109 – Death and Resurrection

Giotto, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ and The Resurrection, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

I know – the whole idea of ‘Scrovegni Saturday’ was blown apart weeks back when I first failed to hit the deadline, but never before have I been early. So welcome to the first, and presumably only, ‘Scrovegni Friday’. I’m off to Norfolk later, and suspect I might not have the necessary bandwidth to post this tomorrow! Two more images today, and two more wonders, inevitably. But, to understand how and why they go together, here they are with the preceding image, The Crucifixion.

The death and resurrection of Christ are inevitably tied together – in the Christian message one is not possible without the other. However, while the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are both part of the biblical narrative, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ is not. It is part of church tradition, and, as such, it is as much a part of the pictorial tradition as any of the other scenes which are represented in the chapel. Giotto includes it to give us a chance to stop and meditate on the implications of Jesus’s death. The Crucifixion is presented as the Ultimate Sacrifice, with Christ lifted high above the gathered witnesses, but in The Lamentation he has been brought low. The angels continue their own lamentations, flying through the sky in their almost inexpressible grief, and below them Jesus is surrounded by the mourning figures of family and friends. The Crucifixion appears almost like an exclamation mark, something which exists on its own, symmetrical, with Jesus fully centred, whereas in The Lamentation over the Dead Christ he is at the bottom left of the image, the left always marking the beginning of a journey. When seen together, we can see that the landscape, as often before, is a part of the narrative. A hill leads our eyes upwards from Christ’s head, at the bottom left of the Lamentation, towards the right of the image. In The Resurrection it reaches its summit, and then leads downwards, taking us towards the Risen Christ on the right hand side. It is almost as if the hill expresses the unseen exertion that Jesus went through when he ‘descended into hell’, the very exertion that Donatello depicts so powerfully in the relief we saw back on Easter Sunday (Picture Of The Day 25).

This hill is such a profound metaphor, and Jesus, as we have said, is at the very bottom. He is surrounded by women – Holy Women, presumably, although only four of them have halos. Of these, two can be identified with ease: Mary, his mother, cradling him in her arms, wearing her traditional blue, and Mary Magdalene, at his feet as she was in the Crucifixion, with her long red hair, and her green-lined red cloak. Oddly, neither of the other two haloed women is wearing the yellow worn by the person I assumed last week was Mary’s sister, Mary Cleophas – although there is a woman wearing precisely that colour who is supporting Jesus’s head. My suggestion would be that this is the same woman – Mary Cleophas, if I was right last week – and that Giotto chose not to include her halo here as it would get in the way. He would not be the only artist to make that choice. So who are the other two? This is from Matthew 27:55-56:

55 And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: 56 Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedees children.

The ‘many women’ are certainly there – there are at least 8 standing around the haloed figure, who must be a young woman as her hair is not covered. Mark 15:40 also mentions ‘many other women’, as well as ‘Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome’, while Luke, who does not name any of the women present at the Crucifixion, says later (24:10) that, on Easter Sunday, the tomb was visited by ‘Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James’. So we should have little doubt that one of these haloed women is Mary the Mother of James, who in medieval tradition was Mary Cleophas. Likewise, in medieval tradition, the ‘Salome’ mentioned here was known as Mary Salome, and like Mary Cleophas was also one of the half-sisters of the Virgin Mary (long story short: according to the Golden Legend, St Anne’s husband Joachim died, and she remarried. The second husband also died, and she remarried again. With each husband she had a daughter called Mary: there were three half-sisters with the same name). It was also assumed that Mary Salome married a man called Zebedee, which would make her the woman mentioned by Matthew. Confused? I’m not surprised. I must talk about a painting of the Holy Kindred one day. Still, if Mary Cleophas is the woman in yellow with her back to us, one of the two haloed women – one above Jesus’s head and the other holding his hands – must be Mary Salome. The other is possibly Joanna, who was one of the women who, according to Luke 8:3, ‘ministered unto [Jesus] of their substance’ – i.e. helped to provide for him.

And then there are the men. Fortunately they are far easier to identify. All three have halos, and could be characterised as young, old, and middle aged, going from left to right. The young man, with no beard and short hair, is John the Evangelist, his arms flung backwards in his despair and disbelief. Giotto shows he is important by making him stand out clearly – and he does that by placing him on his own, and against the rising hill. The other two are both mentioned in John 19:38-39 (and elsewhere…): Joseph of Arimathea, who ‘took the body of Jesus’, and Nicodemus, who ‘brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes’ which will be used immediately after the Lamentation when they wind Jesus’s body in the shroud, which Joseph currently has slung around his shoulders. At the top of the hill is a tree. At first glance, it is devoid of leaves – but look again: there are leaves, but they are tiny, just breaking out of the bud – the promise of new life. This would suggest that we should move straight on to The Resurrection, but before we do, I want to look back, in order to point out one of Giotto’s most subtle, but most moving echoes.

I’m comparing Jesus’s first appearance in the Scrovegni chapel – in chronological terms – with his last, or rather, what would be the last were Jesus not the Son of God. These are the moments of Jesus’s greatest humanity: his birth and his death. In the first – The Nativity – he is handed to the Virgin Mary by a midwife, and in the last – The Lamentation over the Dead Christ – he lies equally helpless in his mother’s arms, but for altogether different reasons. To make the parallels clearer, have a look at these details.

In both, Mary wears blue (although the surface has worn in The Nativity), and leans over her son. Her right arm goes behind his back, to support him, her left reaches across. The angle of her body, the angle of her head, and the direction of her gaze are the same. It is the emotion that is different. At his birth we see awe, at his death, profound grief – but the motherly love which provokes both echoes across the chapel, making the space resonate with a depth of profound feeling. Giotto makes this echo resound more fully by providing a witness to each emotion, a supporting figure helping Mary to hold her helpless son, her hands delicately touching the swaddling clothes, or the back of his lifeless head.

If we now move on to The Resurrection, we might realise that the burial of Christ has not been represented. It is hinted at in the decorative panel in between these two scenes, but there is so much to talk about today that I will have to come back to that next week. As so often, Giotto subtly elides different parts of the story. It is Easter Sunday, and Christ has risen – but the soldiers are still fast asleep. No hint here, as in many other versions, that they might actually have awoken and witnessed the resurrection themselves. The hill keeps us moving towards Jesus, who is on the verge of leaving the story altogether – indeed, his left elbow is already behind the frame. He reaches down towards Mary Magdalene, keeping her at bay, and although his mouth is clearly shut, the words that would be spoken at this point are ‘Noli me tangere’– ‘Don’t touch me’ – the part of the story we saw depicted by Fede Galizia just a few weeks ago (104). There too the two angels were present, although looking more like a couple of toddlers than the men in white we see here, who are sitting – or almost floating – on the edge of the tomb, and pointing towards the saviour. But for Fede – and most artists who depict the Noli me tangere – the soldiers are nowhere to be seen. They have usually cleared off by the time Mary Magdalene gets to the tomb. Their presence here helps to evoke the resurrection itself, filling in that moment of the story by reminding us of its pictorial tradition. Jesus is now dressed entirely in white, although he does not appear to be wearing the shroud as a toga as he does in some paintings. Both robe cloak have gold hems, a heavenly garb like that of the two angels. He carries the Cross of Christ Triumphant – the red cross on a white background, his suffering and his purity – which we have seen before (e.g. POTD 25 and POTD 50).

To understand this image fully, it is really important to know where it is in the chapel – and I’m very glad that a good image of this section of the wall is available!

The Resurrection of Christ is directly below The Resurrection of Lazarus – and if that’s not a stroke of genius, I don’t know what is. We saw in POTD 100 that the decorative strip which precedes Lazarus includes an image of the Creation of Adam: God gave Adam life, but Adam sinned, and the wages of sin, according to Christian theology, are death. But Jesus gives us new life – as he demonstrates with Lazarus. And how do we have new life through Jesus? Well, through his sacrifice on the cross, and his triumph over death, witnessed by The Resurrection. Notice how the death and resurrection of Christ are linked to the resurrection of Lazarus by the landscape. The hill may rise and fall from one scene to another on the bottom tier, but the hill in The Lamentation can also be seen as continuing upward in The Resurrection of Lazarus: they are part of the same message. Notice how Lazarus wears his white shroud in the middle tier, and the Risen Christ wears white more-or-less directly below. Notice also how Mary Magdalene kneels to Jesus, wearing her red cloak, in both. And now, notice how Mary Magdalene, forming a red triangle at the bottom of the wall, is kneeling directly below the kneeling priest – forming a very similar red triangle – at the very top. In that scene, one of the very first from the Scrovegni that I discussed (POTD 31), the suitors are waiting for a sign, a message from God. At the bottom, Mary Magdalene is the first witness to a different sign, which would be counted as God’s greatest – a sign which speaks of the promise of new life: the resurrection. I have previously described the painting at the top right of this image as a dramatic pause – nothing is happening. The closest equivalent would probably be The Lamentation over the Dead Christ – which earlier today I suggested represents a moment for reflection, and not, strictly speaking, part of the biblical narrative – they are not directly linked vertically, but the resonance is there. But can we find these connections between the other paintings here? Is there a connection between The Wedding at Cana and The Lamentation, for example? I’m not sure. You could argue that, after The Baptism, Christ’s mission has started – turning water into wine was his first miracle, whereas The Lamentation represents Christ’s last appearance as ‘merely’ human (although he is believed to have been entirely human and entirely God throughout his time on earth). So you could say that they represent ‘first and last’. And how about the placing of the rods on the altar in the top tier? Well, they are planning a wedding – the suitors are seeking the hand of the Virgin Mary in marriage – and a wedding takes place below. But these are not as convincing as the more obvious connections, which are remarkable enough. Given the needs of the narrative it would be impossible for this to work in all directions, like sudoku! However, there is one last idea that I want to consider this week – and it is one of the things I find most beautiful, and most poetic, in the entire chapel. It is the story of Mary Magdalene.

Look at her appearance in these three images. And if it’s not clear what I mean, look at these three details.

At the Crucifixion her long red hair, with which, according to tradition, she had washed Christ’s feet with her tears and with precious ointment, flows freely down her back. It reaches to waist level, and spreads out around her, beautifully displayed. Her red cloak has fallen to the ground, lying around her knees and ankles. Next, while lamenting over the dead Christ, her hair has been dressed – wound around her head, restricted in some way, and only reaching as far as her chest – and her cloak has been brought up around her waist, covering her legs more fully. And finally, at the resurrection, as she reaches in longing towards Jesus, the cloak has been pulled up over her head. Her hair and her body – the tools of her trade – are completely enveloped, hidden from view. I do not know of a more moving expression of the penitence of the Magdalene than this.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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