Day 87 – The Childhood of Christ

Giotto, The Childhood of Christ, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

So, as we continue to explore the Scrovegni Chapel we hit the middle tier of frescoes on the side walls. With the Last Judgement at the West End (Picture Of The Day 38), and the Annunciation and Visitation at the East, spanning the chancel arch (POTD 80), we start near the altar on the South Wall with the Nativity – the birth of Christ. If each tier on each wall represents a chapter, then this is the third chapter, after the story of Joachim and Anna, and the Birth and Betrothal of the Virgin.

We start Jesus’s story as he is handed into the scene by a midwife. If we remember that the altar is to the left of this painting, and that during Mass the bread becomes the body of Christ, it is almost as if she could have taken the child, newly ‘born’, from the altar. With the help of a reclining Mary, the midwife places the child into the manger. The word comes from the French manger, ‘to eat’, which takes us back to the Mass – with Christ’s body on the altar, to be eaten by all the communicants. A ‘manger’ is a food bowl, after all, which could be why the ox and ass look a little perturbed. Joseph sleeps. Well, he had had a long walk to Bethlehem, leading the donkey, and anyway, for Giotto, he definitely was an old codger (POTD 31 & 85). Meanwhile the angels somersault over the roof of the stable, eventually telling the shepherds the glad tidings of great joy.

Notice how one, large rock forms the background for the stable, while another, cut off on the right, defines the space of the shepherds (one of whom has had the elbow of his tunic patched…). The gap in between, where we see the blue sky, helps to suggest that they are really some way off, and allows space for an angel to fly down to speak to them.

Mary is lying down. It wasn’t until the early 15th Century that we see Mary kneeling in adoration of her newly born son, an image derived from the visions of St Bridget of Sweden. Up until that point the Nativity was painted, almost with out fail, with Mary and Jesus lying alongside one another. I’m not surprised, as I have always imagined childbirth to be extremely exhausting. I also wanted to point out a technical detail: Mary’s blue cloak is in a bad way. Artists loved to use ultramarine, extracted from lapis lazuli, because of the intensity of its blue – and patrons loved them to use it too, as it was enormously expensive – more so than gold, even – and it showed their wealth. That was fine when painting in egg tempera (or, for that matter, oil), but for true fresco the pigments were mixed with limewater before being painted onto the wet plaster. However, ultramarine reacts with limewater, so you cannot paint it in true fresco. Consequently, ultramarine could not be used until the plaster was dry, and painting a secco like this meant that the paint did not bond with the wall, and was likely to flake off. Giotto painted Mary’s cloak red in true fresco first, because, with the blue painted on top, it would give it a slightly more royal purple tinge. However, as the blue has worn away, the red has been revealed. And before we move on, look at the way that the ox is looking up at Mary!

The angels above the stable are also a delight: they are torn between worshipping God in Heaven (1st, 2nd and 4th from the left), worshipping the Christ Child (3rd), and getting on with announcing to the shepherds (5th) – the effect, as I suggested before, is that they appear to be having the best time, looping the loop above the stable in celebration of the birth of our saviour. The upward swoop of the two on the left matches the hill behind them, and, as I pointed out earlier, the fifth angel fits nicely into the gap between the hills. The blue of the sky has suffered the same fate as Mary’s cloak, painted a secco with ultramarine, and much of it has now gone.

In the next image it is almost as if the camera has panned to the left as the Wise Men arrive – the stable is more or less at the same angle, although it is now at the right of the image, and the bed, stable, ox and ass have been removed, and replaced by a stepped throne on which Mary sits, Jesus, still swaddled, on her lap.

The Holy family are joined by two angels, one of whom bears the gift of gold.  The eldest Magus, who brought it, kisses Christ’s foot, having placed his crown at the foot of the throne, a sign of his humility. The three magi represent the three ages of man – old, middle aged and young, as shown by grey beard, brown beard and beardless – but not the three continents (I alluded to this briefly in POTD 70): they are all white. The black king does not appear until the early 15th Century – but more of that another day perhaps. The star is looking more than usually like a comet, as opposed to the camels, which look less than usually like camels… but then, I don’t suppose Giotto had ever seen one.

The third scene is the Presentation at the Temple, described in Luke 2: 21-38. Luke described many of the features that Giotto includes – the offering of two turtle doves, the High Priest Simeon, and the prophetess Anna. It had been predicted that Simeon would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and here he receives him, recognising him with the words, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation‘ (Luke 2:29-30) – the words of the Nunc Dimittis in the Anglican Evensong.

Notice also how Giotto uses the same ciborium in most of his representations of the temple – Joachim had been thrown out, Mary accepted in, and now we are back. The twisted, Solomonic columns (also known as barley-sugar columns) were associated with the temple of Jerusalem, and the Vatican is supposed to have some of the originals: Giotto would have been aware of this, having designed a mosaic for St Peter’s at the end of the 13th Century. This is a different part of the temple, I have assumed, from the inner altar where the bachelors waited to see who would be chosen to marry Mary, but the altar cloth is the same. When looking around the chapel, these echoes may not be immediately obvious, but inevitably they will add to the sense that the paintings are somehow familiar: memories of the images we have already seen must linger in the back of our mind somewhere.

There is no stopping the story – the Holy Family must leave, after Joseph’s dream warning him that Herod was coming for Jesus. Unlike Pareja’s version of The Flight into Egypt (POTD 85) Joseph leads the way on foot, although the Guardian Angel is here, flying above, watching over them and pointing the way. This time they are accompanied by two midwives (we only saw one briefly at the Nativity) and two servants (previously unseen).  

Mary sits side-saddle on the donkey, who is looking inordinately proud to be carrying her. I would even say it was smiling. The ultramarine blue of Mary’s cloak has almost completely worn off here. Rather than the red underpainting we saw in the Nativity, the colour left behind is a pale pink (the red is her robe, under the cloak). Originally, therefore, it would not have looked as rich as in the Nativity – a reminder that this is not as significant an event as the birth of the Son of God. See how – as so often – the landscape expresses the drama of the event, the rocks forming a background for Mary and Jesus, and enhancing the momentum towards the right of the painting. The Holy Family were fleeing, of course, to avoid Herod and his men, who, as we mentioned on Thursday, ‘slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under’ (Matthew 2:16). 

The grief of the mothers is almost unbearable – all sense of decorum is lost as their hair becomes uncovered. They reach for their children, grabbed by the soldiers, killed, and piled in an undignified heap on the floor. One, in green at the top left, seems to imagine holding her baby once again with her now functionless hands. Tears streak their faces – Giotto used some unconventional technique here to make the flowing tears almost three dimensional, apparently – and their faces crumple in sorrow. On the right a soldier lifts his hand above his shoulder, but apart from some black marks it is hard to see why. Although the hilt of his sword looks gold, the blade would have been made of silver leaf, and sadly, as we shall see again, silver tarnishes. Not only has most of it come off, but what little remains is now completely black.

To end this chapter we must jump twelve years, to the point at which Joseph and Mary lose Jesus in Jerusalem, only to find him in debate with the Doctors in the the temple. Many weeks ago we saw how Pinturicchio set this discussion outside the building (POTD 40), but for Giotto they are securely seated inside, with Joseph and Mary arriving from the left. This is how the event is described in Luke 2:41-47: 

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?

What I find astonishing about Giotto’s depiction is that the building takes up almost the entire picture space – we see cut away walls and roof, leaving just a sliver of sky at the top, and the projecting walls of the side aisles on the outside – but basically the ‘fourth wall’ of the temple is as close as is possible to the frame of the picture itself. Jesus is ‘sitting in the midst of the doctors’ – right in the very centre – and his gesture implies that he is deeply involved in the discourse. 

In this chapter of the Scrovegni story, we started with the Baby Jesus being handed in to the scene of the Nativity – pictorially being ‘delivered’ – and we end with him finding his place in the centre of the image, firm and secure about his Father’s business. From here we will have to jump another 18 years or so, when he will begin his Mission in earnest. Directly opposite this painting, we will see Jesus in the centre of the image once more, but standing upright in the River Jordan at his Baptism. But that will be next week.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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