Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 3 of 4)

In this powerful scene, Mary cradles the dead Christ. A simple landscape and mourning crowd direct us to her grief.

Giotto, The Lamentation, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, Padua, c. 1305

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] One of the most powerful scenes in the chapel is the Lamentation. Christ has been crucified, he’s been taken down off the cross, and he’s now being mourned by his mother, by his followers.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:17] That word that we use for this scene, lamentation, comes from the word to lament, to grieve.

Dr. Zucker: [0:23] This is one of the saddest images I’ve ever seen. We have Mary holding her dead son. It reminds us of a scene that’s across the wall, of the Nativity, where there is this tenderness in this relationship between Mary and her infant son. Now we see Mary again holding her adult, now dead son.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] On her lap, the way she does as a mother when he’s a child. Look at how she’s raised her right knee to prop him up. Look at how she bends forward.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] And twists her body.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] And puts her arms around him. One hand on his shoulder, another on his chest. She leans forward as if to plead with him to wake up, as if in disbelief that this could have happened.

Dr. Zucker: [1:04] The idea of representing Christ as dead is a modern idea, putting emphasis on Christ as physical, as human. At Christ’s feet, we see Mary Magdalene, with her typical red hair, who is attending to his feet, and there’s a real sense of tenderness there.

[1:19] Giotto is so interested in naturalism that he’s willing to show two figures where we only see the backs. We would never have seen this in the medieval period.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] That’s because those figures provide no information to the narrative. All that they do is frame Christ and Mary. They draw our eye to those most important figures.

Dr. Zucker: [1:39] We look at Christ and Mary as they’re looking at Christ and Mary.

Dr. Harris: [1:42] They also help to create an illusion of space. It’s amazing to me how close they are to us. Their bottoms almost move out into our space. Giotto makes it clear that these figures are looking in, and therefore there’s space here for the human figures to occupy.

Dr. Zucker: [2:01] There are other-than-human figures here as well. There are angels, but these angels are not detached figures. They mourn as we mourn. They rend their clothing. They tear at themselves. They pull their hair. They are in agony.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] And they’re foreshortened. Like the figures with their backs to us, they assist in Giotto’s creating an illusion of space, and like the angels above them, the human figures display their grief in different ways. Some are sad and resigned and keep to themselves, other figures throw their arms out.

[2:33] There’s a real interest in individuality, in the different ways that people experience emotion. The feet of the figure on the far right, that sense of gravity and weight of a figure really standing on the ground, just like the figures who are sitting, not the medieval floating figures that we’ve come to expect.

[2:51] We’re struck by the simplicity of the composition. Giotto’s placing all of this emphasis on the figures. He’s simplified the background, but unlike a medieval image where we might expect to see the most important figure, Christ, in the center, Giotto’s moved him off to the left.

[3:08] The landscape is in service of drawing our eye down toward Christ; that rocky hill that forms a landscape, that moves our eye down to Mary and Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] At the top, there’s a tree, and the tree might look dead, but of course it might also be winter, and that tree might grow leaves again in the spring. It is an analogy to Christ and his eventual resurrection.

[3:32] That ground is used for several purposes; to root those figures, but also to allow us to move out of the picture, because as we move from the Lamentation, we move to the next image, which is the scene where Christ says “Do not touch me” when Mary Magdalene recognizes him as he has been resurrected.

[3:49] You’ll notice that Giotto has continued that mountain. Our eye then moves down. There is this visual relationship that is drawn between Christ’s death, Christ’s mourning, and Christ’s resurrection by the landscape that frames them.

[4:02] In the trompe l’oeil depictions of inset stone, there is another painted scene in a little quatrefoil.

Dr. Harris: [4:09] Throughout the chapel, we see this, an Old Testament scene paired with the New Testament, specifically Old Testament scenes that in some way prefigure the life of Christ. Here we see Jonah.

Dr. Zucker: [4:22] Jonah is swallowed by this giant fish, by this whale, prays for forgiveness, having betrayed God, and is delivered from this fish. It is a perfect Old Testament analogy to the New Testament story of Christ’s crucifixion and ultimate resurrection.

[4:36] It’s a tour de force of emotion. It’s such an expression of this late medieval period that is moving towards what we will eventually call the Renaissance.

[4:43] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 3 of 4)," in Smarthistory, December 10, 2015, accessed May 27, 2024,