Giotto, The Story of Joachim and Anna, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.
Time to get going with the stories! From the past few weeks we know, when looking down the chapel towards the altar, that the Last Judgement (Picture Of The Day 38) is behind us, with the Virtues at the bottom of the walls on our right (POTD 45 & 59), while the Vices are opposite them on our left (POTD 52 & 59).
Well, the story starts at the far end of the top tier of the right-hand wall as we look towards the altar. As we mentioned last week there are windows on the right but not the left (that is where the Scrovegni Palace used to be), but they don’t reach to the top of the walls – which means there is more space for the narrative. There are six scenes at the top level (you can only see four in this photo), although we’ll only have time for the first five this week. The story progresses in an anti-clockwise direction – from left to right – and all movement in the paintings moves from left to right too. We start with the story of Joachim and Anna, who will become the parents of the Virgin Mary – although at this point, they have no idea what’s coming.
Indeed, the story starts with childlessness and rejection. It may be obvious to us that Joachim is holy, given his big golden halo, but he is turned away from the Temple because, as an elderly man with no child, he must be cursed by God. When looking at the fresco in situ, the painted temple would be seen in relation to the altar of the Chapel itself, as it faces the same direction. Both are to our left, when looking directly at the wall, which is on the right in the photo above. The Temple acts as a closure to everything that went before. Joachim can only leave. He may look over his shoulder, but his body is already facing right. Indeed, he is already at the right-hand side of the picture: the story has already begun. He doesn’t have far to go, but then, he cannot go far, he doesn’t have the energy. He just steps through to the next scene, out into the countryside, with two sceptical shepherds and their flock of indifferent sheep. He couldn’t face going home. He wraps his hands in his cloak and looks down in shame, although he is still facing towards the right. The rocks form a plateau behind his head, which connects him to the shepherds, even if there is a gap between them. The high rock seems to close off the painting to the right, as if there is no way out. The sheepcote itself is a dead end – and is a reflection of the screen around the Holy of Holies in the Temple: the sheepcote’s door is opposite the gap in the screen. The rock on the right is also a reflection of the tabernacle, which closes the left-hand side of the first picture. In both, the animals are eloquent.
In the first, Joachim clasps the sacrificial lamb he has taken with him, cuddling it more like a pet, or a comfort blanket. Like him, it is rejected, although if it knew, it would probably be far happier about the fact. Joachim’s face wrinkles with betrayal and incomprehension, while the priest frowns, pushing Joachim’s back, pulling at the hem of his cloak: he didn’t want to have to do this, but he had hoped it would be easier. He’s been at the job a long time, and has a longer, greyer beard than Joachim’s – it’s quite soft by the look of it. There are white lines along the folds of his green sleeve, suggesting that it has faded with service.
The only sign of hope as Joachim seeks solace in the open air is the sheep dog, who approaches him, looking up with concern, and lifting a paw in an act of consolation. The sheep remain unmoved.
Meanwhile, Anna is at home, kneeling in prayer, facing to the right. She too is holy – and it is fascinating to see that Giotto has started to think of a halo as a solid object, a three-dimensional form which looks different from different angles. In other places in the chapel it is simply a flat disk, gilded to reflect the natural light and represent the glow of sanctity. He’s good at the observation of everyday life though, Giotto: look at the bench by the bed, and the chest under the window – not to mention the curtain hanging from the rail above the bed – so he must have stopped to think how he would observe a halo if he could, or for that matter, an angel flying through a window. It’s a master class in foreshortening.
This is an annunciation – though not the Annunciation – as the angel has come to tell Anna that she will have a daughter. Oh the irony: as yet, she doesn’t know that their childlessness is the very reason that Joachim has not come home. Anyway, it must have been something of a surprise. Looking at the wrinkles on her face she was – as Zacharias would later say of his wife Elizabeth when the birth of their son John the Baptist was announced – ‘well stricken in years’. However, they clearly have a comfortable life, living in a fine house with a pediment, and able to afford a rich red robe with gold decoration, and even a servant, spinning on the patio in far plainer clothes.
Joachim settles on a course of action. If he is cursed by God, God must be appeased – and so he sacrifices a lamb (possibly the same one we saw earlier) on an open air altar. The shepherd on the left is dressed in earth tones, like the background, with the downward swoop of the rocks drawing our attention to Joachim, who kneels (facing to the right) on an upward sloping rock. He is in pink – as is the angel on the right and the altar in between them – the colour creates a relationship between them, their mutual gaze full of tension. They form a pyramid with a hand that appears from Heaven – it is God: Joachim’s sacrifice has been accepted, and the angel has come to tell him so. Given the relief, he can now sleep. And as there is no movement in sleep, he doesn’t need to face to the right – although the angel does: it is the angel who is moving the story forward. The curves of the angel’s materialising body and outstretched arm are echoed in the rocks below. Joachim sleeps outside the sheepcote that we saw in the second image, with the same rock behind: Giotto always has a very secure sense of place. The other rocks may look different, but then, the dynamic of the scene is different too. Two shepherds look on as the angel flies in to greet Joachim while he sleeps – he is dreaming, and the angel tells him to meet his wife by the Golden Gate. But will he go? Well, I’ll have to talk about the Immaculate Conception first, and that may take some time – so we’ll find out next week. But just in case you were wondering if all this is all that remarkable – well, so far this week there has been some good and straightforward story telling. The further into the story you get, though, the more complex are the relationships between the paintings. And we’ve only just begun!