The Arena Chapel (and Giotto’s frescos) in virtual reality

Set the resolution to 8k! (use the gear icon) and take a guided virtual tour of the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, in Padova, Italy — thanks to Matthew Brennan. 360-degree video allows you to look around the interior freely, and provides a new perspective on this masterpiece of Italian Renaissance art.

See the frescoes up-close and at eye-level, as if you were floating right in front of them, thanks to a new approach developed by Mirror Stage Studio.

Narration by SmartHistory:

Video production by Mirror Stage:

This video makes use of imagery available in the public domain, as well as provided by SmartHistory.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Arena Chapel, a small private chapel that was connected to a palace that was owned by the Scrovegni family.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] It was the Scrovegni family who commissioned Giotto to decorate this chapel with frescoes.

Dr. Zucker: [0:20] It’s called the Arena Chapel because it’s next to an ancient Roman arena.

Dr. Harris: [0:23] When you’re inside it, as we are now, I have to say that it’s taller than I expected, and that feeling of being enclosed by images that happens when you’re in a space entirely covered with fresco.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] There are lots of narrative scenes, but even in between those scenes are trompe l’oeil faux marble panels. We get the sense that there is inlaid stone, but in fact, this is all painting.

Dr. Harris: [0:52] That extends even onto the ceiling, where we have a star-studded blue sky with images of Christ and Mary and other saints and figures.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] The Arena Chapel is organized in a very strict way. Three registers begin at the top and move downward. I think of it as a kind of spiral, that is, it tells a continuous story. It begins with Christ’s grandparents. It goes into the birth of Mary, her marriage, and then when we get down to the second register, we get to Christ’s life or ministry. Then the bottom register is the Passion; these are the events at the end of Christ’s life and immediately after his death.

[1:34] The impetus for the entire cycle can be seen at the apex of the triumphal arch on the opposite wall, with God, who calls Gabriel to his side, telling him to go to the Virgin Mary and announce to her that she will bear humanity’s savior, that she will bear Christ.

Dr. Harris: [1:53] Interestingly, when Giotto painted God, he inserted a panel painting, so that is not fresco. It’s interesting that he chose to paint it in a style that was more conservative, less earthly than the style that we see in the frescoes.

[2:09] Just to go back to that Annunciation and this wall, we begin to see the illusionism that we see throughout the cycles. If we look to Mary and the angel, Giotto has created an architectural space for each of them. These are not panel paintings with gold backgrounds that suggest a divine space. These are earthly settings for Mary and the angel.

Dr. Zucker: [2:33] There’s another great example of the way that architecture and the sense of space is constructed, even in this era before linear perspective.

[2:41] Two scenes below the Annunciation are these wonderful, empty architectural spaces, these rooms that have oil lanterns that hang from their ceilings, and there is such a delicate sense of space, of light and shadow. It is this bravura example of naturalism and it shows Giotto’s interest in the world, the present, the physical space that humanity occupies.

[3:07] The narrative cycle begins on the right altar side in the top register. It introduces Joachim and Anna, the grandparents of Christ.

Dr. Harris: [3:17] Mary’s parents.

Dr. Zucker: [3:18] Joachim begins by being thrown out of the temple.

Dr. Harris: [3:21] For his childlessness.

Dr. Zucker: [3:23] That’s right, 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: [3:38] Much of this is from a book called “The Golden Legend” that filled in narrative.

Dr. Zucker: [3:43] Let’s focus on the last scene on the right side 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, wanting a child. Anna, his wife, has done the same, and they’ve both been visited and been told that there is hope.

[4:02] They’re shown coming together for the first time in front of Jerusalem, in front of the Golden Gate.

Dr. Harris: [4:09] Each now with the awareness that their desire for a child, this wish, has been fulfilled.

Dr. Zucker: [4:16] We have this wonderful example of the humanism of Giotto. 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: [4:32] We sense the warmth of their embrace, the warmth of the figures around them who watch, and something that we see throughout the cycle, figures who have mass and volume to their bodies, who exist three-dimensionally in space.

[4:48] 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: [5:12] Giotto — we think — was Cimabue’s student, and learned from that great master, who had begun to experiment with the chiaroscuro that you’re speaking of. This light and shadow, this ability to model volume, and form, and mass, but nothing like what Giotto has achieved here.

[5:30] You’re right, 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: [5:44] I would also add the clarity of the gestures and the narrative.

Dr. Zucker: [5:48] 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: [6:08] But the forms are simplified.

Dr. Zucker: [6:09] It’s a stage set, and 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. Mary is born, she’s presented in the temple, she’s married.

[6:25] And 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, but below that we have the Annunciation.

Dr. Harris: [6:36] In the register below, now, we see scenes from Christ’s childhood including…

Dr. Zucker: [6:42] The Circumcision, the Flight into Egypt.

Dr. Harris: [6:45] …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: [6:54] 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. He’s shown moving from left to right, which is the way that we’re meant to read the scenes.

Dr. Harris: [7:12] So 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: [7:21] You’ll notice that Giotto does not really 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 halos.

Dr. Harris: [7:33] There’s that legacy of symbolic representation that we think of as more medieval.

Dr. Zucker: [7:39] Look at the way in which the figures in the lower right, there are three of them, 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, and the final one is placing that garment at the feet of the donkey in an act of respect.

[7:57] But it is almost cinemagraphic. There is this idea that is, I think, part of the chapel as a whole, that it is about the movement of time. This is one of the most innovative aspects of the entire chapel, I think.

[8:10] One technical issue, 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: [8:26] When that happens, the pigment binds to the plaster, and the paint becomes literally part of the wall.

Dr. Zucker: [8:33] 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.

[8:44] 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: [8:55] Dry fresco.

Dr. Zucker: [8:56] That’s right, on top of the wall, and the result is it didn’t last.

Dr. Harris: [9:00] Right. 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 really have to use our imagination to fill in a brilliant blue on that drapery.

Dr. Zucker: [9:11] 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: [9:25] This is the moment when Judas leads the Romans to Christ, and they arrest him and take him away, and torture him, and ultimately crucify him. Remember, Judas is one of the 12 apostles, one of those considered closest to Christ. He betrays him for 30 pieces of silver.

Dr. Zucker: [9:45] And so it is all the more horrific — it’s all the more a terrible betrayal — because this is one of the people that Christ trusted most. Judas has betrayed Christ, not by pointing at him from afar, but with a kiss.

Dr. Harris: [9:58] There’s chaos here.

Dr. Zucker: [10:00] Well, that’s right. That idea of the embrace is really important, I think, because look at the way that Giotto has the figure of Judas’ 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.

[10:22] But here, Judas is an impediment. His progress is stopped. This is literally arresting his movement forward.

Dr. Harris: [10:30] If we compare this, for example, to Duccio’s “Betrayal of Christ,” there, Christ is frontal. Here he’s in profile. You’re right, but 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.

[10:46] There’s a sense of, to me, determination, but also at the same time maybe a hint of beginning to be sorry for what he’s done.

Dr. Zucker: [10:54] But still, corruption in that face versus the nobility of Christ’s.

Dr. Harris: [10:59] 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.

Dr. Zucker: [11:09] Let’s go back to that idea of chaos that you raised before. Giotto has created this sense of violence, and one of the ways that he’s done that is by reserving half the painting, the sky, just for those lances, for those torches, for those clubs, and the way in which they’re not held in an orderly way, but they are helter-skelter, crossing at angles.

[11:31] They create this almost violent visual rhythm that draws our eye down to Christ, down to Judas, but also feel[s] dangerous.

Dr. Harris: [11:40] There’s a 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 who leans his left side of his body and his elbow out of the composition, almost right into our space.

Dr. Zucker: [11:58] It’s amazing actually, and it almost prefigures the way that Caravaggio, who centuries later will master this idea of breaking the picture plane.

Dr. Harris: [12:06] Then we also see another device that Giotto employs often in the Arena Chapel, and that is a figure with his back to us. That figure seems to be pulling something that’s out of the space of the panel, but 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: [12:32] Giotto is giving us this full sensory experience. We have this crowd of figures, the sense of violence; the crowd is multiplied because we can see numerous helmets, which by the way would’ve originally been silver, but have oxidized.

Dr. Harris: [12:46] There’s a sense of a crowd pressing in, of all these faces watching what’s going to happen.

Dr. Zucker: [12:51] There’s one man on a horn who’s blowing creating this sense of energy; this audio that goes with this painting, that finishes the whole scene in its chaos and its drama.

Dr. Harris: [13:02] Giotto is a master of the dramatic.

Dr. Zucker: [13:05] 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. Harris: [13:18] That word that we use for this scene, Lamentation, comes from the word to lament, to grieve.

Dr. Zucker: [13:24] This is one of the saddest images I’ve ever seen. We have Mary holding her dead son, and it reminds us of a scene that’s across the wall of the Nativity, where there is this tenderness and this relationship between Mary and her infant son, and now we see Mary again holding her adult, now dead son.

Dr. Harris: [13:45] On her lap, the way she does as a mother when he’s a child.

Dr. Zucker: [13:49] The idea of representing Christ as dead is a modern idea, putting emphasis on Christ as physical, as human.

Dr. Harris: [13:57] I think 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 where we might expect to see the most important figure, Christ, in the center, Giotto’s moved him off to the left.

[14:13] 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: [14:25] And at the top, there’s a tree, and the tree might look dead, but of course, it might also be winter. That tree might grow leaves again in the spring, and it is an analogy to Christ and his eventual resurrection.

Dr. Harris: [14:39] It’s not just that the dead Christ is on his mother’s lap. Look at how she’s raised her right knee to prop him up. Look at how she bends forward.

Dr. Zucker: [14:49] And twists her body.

Dr. Harris: [14:50] 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: [15:02] At Christ’s feet, we see Mary Magdalene, with her typical red hair, who is attending to his feet, and of course, that’s appropriate given the biblical tradition as well because she had anointed Christ’s feet. There’s a real sense of tenderness there.

[15:16] Giotto is so interested in naturalism that he’s willing to show two figures where we only see the backs. There’s no representation of their faces at all. We would never have seen this in the medieval period.

Dr. Harris: [15:28] 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: [15:39] We look at Christ and Mary as they’re looking at Christ and Mary.

Dr. Harris: [15:42] Exactly. We become like them, surrounding the body of Christ. But 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 is an “in” to look into. There’s space here for the human figures to occupy.

Dr. Zucker: [16:10] 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: [16:24] And they’re foreshortened. Like the figures with their backs to us, they assist in Giotto’s creating an illusion of space. 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.

[16:44] There’s a real interest in individuality, in the different ways that people experience emotion. I always like to look at the feet, and 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.

Dr. Zucker: [17:05] Well, that ground is used for several purposes; to root those figures, but also to draw our eye down to Christ, or in another sense, 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.

[17:28] You’ll notice that Giotto has continued that mountain. Our eye then moves down and so 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.

[17:42] In the trompe-l’oeil depictions of inset stone, there is another painted scene in a little quatrefoil.

Dr. Harris: [17:49] Here we see Jonah being swallowed by the whale and we see water.

Dr. Zucker: [17:54] Or at least a giant fish.

Dr. Harris: [17:56] Throughout the chapel, we see this, an Old Testament scene being paired with the New Testament. Specifically, Old Testament scenes that, in some way, prefigured the life of Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [18:08] So 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.

[18:24] 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. 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. Harris: [18:43] We’re looking at the figure of Envy.

Dr. Zucker: [18:45] It’s one of my favorite figures.

Dr. Harris: [18:46] Here’s a figure in profile, engulfed in flames, clutching a bag.

Dr. Zucker: [18:52] But reaching with her other hand for something she does not have, something that she wants.

Dr. Harris: [18:56] Not content with what she has, she wants more.

Dr. Zucker: [19:00] She’s got huge ears. It’s as if every sense is attuned to what she does not have.

Dr. Harris: [19:06] We see emerging from her mouth a snake, who moves toward her eyes.

Dr. Zucker: [19:10] That’s right, it doubles back on itself because it is what she sees that bites her, in a sense.

Dr. Harris: [19:15] 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: [19:26] They are in a sense abstractions of the ideas that are told in the stories above. The final virtue, as we move towards the exit of the chapel is Hope, and she is reaching upward, floating, a classicized figure.

Dr. Harris: [19:43] And 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: [19:51] And so Hope, because she’s in the corner, is looking up towards the Last Judgment, and is of the same scale, and her body is in the same diagonal position as the elect in the bottom left corner.

Dr. Harris: [20:05] We see the elect, 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: [20:15] We should say that the elect are the blessed, that is, these are people that are going to heaven, and you’ll see that they’re actually accompanied by angels that look so caring and gentle. They’re shepherding these people into 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: [20:35] 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: [20:48] The choices that are laid out for us in the virtues and vices in the bottom panels. 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.

[21:11] He sits here as judge, to judge those souls that are being wakened from the dead, to determine whether or not they are 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: [21:24] This follows very standard iconography or standard composition of the Last Judgment, with the blessed, those who are going to heaven, on Christ’s right, and the damned below, on Christ’s left. Now, just either side of Christ, though, that division of left and right doesn’t happen.

Dr. Zucker: [21:43] That’s because this is heaven.

Dr. Harris: [21:45] There we see a court of saints, and around that mandorla, that full body halo around Christ, we see angels blowing trumpets.

Dr. Zucker: [21:55] These are images that come right out of the Apocalypse, the Gospel according to John.

Dr. Harris: [22:01] The Book of Revelation.

Dr. Zucker: [22:02] 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.

[22:15] 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: [22:25] A lot of this imagery is inspired, I think, indirectly by the work of Dante, who had not so long ago written “The Divine Comedy,” which was extremely popular, and he describes the landscape of hell.

Dr. Harris: [22:38] And he equates the punishments of hell with the different kinds of sins that people committed. 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: [23:00] Right. Usury is requiring interest for when you lend money. It’s basically just the act of banking. That was a mortal sin. 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 of the circles of hell.

[23:17] Below the usurers, you can actually make out a specific individual, also hanged. This is Judas, the disciple that betrays Christ.

Dr. Harris: [23:26] So anyone leaving the chapel from this exit would look up at this scene of the Last Judgement, 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: [23:53] 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.

[24:14] This is, in a sense, a kind of last reminder before you walk out to take these stories seriously.

Dr. Harris: [24:20] 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 even when it was first painted.

Dr. Zucker: [24:37] That’s right. Even in its own day.

[24:39] [music]

Cite this page as: Matthew Brennan, "The Arena Chapel (and Giotto’s frescos) in virtual reality," in Smarthistory, October 2, 2020, accessed April 23, 2024,