Day 73 – Mary

Giotto, Stories from the Life of the Virgin, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Welcome back to Scrovegni Saturday – we’re well into the story. Joachim has been rejected from the temple, and as William Caxton put it back in 1483, ‘And then Joachim, all confused for this thing, durst not go home for shame’ (POTD 66). Meanwhile, Anna is waiting at home, and an angel has announced the birth of a daughter. Joachim (not Zacharias – yes, I did stick in the wrong name last week…) gives a sacrifice to God, which is accepted, and an angel tells him to go and meet his wife at the Golden Gate. Will he go? Of course he will!

Joachim and Anna meet outside the Golden Gate to the City of Jerusalem and embrace. Giotto gives us no doubt of the fact that they are together, and united, as he doesn’t leave a single gap between the two forms. With the haloes on top of their heads, the self-contained arching form resembles nothing so much as the Golden Gate itself – which was probably Giotto’s intention. One of the epithets applied to Mary was Porta Coeli – the ‘Gate of Heaven’ – as the birth of Christ meant that we could be admitted into the presence of God. Joachim and Anna are part of that journey – the gate to the gate, if you like. 

Neither of them has come unaccompanied. One of the shepherds has made what I assume is a rare visit to the big city, probably just to make sure that Joachim actually gets there. I love the way he is slightly sheepish, just emerging into the scene from behind the picture frame: people think this type of ‘photographic’ cut-off originated with the Renaissance in the 15th Century, but as with so many other things, they learnt it from Giotto. Anna is chaperoned by her maid, who we last saw dutifully spinning on the porch. She is carrying an expensive fur-lined coat, presumably in case Joachim is chilly. As it is, he is dressed remarkably like Jesus, with a red cloak over a blue robe. There must be a reason for this – his role in our salvation is the most likely thing I can think of at the moment, but if I come up with a better idea, I’ll let you know!

And the kiss! Ah – the kiss! Always one of the true joys of this chapel, given the way he firmly clasps her shoulder, and she tenderly cradles his head between her hands, running her fingers through his beard. They go almost cross-eyed, looking at each other in such close proximity, and there is that sense of a nose-bump, narrowly avoided, as their lips touch. They just touch, with no sense of parting, and certainly no tongues – the ultimate chaste kiss. It was at this moment, some people believed, that the Virgin Mary was conceived. But very few people ever thought this – hers was not a virgin birth. However, it does represent the Immaculate Conception (POTD 71 &72), given the chastity of Anna and Joachim’s love. And let’s face it, you’re not going to show the conception in any other way, this is a chapel, for heaven’s sake, not the Palazzo Te (POTD 44 & 53). Look at the delicate transparency of Anna’s veil – and the careful attention paid to every single grey hair of Joachim’s head. It’s a miracle. It’s also the point in the story when things start to get interesting in terms of the arrangement of the paintings. 

First of all, we have a cast of characters – quite apart from Joachim and Anna, we have the shepherd, and the maid, who reappear from earlier paintings.

Also, we have a complete story – ‘Chapter 1’, if you like – starting with Joachim’s rejection from the temple, and ending here with his acceptance at the Golden Gate. Both buildings are angled inwards, each with its own entrance. Joachim’s role as protagonist is done now: he has come home, and his part of the story is over. At this point, we have to cross the chapel, and start at the top of the left-hand wall.

‘Chapter 2’ starts with the Birth of the Virgin. Mary has been born, and is washed and swaddled by two midwives, who are sitting on the ground: one of them is the trusty maid, showing her true value to the household, as she can perform more than one role. Anna sits up in bed, covered by a sheet and a rather grand bedspread. No, they didn’t have twins, this is a continuous narrative, with different stages of the story shown together. The maid was preparing a finer fabric to wrap around the swaddling clothes, and duly prettified and safely contained, Mary is presented to her mother. Friends have come round to visit the newborn miracle, and yet another turns up with a gift at the door. And if you think you recognise the setting, you would be right.

It is the same house that we saw on the opposite wall. I wouldn’t mind betting that it was the maid who took out the chest and bench to allow more guests to visit. Like all good theatre designers, Giotto has allowed the furniture to be flexible. It is the same: the same bedspread, the same curtain hanging from the same frame, but slightly shifted to enhance the narrative. The lighting is different, too: it’s the same building, but at a different time of day. In fact, it is night time: it looks dark through the window. I know the sky is still blue, but that is ‘heavenly background’ as much as anything else. It also needs to fit in with the other frescoes, and wouldn’t look that good if it were all black. Notice that, whereas Anna was kneeling in prayer, looking to the right (the direction of the narrative), it is now Mary who is handed over to the right. This is her story.

According the Golden Legend, when Mary was three, Anna and Joachim took her to the temple. This is from Caxton’s translation:

…they brought her to the temple with offerings. And there was about the temple, fifteen steps to ascend up to the temple, because the temple was high set. And no body might go to the altar of sacrifices that was without, but by the steps.  And then our Lady was set on the lowest step, and mounted up without any help as she had been of perfect age, and when they had performed their offering, they left their daughter in the temple with the other virgins, and they returned into their place. 

Two things are actually different here – one is that there are only 10 steps, rather than 15, and the other is that Mary has not set off on her own. Like any small child on their first day at school Anna has had to encourage her all the way to the top. Mind you, faced with that priest I don’t suppose most 3-year-olds would have been that keen. There’s no particular reason why Giotto should diverge from the text – but then, there was no particular reason why he should stick to every detail.

The Golden Legend doesn’t specify what the ‘offerings’ were, but they were clearly heavy. Joachim doesn’t carry them himself – they have a servant for that – and even though they only fill one basket, the servant is bent low by the weight. Giotto attempts a particularly daring foreshortening, quite hard to read from a distance, and one of the most unusual views of the human figure I know before the 16th Century.

It is the same temple as we saw in the very first painting – and yet we are on the other side. You see the same ciborium or ‘canopy’ over the altar, and the same raised pulpit, high enough over the screen for the entire congregation to see. These are features of medieval churches, of course, rather than having anything to do with Solomon’s temple, or, for that matter, a synagogue. One of my friends said it reminded him of a piece of theatrical scenery on wheels, and he’s absolutely right – Giotto has simply turned it round. I say ‘simply’ – this is a rather complicated thing to do, and, if we’re honest, it is another one of those theatrical tricks where it looks like the same building, but in reality it is slightly modified.

Mary lives with the other virgins (small ‘v’) in the temple until she is 14, when all of the others find suitable spouses. This is where I started back on the very first Scrovegni Saturday, POTD 31. If you re-read that, you will get the long story – but here it is, short. All the eligible bachelors were asked to come to the temple with rods, and place them on the altar. Nothing happened, so they put out a second call, and it turned out that an old guy called Joseph hadn’t come forward. When he did, his rod flowered, and a dove landed on it – so he got to marry Mary. The rest were furious. At this stage, they are only being betrothed – i.e. engaged – the wedding was to follow some time later. Now you might want to argue that this is not the same temple we saw before, but the reason for this comes from Caxton’s text. He talks of  ‘the altar of sacrifices that was without’ – which is the one under the ciborium, and the one which Joachim had attempted to go to before. For this part of the story we are clearly at an altar that is ‘within’.

After the betrothal, Mary was taken in procession to the house of her parents, followed by the other virgins, and led by a viol player, and a couple of elders. She is welcomed home by two ceremonial trumpeters. I’m afraid I don’t know why this particular part of the fresco is in such a bad condition – it is due to humidity, but I don’t know why that should have been so bad here. It might have something to do with the part of the Scrovegni Palace which was, until the 19th Century, behind this wall, or whatever happened to this bit of the wall when the Palace was destroyed. The two trumpets were clearly painted a secco – after the plaster had dried – meaning that the paint was not bound to the wall, and has completely gone. Alternately, they could have been gilded, although why the gold should go here, and not on the haloes, I don’t know. A bay window from the house makes it onto this wall: we’ll see more of that when we come back next week.

p.s. As suggested yesterday, I will be giving two online lectures this week:

• if you want to tune in to Artemisia on Monday morning at 11am, please email

• if you would like to sign up for Seeing is Believing: van Eyck and the Art of Illusion at 6pm this Wednesday, 3 June, please go to the Art History Abroad website by clicking on the words Art History Abroad! Mix yourself a cocktail before you sign on – I will!

I’ll start updating the ‘diary’ on the website soon…

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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