is an impediment. His progress is stopped. This is literally arresting his movement forward.

Dr. Harris: [7:13] If we compare this, for example, to Duccio’s “Betrayal of Christ,” there, Christ is frontal. Here he’s in profile. It makes it so that Judas and Christ look at one another, look at each other in the eye. Judas is a little bit shorter, he looks up at Christ as a sense of, to me, determination, but also maybe a hint of beginning to be sorry for what he’s done?

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] Still, corruption in that face versus the nobility of Christ’s features.

Dr. Harris: [7:43] And the sense that Christ knew that this would happen, right? At the Last Supper, he said, “One of you will betray me.” And an acceptance of his destiny that we often see in images of Christ. There’s also chaos here.

Dr. Zucker: [7:58] Giotto’s created this sense of violence by reserving half the painting, the sky, just for those lances, torches, clubs, and the way in which they’re not held in an orderly way. They are helter-skelter, crossing at angles. They create this violent visual rhythm that draws our eye down to Christ, down to Judas, but also feel[s] dangerous.

Dr. Harris: [8:19] There’s this sense of Judas and Christ anchoring the composition down as that chaos takes place around him. The most remarkable figure to me, though, is the figure in that pale purple who leans his left side of his body and his elbow out of the composition, almost right into our space.

Dr. Zucker: [8:33] It’s amazing, and it almost prefigures the way that Caravaggio, who centuries later will master this idea of breaking the picture plane.

Dr. Harris: [8:48] Then we also see another device that Giotto employs often in the Arena Chapel, and that is a figure with his back to us, and that figure seems to be pulling something that’s out of the space of the panel. Look at his feet, perfectly foreshortened, grounded, there’s that sense of Giottoesque weight and monumentality to the figures. All of that modeling as we can follow the forms of the body underneath.

Dr. Zucker: [9:08] Giotto’s giving us this full sensory experience. We have this crowd of figures, the sense of violence. The crowd has multiplied because we can see numerous helmets, which, by the way, would have originally been silver but have oxidized.

Dr. Harris: [9:22] There’s a sense of a crowd pressing in, of all these faces watching what’s going to happen.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] There’s one man blowing on a horn, creating a sense of energy; there’s audio that goes with this painting. It finishes the whole scene, in its chaos, and its anger, and drama.

Dr. Harris: [9:34] Giotto is a master of the dramatic.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 2 of 4)," in Smarthistory, December 10, 2015, accessed June 14, 2024,