Day 31 – The Suitors Praying

Giotto di Bondone, The Suitors Praying, 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

I ended yesterday’s Picture Of The Day with a lacuna. Apologies if I confused you, but I had said what was going to happen in the second sentence of the second paragraph… Today, I want to continue with a lacuna. Or rather, I want to talk about the earliest painting I know in which nothing is happening. I don’t mean a painting in which nothing is supposed to happen – like a still life – but a narrative painting, where ‘nothing happening’ is part of the story. It’s a dramatic pause, I suppose, and a brilliant example of Giotto’s skill as a storyteller. I’ve also chosen this because I have been asked to talk about the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, which I am only too happy to do, the problem being that it could take me another week to get through it – so I might just pop back from time to time and celebrate the brilliance of this one building. If I were ever asked which one room in the world I would want to save, it would be this one. Not the Brancacci Chapel. ‘Cradle of the Renaissance’ it may be, but it is not as consistent. Not the Sistine Chapel, however remarkable, because Giotto’s storytelling is better. No, it would be this – the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. If you haven’t been, make sure it’s the first place you go as soon as we are allowed to go anywhere.

The building was constructed as the family chapel attached to the Scrovegni Palace, but, as the palace was later destroyed, it is now freestanding. It was built next to the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre, or arena, so it is sometimes also called the Arena Chapel. It was painted from floor to ceiling by Giotto and his workshop, with the exception of the chancel, around the altar, and it was consecrated on the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March – see POTD 7) 1305. It is the most coherent, most brilliant piece of story telling I know, rich in narrative detail and theological profundity. It can, and should, be read in narrative order, but Giotto has built in echoes vertically and diagonally across each wall, and from one side of the chapel to the other. There are three tiers of stories. The top tier, starting at the altar (on the right of this picture) and coming towards us, tells the story of Joachim and Anna, parents of the Virgin Mary, and then on the left wall, going away from us, we see Mary’s upbringing and betrothal. The Annunciation then happens across the chancel arch – you might just see it in the distance (or right at the bottom of the blog). The middle tier is concerned with the Nativity, childhood and mission of Christ, and at the bottom is the Passion and Resurrection. As the stories get more important, they get closer to us, so we can see them more clearly.

But I want to start at the top, about half way along. The first picture I am showing you is at the top left of the overall view, although this is the third scene in, after the Birth of the Virgin and The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. Although discussed in the Protoevangelium of St James, and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, books probably written in the 2nd and 7th Centuries respectively and excluded from the Bible, the direct source for this story is probably the The Golden Legend. This is a series of stories of the lives of the saints compiled by a Franciscan called Jacobus da Voragine back in the 1260s, and it became one of the most important textbooks for artists commissioned to paint saints. In the chapter celebrating the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin (8 September), Jacopo tells us how Mary grew up in the temple alongside other virgins (small ‘v’). When they were of age (thirteen), a suitor was found for each one – with the exception of Mary, who declined, saying that her parents had destined her for the service of God. But a voice came from the temple decreeing that every eligible bachelor should bring a rod, and lay it on the altar – which is precisely what they are doing here. A sign would then appear to tell them which one was deemed suitable to marry the most perfect Virgin (big ‘V’).  And look at them all – they’ve turned up in droves. 

The temple looks like stage scenery, cut-away to give us a sense of the space. It is not unlike a church, with the altar in a semi-circular niche, or apse. Two side aisles are sketched out symmetrically. Remember what this looks like, we will see it again. The High Priest stands behind the altar, which is beautifully arrayed with the most fabulous altar cloth, intricately patterned in orange, red and blue. The semi-dome in the apse appears to have been coffered the same blue as the sky – although it’s not in a great condition. Certain sections of the fresco were painted a secco – on dry plaster – and when an artist does that, rather than painting in buon fresco – on good, fresh plaster – i.e. wet – it doesn’t bond with the drying surface and has a tendency to flake off (see POTD 7). The High Priest and his assistant appear to be rather sheepishly placing the rods on the altar, while looking suspiciously at this foremost suitor. Both are clearly extremely old, age being measured by the length and candor of their beards. You will notice that all the eligible bachelors are beardless – and therefore young – with one exception. But he’s clearly the odd one out, as he also has a halo. He is wearing a blue robe and a yellow cloak. He’s at the back, as he clearly doesn’t stand a chance.

Scene 2: we are in the same place – the same church-like temple with a semi-circular apse and a hint of two side aisles. The storytelling in the chapel always goes from left to right – starting at the altar and moving around the chapel in a clockwise direction. If there is any movement within the scene, that always takes place from left to right as well, to keep us moving in the same direction. But not here. Nothing is happening. They are waiting. Praying. I love how eager some of them are. The man in pinkish red – next to the old guy with the halo – appears to be leaning forward on his hands, while the man in white looks like he has clenched his fists in an attempt not to bite his nails, and in the hope that he will be chosen. And the man in red – who looks especially young to me – could be holding his thumbs, thrusting his head forward, his arms held down ready to spring up when he is chosen, a starter on the 100m block. The priest has removed his headdress, and is abasing himself in front of the altar. That could be another of the suitors on the far right. Both he and the priest act as repoussoirs, framing the altar, and making us look towards it just like they do. The gap between them allows us to see the richly patterned altar cloth topped by the suitors’ offerings, and together suitor and priest form a pyramid completed by the stack of rods. But nothing happens. It’s the first pause in art, centuries before Pinter.

And yet, very faintly – very – a hand appears above the altar. It was probably painted a secco. God is waiting to choose. According to the Golden Legend, Joseph was there with the others – that’s him with the halo, of course – and he did bring a rod. But as he was so old, and the Virgin so young, he didn’t think it was appropriate for him to marry her. So although everyone else put their rods on the altar, he hid his. Finally, after a long, expectant, wait, the Priest consulted God, who pointed out that obviously someone hadn’t put his rod on the altar. 

When the Priest conveyed this message to the suitors, Joseph was finally persuaded that he should give it a go. As he headed towards the altar, his rod flowered, and a dove flew down and landed on it. If that’s not a sign I don’t know what is. I really don’t know what Freud would make of it. So Joseph was betrothed to the Virgin – Scene 3 – taking place in exactly the same place. Some of the other suitors look furious, and one, in red – possibly the very young, very eager one – has taken back his rod and is breaking it over his knee. On the right there are three virgins (small ‘v’), who will accompany Mary back to her father’s house. This Wedding Procession is in the next picture, and concludes the story on this wall.  The next thing to happen is the Annunciation. This is very clever – Giotto has planned his storytelling so well that he has got to the Chancel arch just in time. If you remember that the Chapel was consecrated on the Feast of the Annunciation, you will realise why it takes such a prominent position in the chapel. But more about that another time… maybe I will institute ‘Scrovegni Saturday’.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

10 thoughts on “Day 31 – The Suitors Praying

  1. I am still hoping my planned first visit to Padua and the Chapel might happen in October! Meanwhile, thank you for this. Is there a good book I can use to mug up before I go? I do have a reasonable knowledge of the bible!


    1. Hi Judith – if you want to read up on the Scrovegni Chapel in particular, the Bruce Cole book is probably good. I’m told that Ruskin wrote very well about it – his book on Giotto in Padua was reissued by Zwirner last year. I haven’t read it, but now have it on order! It might be worthwhile getting your hands on The Golden Legend, in order to understand the stories of the Upper Tier, although I am hoping to work my way round the Chapel gradually here. And I discuss some of the paintings in the Chapel in my book on Churches and Cathedrals… but not that many!


  2. Another favourite since that first trip to Italy in 1983. In my memory at that point you could still just walk in and stay as long as you liked. There might have been one of those serious young Italian functionaries selling you a ticket for a small fee. I think it’s much better protected now which is no doubt essential but still sad.


    1. It’s true – way into the 1990s you could just walk in here – having bought a ticket – and many other places. Churches in Florence for example were open from early morning till 12, then 3 until late. The three largest now have entrance charges and opening times – which is fair enough, as most tourists are not going to worship, only to wear down the fabric of the building… but it was great to head in before breakfast sometimes. The first time I took a group to the Scrovegni Chapel – in 1999 – we were told we could stay until the next group arrived. I think we left 2 hours later way past lunchtime… There’s a wonderful church in San Gimignano which is still like the good old days in Florence – S. Agostino. You just wander in and there is great art.


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