106 – The Arrest of Christ

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

Happy Saturday! If you’re new to the blog, (a) Welcome! And (b) this is just one in a long series about Giotto’s decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua: at the bottom of this page you will find a link labelled ‘Scrovegni’ Chapel’, which will bring you up to date!

We are halfway along the lower tier of the South Wall of the Scrovegni Chapel, so halfway through the penultimate chapter of this story. The Arrest of Christ follows on directly from Christ washing the Feet of the Disciples (105). As we shall see next week, at this point in the narrative certain episodes are omitted, so that Giotto can end this chapter – let’s call it ‘The Beginning of the End’ – on the South Wall, and start the next chapter – ‘The End and a New Beginning’ – on the North. Last week we discussed the reasons why Giotto swapped The Last Supper with the washing of the feet, and the first thing I’d point out is that he hasn’t included the Agony in the Garden: in most Passion cycles, Christ heads out to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper, and prays for deliverance from the suffering that will follow. He is usually accompanied by three of the apostles, Peter, James and John, and, in the background, you can often see Judas arriving with the soldiers, ready for the arrest. However, Giotto cuts to the chase. Only, of course there is no chase: Jesus gives himself up almost willingly, and in the Gospel of St John he even identifies himself. This is John, 18: 3-5:

Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, Whom seek ye? They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them.

As I pointed out last week, John’s Gospel is the source for much of the material in the Scrovegni Chapel, and it does not include the narrative of the Agony in the Garden, which might be why Giotto doesn’t paint it here. John does not include what is potentially the bitterest detail of the betrayal, though – that Judas identified Jesus with a kiss. For this we have to look to the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Giotto somehow manages to make the kiss particularly repellent.

It’s the way that Judas is puckering his lips, I think, that puts me off. He has thrown his arms around Jesus, enveloping him in his yellow cloak, and goes straight in, looking more as if he is going to head-butt him than kiss him. The kiss, a gesture of mutual friendship, acceptance, tenderness and intimacy is used here for violent ends – the act itself is betrayed. Jesus remains impassive, long-suffering, and looks straight ahead, knowing what is to come. His golden halo shines out from the dark mass of helmets, such a crowd of soldiers to arrest one peaceful man, the silver leaf of their helmets – like the halos of the apostles in the Last Supper – now tarnished to black.

Seeing the full image you realise how fully Jesus is engulfed by Judas’s poisonous presence, the yellow ringing out loud and clear in the centre of the image. The dark aura created by the helmets, together with the porcupine-like array of clubs, batons and torches, focus our eyes on the lighter, placid, Jesus.

The ‘lanterns and torches and weapons’ are specified in the text, but they are also there for another reason. The sky is blue, as it is in every other image in the chapel, but it is after the Last Supper, and, although not depicted, after the Agony in the Garden. By this point it must be night. However, a black sky would have been unprecedented at the time. The first nocturnal scene in Western Art is always said to be in Santa Croce in Florence, and painted some 30 years after the Scrovegni Chapel. In any case, a black sky would have looked unbalanced here, in the context of the whole. But why else hold flaming torches, unless it were night? Quite simply put, the torches tell us that it is. I think this was probably quite a common ploy in painting, and it was also a tool used later by Shakespeare, whose plays were performed, on the whole, in the open air in daylight. For example, in Act 5, Scene 3 of Romeo and Juliet – the very last scene – almost every character mentions artificial lighting in some way. The lines include, ‘Give me thy torch, boy’ (Paris), ‘Give me the light’ (Romeo), ‘What torch is yond…?’ (Friar Lawrence) and ‘There, where the torch doth burn’ (Page) – and these are just some of the examples. They are effectively stage directions, constantly reminding the actors that it is night time and that they are in a dark place, so they should remember to do ‘dark’ acting. But, of course, the lines also serve as a reminder to the audience that it is night time. Indeed, Shakespeare was so aware of this convention that he could even make fun of it. At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the mechanicals include the character of ‘Moonshine’ in their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, to tell the court that it is night. Not only that, but when Pyramus (played by Bottom) enters, his first lines are:

O grim-looked night! O night with hue so black!
O night, which ever art when day is not!
O night, O night, alack, alack, alack…

…so there should be no excuse for not knowing the time of day. For Giotto, the torches and lanterns perform the same function, but with far greater subtlety. On the right of the image there are yet more soldiers, with yet more weapons – spears and halberds (the ones that look like spears with axes attached) – and some wonderful character studies.

In the foreground, in pink and gold (implying some connection to the ruling classes, perhaps), with his head covered, is presumably one of the chief priests that Luke mentions. He is clearly an authority figure, given his secure stance, and the commanding gesture, which orders the arrest. Above his out-stretched arm we see a young man, one of the torch bearers, an intense look created by a slightly lowered chin and raised, dark eyebrow – I’m hoping this boy has realised he would rather not be there. Behind him, and in contrast to his full head of hair and healthy good looks, is a scrawny looking man, with receding hairline, pointed nose and open mouth, his chin has dropped in astonishment – he’s almost more of a caricature. Meanwhile, there is a lot going on on the other side of the picture.

All four gospels mention the fact that one of the servants of the high priest had his ear cut off – you can see it quite clearly detached, falling down, in this detail. Luke adds that Jesus went on to touch this man’s ear, and heal it, whereas John tells us it was Peter who did this, and that, ‘The servant’s name was Malchus’. Above Malchus’s head a young man holds a club aloft, on the verge of striking Jesus – both he and Malchus face to the right in profile. Above Peter’s arm, another figure faces to the left – someone’s head, behind Peter’s halo, is covered in a pink cloth (someone not wanting to be seen in the presence of the arrested man, perhaps?) and underneath Peter’s outstretched hand, clasping the silver leaf knife, is another arm reaching out to the left. All of this mayhem relates to details reported in the bible. Once Jesus had been arrested Matthew adds, ‘Then all the disciples forsook him, and fled’. Mark also mentions this – and adds another detail. This is Mark 14:50-52:

50 And they all forsook him, and fled. 51 And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: 52 And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked.

Now, Giotto doesn’t have anyone running away naked – it would be inappropriate in a chapel, perhaps, unless you were one of the sinful souls in hell (POTD 38). However, in the foreground, and so very prominent, there is another ‘soldier’ with his back to us. I say ‘soldier’, as he is not the most official-looking person. He doesn’t seem to be wearing any armour, but has a dark cloak and hood, and an equally dark skirt. He has baggy brown leggings and boots. His is the arm reaching in the opposite direction to Peter’s, and he holds a pink cloak – although we can’t see its owner. It could belong to the ‘certain young man’ who is currently outside the frame, about to abandon this cloth and flee naked. A second apostle, identified as such by a halo, appears over Peter’s shoulder – the man in profile above Peter’s hand is presumably trying to grab him – while the head covered in pink could be yet another apostle about to flee. The small gap between Peter’s head and the heads of the soldiers speaks of this separation. Do you notice how Peter and the second apostle now have gold halos? It’s almost as if they’ve had a promotion since the Last Supper, when their halos were silver – though here I suspect it is as much to distinguish them from the silver helmets of the soldiers.

Oh dear! As so often I had hoped to cover more – three of the images – but as so often I got distracted… so the homework I set you last week will have to wait until next! Just as a warning, I will be on holiday – but I’ll try and get writing before I go! Have a great week. And don’t go hugging and kissing people – especially if your intention is dishonorable.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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