Day 45 – Virtues, again…

Giotto, Faith, Charity and Hope, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel

I must break off from the Story of Psyche, as it is Scrovegni Saturday, and I want to return to the consideration of the various Virtues that we began when we were looking at Verrocchio’s wonderful bozzetto in the V&A on Wednesday (Picture Of The Day 42). Again, I would like to look at the three Theological Virtues, FaithCharity, and Hope, to see how Giotto has represented them.

I’ve put them in this order, because that is the way they are laid out in the Chapel – although not this close together. All three are painted in grisaille, which translates as ‘greyness’, but refers to paintings which are monochrome – and specifically, black and white. The technique is used for different reasons: here the intention is to make the figures look like sculptures, carved out of some sort of stone – maybe even marble. Each is set into a rectangular niche lined with a grey, veined stone, with a slab of a darker stone – probably meant to be serpentine, a deep olive green – set into the back of the niche. The base of each niche is made of a slab of red marble, probable intended to be Rosso di Verona, a red stone from the hometown of Romeo and Juliet, which was often used for architectural decoration. You will see that there are inscriptions underneath the red ‘sill’, but please forgive me, I don’t have the time to look up what these say – that will have to wait. 

Giotto has imagined the fall of light into each niche as slightly different – that is how careful he was. In Faith, for example, the top of the niche is in shadow, and a shadow is cast onto the back ‘wall’, falling just above where the name is carved: Fides, Latin for faith (hence Fido for dogs). On either side, the inner vertical faces of the niche are just slightly lighter on the right, and lighter still on the left. The ridge just under the inscription (which has been more or less lost here) is far brighter on top – the light is definitely falling from above, as it would be, given the windows in the chapel are higher up. The fall of light in Charity is pretty much the same, but in Hope the left inner face is far darker than the right: this is, presumably, related to the precise position of the windows on the wall above these frescoes. Because her feet are not touching the ‘ground’ you can see more clearly that the light is falling directly onto the pink shelf, and onto the top edge of the grey slab behind it. This use of light and shade helps to define these spaces as potentially real, and the marble slabs as solid – and the skill with which Giotto does it puts him decades ahead of his colleagues.

Certain elements of these fictive sculptures are painted as if they are carved from stone that is a different colour from the white marble used for the majority of the figure. Faith, for example, carries a processional cross which is carved from a flat slab of Rosso di Verona (there’s no doubt about that here, the darker veins are unmistakable). She may be the most statuesque of the figures, stately and secure, but Giotto is gently nudging us to think again. He appears to be suggesting that painting must surely be better than sculpture – for who could carve the thin shaft of that processional cross on the scale of this painting? Or, for that matter, could anyone ever have carved the paper-thin, unfurled scroll she holds in her left hand? It seems unlikely, but he has been able to paint the ‘sculpture’ with consummate ease: one-nil to painting. Notice how the hands and face have a slight flesh tone to them. Is he perhaps suggesting that the sculpture is so well painted that it could almost come to life, like Paulina in The Winter’s Tale?As it happens, Shakespeare tells us that that particular ‘effigy’ was painted by ‘that rare Italian master, Giulio Romano’ – whose work we saw yesterday – and who is the only artist Shakespeare mentions by name. Above Faith,two angels look down from the corners of the niche, in devotion to the cross, and what we must therefore interpret as a religious text – both are items of Faith.

At her feet lie a broken sculpture, and two rectangular slabs. The sculpture represents a pagan idol, the sort of classical sculpture which had already been an inspiration for Nicola Pisano (POTD 8) and would be even more important for the artists of the Renaissance a century later. Although, yet again, is Giotto saying that we don’t need sculptures, given that he can paint them better than other artists could carve them? The two slabs are probably meant to be the tablets of the Law brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses – the Ten Commandments. The implication is that, with Christianity, the old orders have passed away. Paganism has gone for good, and the Law of Moses has been superseded by the Grace of Christ. That is what Faith means.

Charity tramples moneybags underfoot – worldly wealth is not important to her. In this context the rejection of moneybags should, of course, be seen in reference to Reginaldo degli Scrovegni, father of the patron of the Chapel, Enrico, who Dante had seen in the Seventh Circle of Hell among the usurers, with a money bag tied around his neck. 

In her right hand she holds a basket of fruit, flowers and grain – the overabundant, inexhaustible plenty that is the gift of true love – and she holds something up to God. I’m not entirely sure what this is – it could be something like an artichoke, and she could be offering this bounty to God, or receiving it from him. On the other hand, as a sign of love, she could be giving him her heart. It is a fairly common symbol in images of Charity, and certainly what Marcel Proust thought it was:

By a fine stroke of the painter’s invention she is tumbling all the treasures of the earth at her feet, but exactly as if she were treading grapes in a wine-press to extract their juice, or, still more, as if she had climbed on a heap of sacks to raise herself higher; and she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say ‘handing’ it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to some one who had called down to ask her for it from the ground-level above.’

Proust was one of the most visual of authors, and referred to more than 100 artists in A la recherche du temps perdu. Indeed, there is an entire book written about the paintings he mentions. You can read more of the above passage – and get details of the book – in the Public Domain Review.

The quotation comes from a passage in which one of the kitchen maids is compared to ‘Giotto’s Charity’ as Proust calls it. He has a point – she is not entirely unlike a kitchen maid. One of Giotto’s greatest innovations was to make the ordinary divine – he gives holy characters and allegorical figures such as these a sense of reality which was unprecedented. You could argue that all his models were from Tuscan peasant stock, the farmers and labourers he grew up with, were it not for the fact that he wouldn’t have used models in this way. But he creates a solid reality for everyone, giving them both physical, and spiritual, weight. 

Hope is perhaps the exception. A solid figure she may be, but her longing for God – and for the Heavenly Crown, which is held out for her by an angel at the top of the niche – has lifted her off the ground. With this image Giotto appears to have given up on the idea that these Virtues are sculptures. Or maybe he is just seeing how far he can push the conceit – will we still believe this is really a sculpture? Or are we just meant to enjoy the game? Could a sculptor make his work fly? No! But a painter can! Notice, again, that her hands are slightly pinker… particularly the one which is further into the shadow of the ‘niche’. Without any symbol or attribute for her to carry, it is the gesture of these hands which most defines her essential quality, and it is for this reason that they are emphasized, almost like being underlined, in red.

Replica of the Scrovegni Chapel

This photograph allows us to see where the Virtues are in the Chapel, but beware! This is not the Scrovegni Chapel! The clue is the over-harsh lighting, and clunky light fitting, at the top. It is actually a photograph of a replica, on the scale of 1:4, which was part of an exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv in late 2009. The opening up of the Chapel is useful, as we can see the layout of the walls more easily, and so understand the location of the Virtues. They are part of a fictive marble wainscoting, which reaches up to the full height of the door at the West End, underneath the Last Judgement that we saw last week (POTD 38). On either side of the door there are two marbled panels, surrounded by a green frame, which in its turn is framed by more decorative panelling. Along the side walls are the ‘sculptures’ in their niches, each one of which is separated by two more of the decorative panels. Even at this scale, I hope you can see that the nearest one to the Last Judgement on the left is Hope, her yearning gesture and upward movement taking her towards the figure of Christ on the end wall.  She could very easily join the progression of the Blessed just above her who are being guided by the angels into the divine presence. Charity, too, holds her heart – or artichoke – towards the Redeemer. They are on the right hand of Christ, on the side of the Blessed – which can only mean that opposite them, on the side of the Damned, are their equivalent vices. For now, though, they will have to wait.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

5 thoughts on “Day 45 – Virtues, again…

    1. To be honest, it’s hard to say – very few drawings survive from the 14th Century at all, let alone that early in the century. But the practice of sitting someone down to take a pose and act as a model doesn’t seem to have started until a lot later – the fifteenth century, when several studies of what appear to be studio assistants/apprentices do exist. Even then, drawing from the model as we know it now probably didn’t really get going until the 16th Century. Having said that, but as I said at the beginning, it is hard to know how Giotto did work. He must certainly have been looking!


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