The Arena (or Scrovegni) Chapel in Padua, Italy, is one of those places that makes you draw in your breath in amazement when you enter. But when I was there, I didn’t really get what people were talking about when they oooed and ahhed over the emotion in Giotto’s frescoes which cover the interior of the building. I get it now. At this point in my life, I get lamenting, in an emotional, non-logical, heart-wrenching way. Although we’re looking at what many consider to be a holy event, Giotto humanizes it for us, so we can understand and relate: (Click on the image to see a larger one. Trust me, you want to!)
It’s moving. It’s real. These look like real people who are really sad. Look at the anguish in their movements — John the Evangelist throws his arms out (in the middle of the scene), the woman on the far left (the third Mary?) has her arm in the air. And the disciple on the far right, and Joseph next to him, stand calmly. We don’t all express our pain physically, do we? We don’t all throw our arms up and weep and wail. We may stand still. We may be numb.
Some quick details: Giotto di Bondone (American pronunciation of first name: jot-oh) was a painter in Florence in the late 13th-early 14th centuries. He painted these frescoes of the lives of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary that cover the interior of the Arena (or Scrovegni) Chapel in Padua, Italy. The lamentation is a standard part of the story of Jesus Christ’s life — it’s portrayed over and over in this time period. When his body was taken down from the cross, his mother cradles his head, Mary Magdalene holds his feet, and his father, Joseph, is usually in the scene too. And they lament.
Now check out these details:
Can you see the pain in their faces? And the anguish — look at this angel:
Giotto was tapping into the pain and how we suffer when a loved one dies. For Christians, of course, there’s more to this scene than that. But the way that Giotto humanizes it touches us and that humanization was new at the time.
Here’s an image of more of the interior of the chapel, just to get a feel for how these frescoes appear on the walls:
And just because I can’t resist, here’s another lamentation, famous for the foreshortening of Jesus. In this image, the mourners are clearly peripheral. They look sad. They’re crying. Insert mourners here. But still, this painting is so striking. Click on the image to make it larger, so you can see the nail wounds in his hands and feet. Amazing.
And just for fun, and because I mentioned Halleys’ Comet in the Bayeux Tapestry post, check out the image below of Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi from the same chapel. It’s thought that Giotto depicted the star of Bethlehem (above the shed) in this way because he was influenced by the passing of Halley’s Comet in 1301:
Of the dozens of photos of this on the web, I chose this one for two reasons. You can see the borders and doors , so you get more of a sense of what the fresco is like in situ, and this image is from the NASA website. Don’t you love that? (For some reason, this image is flipped — it’s a mirror image of the actual fresco. To see it the right way, click here.) And here’s a Hungarian stamp from 1986, when Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth, with Giotto’s Adoration on it:
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Blog post title from Sean O’Casey: “I have found life an enjoyable, enchanting, active, and sometime terrifying experience, and I’ve enjoyed it completely. A lament in one ear, maybe, but always a song in the other.”