Giotto, The Scrovegni Chapel, c. 1305, Padua.
This is it, the very last ‘Scrovegni Saturday’. When I started out on this strand I had no idea what was coming, but I feel I understand Giotto’s decoration far better than I did before – and inevitably I also have far more questions about it than previously! I am enormously indebted to Ingrid Wassenaar who kicked the whole project off, simply because of her interest in the Virtues and Vices. Only gradually did I realise why. As I mentioned (Picture Of The Day 45), they were known to Proust, and Ingrid just happens to be an authority on Proust, whereas I know nothing. Nevertheless, it triggered this exploration of the entire fresco cycle, which I for one do not consider to be lost time.
The next thing is to learn something more about it. I confess that I have never read a book on the subject – I tend to glean, picking up scraps here and there, and learn most by looking. As with all of this blogging, a lot of what I have said about the chapel is my personal opinion, based on years of experience, and, with these frescoes, easy access online to the bible and the Golden Legend. But I am bound to have made some mistakes – indeed, I know I have: my brief foray into the British Library told me as much! So I wanted to share a couple more things with you, to give you my suggestions for further reading, and then to try and synthesize the whole thing (which I have been trying to do all the way through).
Three books, all of which seem to be rather good, were published in the space of a couple of years just over a decade ago. They would all be worth reading, I think. I’ll give you a link to Amazon, too, in case you want a closer look, although you might prefer to order them from your local book dealer. Come to think of it, you might prefer to go to your nearest library…
Of the three, this is the one I think I will start with when I next have the chance to get to the British Library (I’ll do that because I’ve just checked Amazon – sadly the book is out of print, but there is a copy selling for £250!!!). It is a thorough investigation of everything relating to the Chapel, from its history, its architecture and it setting through to Giotto’s decorations – which is the only aspect of the site that I have talked about. There is so much more to know about the building itself, and the patron. But also there is more to know about the lived experience of the chapel – of which, there is a little hint below. The illustrations in the body of the text are mainly black and white, and there is a section with the paintings in narrative order. I was a bit surprised to see that none of the books discuss the frescoes in this way, but that is surely because they are so interlinked that it could be more valuable to explore the themes and relationships between the separate images. However, I do think it helps to have an understanding of the flow of the narrative. One of the reasons I want to read this first is quite simple: I met Laura once when I was doing my PhD research, and she was both generous with her time, and spot on with her advice – so she’s clearly a good person! And, of course, she is one of the acknowledged authorities on Giotto and on Enrico Scrovegni.
This is a rather academic book, I suspect (my brief visit to the British Library only allowed enough time to flick through the three books, so I can’t vouch for every aspect of the text – although they are clearly all first rate). It deals very specifically with Scrovegni himself and the reasons behind his commission. In the process the authors explore the history of usury and the Church’s attitude towards it. Although it has the largest format of the three books, the illustrations are mainly black and white as before. There is a sequential arrangement of paintings at the end (although not all are included) and it has some wonderful fold-out ‘panoramic’ views, helping you to understand the layout of the decorations as a whole. The book’s title comes from one of the miracles of St Anthony of Padua, a miracle which in some ways seems to combine the reputation of Scrovegni’s father as a usurer (even though he lived after St Anthony) with the reputation of Padua as one of the few places where human anatomy was studied. Legend has it that an autopsy was carried out on a recently-dead miser, who was found to have no heart. St Anthony predicted that it would be found with whatever he loved the most, and inevitably it turned up in his treasure chest. Below is a photograph of Donatello’s relief illustrating the miracle, which was part of the elaborate bronze altarpiece he made for the Church of St Anthony – know universally as Il Santo, ‘The Saint’ – between 1447 and 1450. The miser is in the centre, his rib-cage cut open, while the treasure chest is on the far left, the very heart-shaped heart being lifted out at the end of a long, ribbed artery by a bearded man surrounded by what could be a group of bemused-looking students.
Andrew Ladis sadly died while this book was being edited, so it might be missing some of its polish. Nevertheless, as he starts from the premise that every single image in the chapel is placed in relationship to everything around it for very specific reasons, then we must be on the same wavelength. All of the illustrations here are in colour, which always adds to the joy of the world, given that all are of high quality. This would be my second choice – although both this and the previous volume are selling for around £69.00… Libraries have always been inviting, but this makes them more so (though if anyone was wondering what I wanted for Christmas…)
And I have two specific points – one I have never fully considered, and another I have always misunderstood. I really don’t know why. As it happens, they are at either end of the chapel, directly opposite one another.
When introducing Enrico Scrovegni himself (POTD 38) I said that he was presenting a model of the chapel to three angels. I was wrong. My excuse, and I’m sure it’s a feeble one, is that there is so much going on in the vast fresco of The Last Judgement that I have never had time to stop and look at every detail properly. The three people are clearly holy as they all have halos, but they have no wings. Now, not every painted angel has wings, but nevertheless, they are not angels. They appear to be wearing white, red and green, which are the colours related to the three Theological Virtues, Faith, Charity and Hope respectively – but that could be a coincidence, as all three are saints, and there is, in any case, some evidence that the colours have changed. Authors dispute the identity of these figures, but about the central one there is no doubt: it is the Virgin Mary. This may come as a surprise, as anyone versed in Italian religious painting will assume she wears blue – but this was not always the case. The connection with Charity is not a coincidence, as it happens: the chapel was dedicated to Santa Maria della Carità – St Mary of Charity, or St Mary of Love, or even, St Mary of Mercy. The hope was that she would be charitable – even merciful – towards Enrico Scrovegni’s father, and intercede on his behalf with her son. But who are the other two? There is some debate, and some would go so far as to suggest that the other two figures are different embodiments of the Virgin. I cannot agree with that. The one on the left does not have any form of hair dressing, hat, or even head covering, so must be male. The logical conclusion would be St John the Evangelist. Although I haven’t talked about them at all, aside from a brief mention, there are two side altars in the chapel. They are dedicated to St John the Evangelist and St Catherine of Alexandria. I have remarked before that a lot of Giotto’s inspiration came from the Gospel of St John and, if I am right, this would be why. The third person, wearing a crown, must be St Catherine (who was supposed to be a princess). Given that the chapel is dedicated to Mary, John and Catherine, it is surprising that there has been any debate about the identity of these figures – their presence here effectively maps out the dedication of the chapel. I’m only surprised that I hadn’t stopped to think about it more. I was probably too caught up with all the torments of hell – and every other detail in the enormous fresco – to pay it enough heed. Nevertheless, consider my wrist slapped!
At the other end, above the Chancel Arch, there is an image of God the Father painted on a wooden panel. I don’t know how I got the idea that this was a door (POTD 80). There comes a point, when one has been talking about something for over twenty years (and my first visit to the chapel with a group of students was in 1999), when you realise that you don’t know where your information came from. There were, as I mentioned, regular staged performances of a dramatized version of The Annunciation associated with the chapel. Indeed, on the feast day itself, 25 March, there was more than one performance which took place in different locations in Padua. But this wooden panel has no connection to them. It replaces a stained glass window which is presumed to have depicted God the Father. The light which entered here would have been partly practical, but mainly symbolic, representing Jesus, the Light of the World, coming into the world. I’m just sorry I didn’t know this until now, and look forward to reading more about it.
The dedication of the chapel to St Mary of Charity – or Love, or even Mercy – is embodied in the detail we saw above from the enormous Last Judgement which takes up the whole of the ecclesiastical West wall of the chapel. Christ is enthroned beneath another window – the light of truth, perhaps, shining down on his judgement – with the blessed gathered under his right hand (on our left) and the damned, with all the torments of hell, under his left (on our right).
Directly opposite this is another vision of heaven, with God the Father – initially in a window, so actually made of light, but now on a wooden panel – surrounded by some of the angelic host. Directly opposite hell we see Judas receiving the thirty pieces of silver, his fee for betraying Jesus, whereas opposite the blessed, who are approaching heaven, we see the Annunciate Virgin, wearing the same red as in the dedication, and below her, The Visitation, with Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth. This story includes the first recognition of Jesus, even though unborn, as Saviour. The two side altars, dedicated to Sts John the Evangelist and Catherine of Alexandria, are clearly visible at the bottom right and left of this photograph.
Stretching from hell to Judas, along the bottom of the ‘North’ wall, are the seven Vices. On the other side, we see the seven Virtues. As we approach the High Altar, we should remember that Christ sits in Judgement behind us – and, like him, the Virtues are on our right hand, the Vices on our left – we have the capacity to choose right from wrong, and to be more like Mary than Judas. The story of Salvation is told within this overlying framework.
On the ‘South’ wall, spread around the windows, we see the Story of Joachim and Anna at the top, starting with Joachim’s rejection from the temple and ending with him being welcomed at the Golden Gate by his loving wife. Below this, we see the childhood of Jesus, from his Nativity, to the Massacre of the Innocents – he is born to save us, and they die to save him. At the bottom, closest to us as it is most important, we move from the Last Supper to The Mocking of Christ – Jesus moves from authority to humility. He institutes the Eucharist, the communion with God which could ultimately save us, near the altar, only to be brought gradually lower as the frescoes approach the scene of the Last Judgement. With no little irony, the injustice of his betrayal takes place above the depiction of the personification of Justice. And wow! I’ve just noticed something new, while proofreading the blog just before clicking ‘publish’! Directly above Justice we see Jesus, betrayed by Judas. To the left of Justice is Temperance, and again, Jesus is directly above, washing Peter’s feet – but only his feet. To the right is Faith, directly underneath Jesus in Christ before the Caiaphas and Charity is below him in The Mocking of Christ. These scenes do not line up vertically because of the space taken up by the windows, but Giotto still contrives to associate the evenly spaced Virtues with Jesus himself, by designing the composition of the narratives so that Jesus is directly above them: Genius. I keep being astonished by this remarkable man, and the amount of planning that must have preceded the execution of these frescoes.
On the ‘North’ wall, at the top, we see the birth and betrothal of the Virgin, ending with a procession – not unlike the processions that led to the chapel on the Feast of the Annunciation – which leads to the chancel arch, and to The Annunciation itself. In the lower two tiers, slightly separated from the top one, the narrative scenes are framed by the same decorative strips as above, but they also contain pictorial typological references to the Old Testament, which both illuminate the New Testament story, and make the whole decoration resonate with even greater depth. The mission of Christ is in the centre, starting with his debate with the doctors in the temple, to which he returns on the far right to expel the money lenders. At the bottom, leading us away from the picture of hell – and away from hell itself – Christ takes his cross and is crucified. His victory over death is paralleled by the repentance of Mary Magdalene, and although he has been brought as low as is possible, he now rises, and then ascends to heaven. The Church is left to the apostles, now empowered by the Holy Spirit. They could, if it were possible, step out of the painting and preside over Mass at the altar which is just to the right of this image.
And so, ‘Farewell’ to the Scrovegni Chapel. Virtually, at least – all that remains is to go and see it in person. Sadly, when you book your ticket you will only get 15 or 20 minutes inside, but if you go in prepared I hope you can breathe it all in at once, resonating as it does with the whole history of salvation!
That’s not the end of the blog, though. I shall carry on, I hope once a week, maybe more if I can, talking about anything that grabs my fancy – or anything you might suggest. It may also evolve into something of a newsletter to let you know what I am up to, and to tell you about any events, online or in person, that you can attend. I will try and update the diary page regularly (do nag me if I don’t!), but for now there still isn’t much. However, if you happen to be free the week after next there are still a couple of places available on our spontaneous escape, A Flash Trip to Venice, organised by Art History Abroad from 21-24 September!
So, until the next time, Addio! But before I go, one last thing – a phenomenon, and one that I knew nothing about until the other week. This is a picture I took from Laura Jacobus’s book. The original photographs were taken by Hans-Michael Thomas, and show the path taken by a shaft of sunlight falling across the fresco of The Last Judgement one 25 March – the Feast of the Annunciation, the day on which the chapel was dedicated. This, in itself, is a miracle. And one that, like everything else, Giotto must have planned. As I said above: Genius.