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

Christ sits as Judge, separating the blessed from the damned. In Hell, money lenders—like Scrovegni—appear hanged.

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

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] Below the Passion scene is even more painting. There are these marvelous representations of virtues and vices, that is, expressions of good and evil.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] We have virtues and vices here because these are the good and evil that we confront, all of us, in our lives. And these are the things that decide at the day of judgment [whether] we go to heaven or hell.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] They are abstractions of the ideas that are told in the stories above.

Dr. Harris: [0:29] We’re looking at the figure of Envy.

Dr. Zucker: [0:31] It’s one of my favorite figures.

Dr. Harris: [0:32] Here’s a figure in profile, engulfed in flames, clutching a bag.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] But reaching with her other hand for something she does not have, something that she wants.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] Not content with what she has, she wants more.

Dr. Zucker: [0:45] She’s got huge ears. It’s as if every sense is attuned to what she does not have.

Dr. Harris: [0:51] We see emerging from her mouth a snake, who moves toward her eyes.

Dr. Zucker: [0:56] That’s right. It doubles back on itself because it is what she sees that bites her, in a sense.

[1:00] The final virtue, as we move towards the exit of the chapel, is Hope. She is reaching upward, floating, a classicized figure.

Dr. Harris: [1:10] She’s winged, like an angel, and is lifted up toward a figure on the upper right, who’s handing her a crown.

Dr. Zucker: [1:18] Hope, because she’s in the corner, is looking up towards the Last Judgment, and is of the same scale. Her body is in the same diagonal position as the elect in the bottom left corner.

[1:30] The elect are the blessed, that is, these are people that are going to heaven. If you look carefully, you can see that their feet are not on the ground. They’re actually levitating slightly. They’re rising up.

Dr. Harris: [1:40] Many of them with their hands in positions of prayer, looking up toward the enormous figure of Christ, the largest figure in this chapel.

Dr. Zucker: [1:49] You’ll see that they’re actually accompanied by angels that look so caring and gentle. They’re shepherding these people into heaven.

Dr. Harris: [1:57] These benevolent, generous expressions on the face of those angels as they look at all of these individuals who’ve made the choices in their lives that have led them to this moment of being blessed.

Dr. Zucker: [2:09] The choices that are laid out for us in the virtues and vices in the bottom panels.

[2:14] Just below the elect, you can see that there are what seem to be children, naked, coming out of coffins, out of tombs. Those nude figures are meant to represent the souls that are to be judged by Christ, who, as you said, sits in the middle.

[2:29] He sits here to judge those souls that are being wakened from the dead, to determine whether or not they’re blessed and get to go to heaven or if they’re going to end up on the right side of this painting in hell.

Dr. Harris: [2:41] This follows very standard iconography or standard composition of the Last Judgment. Just to either side of Christ, though, that division of left and right doesn’t happen.

Dr. Zucker: [2:51] That’s because this is heaven.

Dr. Harris: [2:53] There we see a court of saints. And around that mandorla, that full-body halo around Christ, we see angels blowing trumpets.

Dr. Zucker: [3:03] We have the angels announcing the end of time. We have angels above them rolling up the sky as if it were a scroll. These are images that we generally see in Last Judgments because they are in the text of the Bible.

Dr. Harris: [3:15] The Book of Revelation.

[3:17] The scene of hell on the lower right, with a large blue figure that is meant to represent Satan, surrounding him are souls being tortured in Hell.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] The “Divine Comedy,” which was extremely popular, describes the landscape of hell.

Dr. Harris: [3:31] And equates the punishments of hell with the different kinds of sins that people committed.

[3:38] And so in the Last Judgment that we’re looking at, and because the patron here was concerned with the sin of usury, we see usurers featured. They’re being hung with the bags of money on the ropes that they’re hanging from.

Dr. Zucker: [3:52] Right. Usury is requiring interest for when you lend money. It’s basically just the act of banking. Think about it with the way a credit card works, for instance. That was a mortal sin according to Christ. In fact, Dante speaks at great length about the usurers, who have their money bags hanging from their necks and are in one of the lowest circles of hell.

[4:11] Below the usurers, you can actually make out a specific individual, also hanged. This is Judas, the disciple that betrays Christ.

Dr. Harris: [4:20] Anyone leaving the chapel from this exit would look up at the scene of the Last Judgment, up at the cross carried by two angels. Perhaps they would notice that figure that I just noticed, a figure behind the cross, grasping it for dear life. And would also have looked up and have seen Enrico Scrovegni himself, the patron offering this chapel to the three Marys.

Dr. Zucker: [4:45] As the public would have walked outside after a sermon, after Mass perhaps, they would be reminded right before they walk back into the world, the world of desire, the world of sin, that the sacrifice that Christ had made, that story that had unfolded in this chapel, comes down to decisions that they need to make in their own life.

[5:04] This is, in a sense, a last reminder before you walk out to take these stories seriously.

Dr. Harris: [5:09] Giotto makes it very easy for us to do that by painting these figures in their humanity, by making the narrative so easy and clear to read, and by making something so beautiful. Recognized for its beauty.

Dr. Zucker: [5:25] Even in its own day.

[5:26] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 4 of 4)," in Smarthistory, December 10, 2015, accessed July 15, 2024,