I first encountered Giotto with an assignment to draw a famous painting. I flipped through the only art book I had then, looking for something I could do, and saw The Lamentation. As a new Christian I was drawn to the subject, and the lines flowing across the painting seemed doable. I still have the drawing, but at that time I didn’t know much about Giotto. Later as I studied art history I was fascinated by this early Renaissance artist and especially his work in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy.
The Arena Chapel stands in what was once a Roman arena that held gladiatorial contests. In 1300 Enrico Scrovegni bought the land and built a palace and a brick chapel. Many believe he built the chapel to atone for his father’s sin of usury (lending money for interest, which was forbidden by the Roman Catholic church). His father was so infamous for this sin that Dante shows him in the seventh circle of hell in The Divine Comedy.
The chapel’s interior looks as if it was built especially for Giotto’s frescoes. Except for a small alcove for the altar, the chapel has none of the usual architectural decorations. Instead, Giotto’s frescoes cover the walls and even the ceiling, which is deep blue, spangled with gold stars. On the walls are biblical scenes from Jesus’ life, arranged chronologically. Opposite the entry is the Annunciation to Mary. The last two paintings are of The Ascencion and Pentacost, and as you turn to leave, you face The Last Judgement. The purpose of this chapel is to share the Gospel!
At this time ancient artwork from classical Greek and Roman times could be seen in Italy, but Italian artists were mostly trained in the Byzantine style with its flat, stylized people who have huge, football-shaped eyes and seem to float above us in a sea of gold. Filtering down from the north, though, was a new style—Gothic. Its sculptures adorning the insides and outsides of the great Gothic cathedrals were of real people, with real emotions and realistic-looking clothing.
Giotto combined Classical, Byzantine, and Gothic to produce his own, pioneering style and is credited with reviving the art of painting. Though today we might not think his art is that realistic, in his time people marveled at his lifelike people and believable spaces. The greatest Renaissance artists learned from his work.
Although Giotto continued to use some religious symbols from Byzantine art, his people are three-dimensional, and stand solidly on the ground. They show real emotions in their stances, gestures, and facial expressions. Their robes have lighter and darker areas so the folds look real. His simple settings and shallow picture spaces look real, too, and since we are at eye-level, we feel part of the story. Telling the story is, above all, Giotto’s purpose, and his simple, but lifelike people, shallow stage, limited range of colors, and even landscape, all help us grasp the gist of each episode in one glance. At the same time the left-to-right movement within each picture invites us to follow the story into the next panel.
Fresco painting is different from the other artworks we’ve looked at. Those were painted on canvas or in a book, but Giotto painted directly on the walls of the Arena Chapel. Mostly these are true fresco, a mixture of pigment and water applied to plaster while it is still wet. As the plaster dries, a chemical reaction occurs, and the paint becomes a permanent part of the plaster. Even after 700 years the colors are still bright.
You’ll notice, though, that many areas of dark blue have lost some pigment. It’s especially noticeable on Christ’s robe in the Entry into Jerusalem. At this time artists mixed their own paints, and although some pigments were available naturally, others had to be bought. Lapis lazuli, needed to produce deep blues, had to be imported from Afghanistan, and was really expensive.
For this reason it was reserved for places and people of importance in paintings. Enrico, with an eye to his purse, had Giotto apply it after the plaster had dried so its color didn’t get diluted, but neither did it become part of the plaster.
Giotto painted a number of scenes from Jesus’ last week, and it was hard to choose just five to look at in more detail. You can see many more, though, online.
The Entry into Jerusalem
Jesus entered Jerusalem on the 10th day of the month of Passover, the very day when the lamb was chosen for the Passover sacrifice, creating a picture of the Messiah for all to see. So Jesus entered Jerusalem not only as its King but also as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world by his death on the cross. The palm branch many spectators waved was a symbol of military victory from an earlier time in Jewish history and shows that many were expecting a military leader. They were disappointed, but by his death Jesus transformed the palm into a symbol of the Christian’s victory over death, a victory only God could win.
Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem was a mixture of majesty and humility, and Giotto does an amazing job showing us this blend. His composition fits the emotions of the scene—a stately group of apostles follows their King at a measured march, but the King, Jesus, rides on a lowly, lop-eared donkey. And although He is King, Jesus’ expression is full of love and mercy, and his hand is lifted in blessing. The happy crowd is arranged in ascending diagonals to match their rising excitement, and notice the wonderful sequence of three figures removing their cloaks to lay at Jesus’ feet. Each one bends a little more until the 3rd is kneeling.
How could such a wonderful beginning go so wrong? The next three paintings show terrible events from that final week. From this side of the cross we may take them for granted because we understand they were necessary, but Giotto uses details from the Gospels to remind us of the chaos, the terror, and the anguish of those days as experienced by Jesus’ family and the disciples.
The Betrayal of Christ
This is anything but a calm scene. In the back, masses of soldiers wearing dark helmets and brandishing clubs, spears, and torches surge into the picture. In the front on the left a menacing, hooded figure grasps a robe to prevent someone’s escape. To the right a richly-dressed priest, stays out of harm’s way, but points the soldiers and us to the center, Notice that bright reds seem to march across the front, and then, like the soldiers, concentrate around Jesus in the center. And in the center, below all those spears, is the dramatic moment of Judas’ kiss of betrayal. As Judas reaches forward, his robe, personifying evil itself, seems to almost engulf Jesus.
In the crucifixion Giotto concentrates, as he has done throughout the frescoes, on Jesus. Many artists of this time showed the crucifixion very graphically to elicit greater empathy from the viewer, but Giotto shows it with a simplicity that gives it great power and impact. It is the moment after Jesus says,“It is finished,” and bows His head and gives up His spirit. Jesus has laid down His life to satisfy God’s wrath for our sins, and the angels mirror the anguish of those below.
Long before the incarnation, Isaiah foretold Jesus’ suffering and His atoning death for our sins,
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:3-5
Jesus’ mother Mary is supported by the disciple John and a woman. Later artists show Mary collapsed on the ground, but the Roman Catholic church, directing artists to John 19 where it says that she was standing, eventually forbade that. Mary Magdalen is shown mourning at the foot of the cross.
On the other side of the cross we see the soldiers dividing up Jesus’ clothing. One soldier is about to cut Jesus’ tunic with his knife, but another grips his hand and stops him, fulfilling prophecy. The man holding the branch with the sponge is pictured at the back of this crowd. Some details, such as the support for Jesus’ feet, aren’t Scriptural, but on the whole Giotto follows pretty closely the account of the crucifixion from John’s Gospel.
None of the Gospel accounts describes this scene, but it’s easy to imagine it taking place, and Giotto’s painting is famous for how simply, yet effectively, it shows this time of grieving. In many ways it is the opposite of the Entry into Jerusalem. On one side men stand, but in solemn sorrow, not in expectation, a crowd has gathered, but in mourning, not rejoicing, and people are bending down, but in grief, not worship.
Although Jesus isn’t in the center of this painting, Giotto has made sure that He is still the focal point. Just as we follow the gaze of anyone who looks up, we naturally follow the gazes of everyone in this painting to the lower left side. Giotto reinforces that tendency by the bending of the disciple John and the incline of the stone wall. And there, framed by two back-to figures, we see Jesus and His mother Mary as she holds Him and mourns.
On the right are Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who do figure prominently in Jesus’ burial. Joseph, shown in the richer clothing, asked Pilate for Jesus’ body and provided the tomb, while Nicodemus, shown with the white burial sheet, brought spices for Jesus’ body.
The rock wall that led down in The Lamentation to the dead Christ, continues on in the next painting to direct our eyes to the risen Christ! What marvelous planning by Giotto! This is the Resurrection panel and Giotto pulls out all the stops to illustrate this unimagined and yet glorious event! The mourning, muted colors of The Lamentation have become vibrantly alive reds and corals. The white robes of the angels and Jesus are embellished with regal gold and glow against the blue sky. Giotto masterfully sends your attention back and forth across this painting. The rock leads to Christ, but His turning and His gesture lead us to the empty tomb and the sleeping soldiers. There the gestures of the angels, and the kneeling Mary Magdalen, whose outstretched arms yearn towards Jesus, lead us back to Him. The message is clear. Jesus, who was dead and buried, has conquered death and risen from the grave.
In a time when few could read, and most church services were in Latin, Giotto used his creative gifts from God to honor God in paintings that helped people learn the message of the Gospel, “… when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Galatians 4:4-5
Can you see the message of the Gospel in these paintings? Have you accepted Jesus as your Passover Lamb and bowed down to Him as your King? If you have, Revelation 2:10 says that He will give you the crown of life. And someday in heaven, in the same way that people once laid their cloaks at Jesus’ feet, we will lay our crowns before His throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Rev. 4:11. And all creation will join in, saying, “To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” Rev. 5:13.
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The above images are used for educational purposes only.