Giotto, The Last Judgement, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Welcome back to Scrovegni Saturday! I dipped into three scenes from the top last week, but today I want to look at an entire wall – the Ecclesiastical West End. I am not referring to those theatres in London where musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and Joseph etc are performed, but the end of the chapel opposite the altar. Traditionally, churches should be orientated, i.e. the altar should be at the East, with the rising sun behind them, a symbol of the resurrection of the Son. This is an aural pun which only works in English, but one which Shakespeare, whose works were meant to be heard (as in ‘audience’ – not ‘spectator’), knew well enough. More of that another day. Meanwhile, back in Padua, the Scrovegni Chapel was designed to be adjacent to the eponymous Palace, and so it had to have the same orientation as the palace. As a result the altar is not at the East, but it’s easier to use the traditional cardinal points to describe which wall you are talking about – the Ecclesiastical West End will always be the one opposite the High Altar, and in the Scrovegni Chapel it is completely taken up with an image of the Last Judgement.
I’m starting with a detail, as it helps to understand what is going on. We can see the patron, Enrico Scrovegni, giving the chapel to three angels, with the help of an obliging priest who has it comfortably balanced on his shoulder. The angels are, of course, accepting the gift on behalf of God, who is quite busy Judging elsewhere in the fresco. Why would any self-respecting person wanting to invest in such a magnificent gift? Well, because they wanted the Judgement to go in their favour, of course. Particularly when their father happened to be a notorious usurer. Enrico’s dad, Reginaldo degli Scrovegni, was so notorious that Dante (who might have been present at the consecration of the chapel in 1305) saw him in the seventh circle of hell. That is where the usurers sit, bags of money tied in purses around their necks, so that, however much and whichever way they look down, they can’t quite see their cash. On passing one of the damned Dante sees ‘an azure, pregnant sow inscribed as emblem on his white purse’: he is describing the Scrovegni coat of arms. Enrico paid for the Chapel, and its entire decoration by Giotto, to help get his father out of hell – and to keep himself out altogether. One of my favourite details in the entire chapel occurs just to the right of the depiction of the building, which still looks exactly like this today. You can see the foot of a cross which is held aloft by two angels. Quite apart from the wonderfully observed grain of the wood, a naturalism in detail that we would usually associate with later artists, I love the tiny soul clinging on behind. And why not? Just to the right, devils are hauling the damned to hell with no dignity whatsoever – one has his shirt pulled over his head revealing what may well have been the main cause of his sins. Just below a couple more trudge along the arch which forms the entrance to the chapel: they appear to be walking through our world. The priest’s robes also fall over the frame of the picture, Giotto already aware that his fiction will be all the more powerful if it breaks into our space. Compared with the whole these are tiny details, but the hidden soul clinging behind the cross could so easily express the fears of Enrico Scrovegni himself, clinging on, using everything at his disposal to stay out of the pit.
Christ sits in majesty in the centre of the painted image, directly under the window, so that most of the light in the chapel appears to come from the Redeemer himself – he is, quite literally, the Light of the World. The Heavenly Host are ranked in neat and orderly rows to the left and right of the window, with the twelve Apostles seated on either side of Jesus.
His arms are extended, with his right hand (on our left), palm upwards, raising the blessed to Heaven. On our right, his left hand is turned down, condemning the lost souls to Hell. From this, and a statistical constant (throughout history and pre-history roughly 10% of humans have been left-handed), stems society’s ‘leftism’. The Latin for ‘right’ is dexter – from which we get the word ‘dextrous’, meaning that you are good with your hands. If you can use both hands equally well you are ‘ambidextrous’, meaning that you can use both of your hands as well as your right. If I were to try this I would be completely useless at almost everything, as I am left-handed. The Latin for ‘left’, on the other hand, is sinister – which nowadays, according to the Collins English Dictionary, means, ‘threatening or suggesting evil or harm’. If you ever see Jesus blessing with his left hand, get out of the way, it’s the Antichrist. And never trust a word I say. The Blessed are raised on Christ’s right, the damned on his left. But what about the Apostles, who are seated on either side? Well, clearly, if you are on a level with Jesus, it s all pretty good – but there is a hierarchy. The more important place is on Jesus’ right hand, and here, as so often, Peter, in his yellow and blue, with short grey hair and beard, is Jesus’ right hand man. His left hand man is St Paul – important, but not quite as important as Peter. It then alternates, going outwards, right, left, right left…
At the bottom of the image, on the left, we see the resurrection of the body, with tiny people climbing out of the ground, and above them the Blessed, being led to Heaven by Angels in two tiers. Lower down, and slightly smaller, are the everyday devout, perfectly well behaved and orderly in their neat rows. Above them, with haloes, slightly more space, and just a little bit larger are the Saints. Sadly the fresco is seriously damaged here. Meanwhile, on the right we see rivers of fire flowing down from the foot of the throne, and the disorderly damned subjected to a multitude of tortures, which vary according to the sins they had committed during their lifetime.
Inevitably, the Devil has the best tunes, and when visiting the chapel it is all too easy to get caught up enjoying Giotto’s inventiveness, as bodies are strung up by any extremity, sawn, spiked, or speared, swallowed by dragons, or stuck on the spines along their back, ingested by Beelzebub, only to reappear, undigested at the other end. You can see them trudging down across the entrance arch, some still pointlessly holding onto their worldly possessions or sartorial finery. Tellingly, given Dante’s account of Reginaldo’s fate, there are a number of money bags ostentatiously displayed down there, wielded by the damned in denial who still think that the money – or the status – that they had while alive still means something. But beware – because of the delicate condition of the frescoes you only get 15 minutes to see them all, having spent 15 minutes in a kind of limbo while you are atmospherically adjusted. Do book in advance, as often all the slots are filled, and, if you can, do what we do when I take groups and book two slots back to back. This will allow you to spend just a little bit more time, and will also give you the chance to gloat over those who are unceremoniously evicted, clinging to their tickets like the soul behind the cross we saw earlier. Inevitably though, and far too soon, it will be time to leave. By this stage my ticket is always dog-eared, and curling at the corners, so firmly have I been clasping it while trying to see everything as thoroughly as possible and as quickly as possible. There is still just time to stop and look at the very top of the fresco, and what really is my favourite detail. It is the end of the world, which, like my ticket, is dog-eared and curling up: the angels are rolling back the corners, preparing to scrunch it all up and throw it into the bin, only to reveal, behind it, the golden glory of the New Jerusalem, and the promise of a well-behaved eternity in paradise standing in orderly rows.