102 – Jesus… and Judas

Giotto, The Entry into Jerusalem, The Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple and The Betrayal of Judas, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Welcome back to Scrovegni Saturday! We are, in some ways, approaching the beginning of the end, as we head towards the end of the sequence of Jesus’s life in the middle of the walls, and soon will start on the sequence of the Passion. We’re already at Palm Sunday, which we covered on the day itself with the beautifully detailed panel by Tilman Riemenschneider (Picture Of The Day 18) – and if you want to have another look at that you can just click on the link in the brackets.

Giotto’s painting shares many features in common with Riemenschneider’s relief carved some two centuries later. But then, the way in which important biblical stories were depicted – the iconography – had often been developed some long time before Giotto. Nevertheless, Giotto’s examples did much to establish these formulae, and acted as important precedents for many subsequent artists. Rather than sitting on a triumphant horse as he approaches one of the gates of the city, Jesus sits upon a donkey, thus showing his humility. People climb trees in the background to get a better view, and to tear down branches. One boy in a butterscotch-coloured robe waving his branch among the crowd on the right, while others take off their robes to spread them in the path of the donkey. People seem to be pouring out of the city gate to see what is going on, creating a diagonal paralleled by the line of a hill which leads up from the forehead of the donkey, leading us ever onward from left to right, and up to the gate.  Much of this imagery is taken from the account in the Gospel of St John, and takes place just after Jesus has eaten with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It is clear that many people were there because of the ‘celebrity’ Jesus had gained by bringing Lazarus back from the dead – and, according to verse 9, Lazarus was likewise a ‘draw’. However, for the sake of brevity, I am only quoting John 12:12-14 and 17-18:

12 On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13 Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord. 14 And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon… 17 The people therefore that was with him when he called Lazarus out of his grave, and raised him from the dead, bare record. 18 For this cause the people also met him, for that they heard that he had done this miracle.

Christ is followed by his apostles – I can only see 10 haloes, but the other two, one of whom would arguably not have a halo, can be imagined as ‘offstage’ at the moment, and just about to enter. One of the features which Giotto includes, which we did not see in the Riemenschneider, is a second animal, small, and sketchy. I presume it was painted a secco, and may have been an afterthought. It could have been a member of the church who wanted to tie the different biblical accounts together. This creature is mentioned in Matthew 21:1-2:

1 And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples, 2 Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me.

The accounts are similar in Mark 11 and Luke 19, but they only mention one of the beasts. Another feature that isn’t included in John’s account is the spreading of garments – which is included in the three synoptic gospels. This is Matthew 21: 6-8:

6 And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, 7 And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon. 8 And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way.

You can see that the ass has clothes spread over it as a saddle – this looks like St Peter’s yellow cloak, and Peter himself is resting his left hand on it, looking decidedly grumpy. But then, his clothes are in a rather poor state of repair – the a secco blue has worn really badly in this part of the fresco.

So far only one person has put his cloak down, just in time for the ass to tread on it, but it is significant that this particular fabric was painted red in true fresco, with ultramarine added a secco – just like Jesus’s own blue cloak. This implies that it was an expensive garment, and that Jesus was not only worthy of practical respect, but a respect that was also given a financial value. If we wanted to be picky, we would point out that, unlike pigments, blue fabrics were not as expensive as red ones – but as Giotto is expressing his ideas through paint, he is not concerned with such practicalities. The practicalities that do interest him include how you remove garments in order to be able to spread them. Just behind the boy laying his ultramarine cloak on the ground is another who is bending over, having pulled his green robe over his head. Behind this second boy a man is pulling at his left sleeve with his right hand – you can see that his left arm, visible in the sleeve, is almost withdrawn, with the elbow more or less next to his waist. He leans slightly, but is not as bent as the boy in front, and certainly not prostrate like the boy with the ultramarine. Between them they form a step-by-step guide to removing and spreading your garment, a form of animation, if you like.

This image is a good example of the way that Giotto did not cut corners. Although we have seen examples of him repeating forms and ideas – buildings reoccur from one painting to another, for example – they are never exactly repeated. The image of Jesus is very similar in The Raising of Lazarus (left) and The Entry into Jerusalem (right) – but there are subtle variations. In both cases Jesus appears solemn, upright and authoritative, driving the narrative forward. The position of his hands is similar in each, although the angles are slightly different. It’s not unusual for an artist to re-use his cartoons – the large-scale drawings made in preparation – but, if Giotto did, he has subtly adjusted the composition while painting.

Likewise, the ass on which he rides into Jerusalem (right) is related in some way to the donkey on which, 33 years before, he had fled into Egypt. But again – it is not the same. Although they look similarly proud of their role in Jesus’s story, the earlier donkey has perkier ears, for one thing – but then, he is saving Jesus’s life, unlike his younger relative, who bears Jesus onward to his death.

The first thing Jesus does on his arrival is to chase the money-changers from the temple, as we saw in El Greco’s painting from the National Gallery (POTD 19). It is always worthwhile remembering, when looking at Giotto’s buildings, that a systematic way of painting in perspective wasn’t developed until the 15th Century. Even so, more than a century before that, Giotto could give us a real sense of solidity and space. He has painted a portico in front of the temple, or in the temple courtyard, and because it is at an angle, the individual piers which support the arches, framed by green half columns, stand in front of the three doors in the more shadowed inner wall of the portico: we can tell that we are not directly in front of this building.

This ability with spatial representation is shown most brilliantly in the cages that were previously used for animals – the man shying away from Jesus carries one, and there is another sitting on the ground. Jesus’s actions seem relatively calm – even measured – and the response of the money-changers is nothing like the chaos which ensues in El Greco’s later painting, but it is enough to cause the sheep to try and escape. It is also enough to scare the children. 

This is an entirely charming detail, I think, and one I haven’t seen elsewhere. One of the apostles is comforting a child, clearly upset by the unprecedented drama in the temple precinct.

The Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple brings us to the end of another chapter in the Scrovegni story, which could be entitled Christ’s Mission – although, as ever, Giotto keeps the story going by taking us round the corner. And the sheep seem to lead the way…

They leap round the corner, and straight into the devil, who looms over the shoulder of Judas, persuading him to take the bag containing the thirty pieces of silver, his fee for betraying Jesus. The priest in red holds his hands close to Judas’s – that touching gesture of that says, ‘I understand your concerns, but it really won’t be a problem’. And to the right, two more priests discuss the fact that the problem will be sorted – as the one in green points towards this untoward transaction with his thumb. We’ve actually seen this painting before, back in POTD 80, but I didn’t tell you what it was. 

With Judas in yellow and the priest in red, they mirror Anne and Mary on the other side of the chancel arch in The Visitation. As 2 July used to be the Feast of the Visitation (up until 1969, since when it has been celebrated on 31 May) this would seem apt – we’ve only missed it by a couple of days. The handmaids also echo the two priests, in paler versions of their clothes, while Anne’s servant is opposite to the devil.

What is the theological connection between the two? It is one of opposites. On the right Jesus is on his way into the world, and the unborn John the Baptist’s movement in the womb acknowledges the fact, whereas on the left, Judas’s betrayal seeks to take Jesus out of the world. Anne recognises Jesus will come, Judas guarantees that he will go. And remember, along the base of the wall running along the right hand side, below Anne, are the seven Virtues, while on the left hand side, under Judas, are the seven Vices, connecting all the way to heaven and to hell in the last Judgement on the wall behind us. Judas grasps the moneybag which is also held by Envy – one of the seven Vices (POTD 52) – as well as by several of the damned in hell (POTD 38). Thus Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is connected to the life of the patron’s own father. As I’m sure you will remember, Enrico Scrovegni commissioned the decoration of the chapel partly to atone for his father’s sin of usury (again, see POTD 38). This is, as I’m sure I’ve said before, the most coherent decorative scheme I know. And there’s plenty more to come! But for now, it’s worth noting that the planning it must have taken to get to the right point in the story so that Judas’s acceptance of the thirty pieces of silver was placed in this significant position in the chapel must have been remarkable. It allows Giotto to start the next chapter with The Last Supper, on the bottom tier of the right wall between the furthest two windows – and that is where we will start net week.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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