Giotto – The Arena Chapel

THE present chapel of Sta. Maria dell’ Arena, at Padua, was erected, if we may believe an inscription handed down to us by Scardeone and others, about the year 1303, by Enrico Scrovegno, or de’ Scrovegni, son of a Paduan citizen of great wealth, Reginaldo by name, whose reputation for avarice and usury was so great as to secure for him the unenviable immortality of being consigned by Dante, on account of those characteristics, to the Seventh Circle of his ” Inferno.”

Enrico, who seems to have inherited to a less extent the miserly qualities of his parent, and to have deter-mined to make use of the great wealth left to him in a manner that might to some degree make amends for the unhappy reputation attached to his father’s name, may have deservedly merited the title of nobility which was conferred upon him by the Venetian Republic in the year 1301. Whatever may have been the nature of his character or of his good deeds, the action through which he has been accorded a fame as lasting as that of his unhappy father, was his reconstruction of the famous chapel to the Virgin which still bears his name.

In the embellishment of the new edifice he was evidently determined to spare neither trouble nor expense in procuring the most capable workmen that Italy could afford ; and, either at the suggestion of some friend, or on account of the fame which had undoubtedly by this time accompanied Giotto’s name into the most distant parts of the peninsula, as one of the greatest of living painters, that artist was chosen as the most competent person to be intrusted with the onerous task of decorating the walls of the chapel.

The inducements to accept the invitation seem to have been sufficient to have persuaded Giotto to undertake the great commission, and in all probability he had commenced work in the building when Dante visited Padua in the year 1306, at which time, according to Benvenuto da Imola, the poet was received by Giotto in his own house.

The strong impression of external bareness and severity which makes itself felt upon our first view of the building from without, is more than compensated for as the visitor enters the chapel door. Lighted by the apse, the six long Gothic windows of the right side-wall, and the large triple one above the entrance, the interior of the edifice presents a scheme of decoration such as is seldom, if ever, to be met with, even in the churches of Italy. Not a square foot of wall space has been left uncovered, and yet, with all its completeness, the decoration never once overweighs or hides the architectural proportions of the building, so that the effect is that of one harmonious whole—the realized ideal of a perfectly decorated interior.

The entire lateral walls, together with the space on either side of the great arch opening into the tribune, are occupied by parallel courses of frescoes representing scenes from the lives of the Virgin and of Christ. Below, forming a species of frieze, is a series of allegorical representations of the Virtues and Vices. The entire entrance wall, or such of it as is not occupied by the window, is taken up, as usual, with the subject of the Last Judgment and the lunette opposite, above the arched entrance to the tribune, with that of Christ in Glory, surrounded by Angels. The ceiling, coloured in blue and studded with golden stars, is adorned with medallions of Christ, the Virgin, and various saints and prophets. Delicate ornamental designs separate the various frescoes. The tribune, containing the high-altar and the monumental tomb of Enrico Scrovegno—the work of Giovanni Pisano—is also completely covered with frescoes and decorations by followers of Giotto, belonging, however, to a later date than the works in the main body of the chapel.

The first sensation of the spectator, in the presence of this monumental work, is one of wonder and surprise at the perfect manner in which the original decorative scheme has been carried out. Nor is his admiration unjustified, for it would be difficult to cite or even to imagine any example of a decorated interior more perfectly in keeping with the architectural character of the building than is the case here. Indeed, this exceptional unity of feeling between the architectural features of the edifice and its mural adornment, is by no means one of the least of Giotto’s many artistic triumphs, and has been the primary reason for the belief that he acted here in the capacity of architect as well as in that of decorator, a tradition lacking the support of probability.

The great painter must fully have appreciated the magnitude of the commission here offered him, but he no doubt gladly seized upon so favourable an occasion for a challenge to such of his contemporaries as still held to the older traditions of medieval art. Although he had already made good at Rome and at Assisi his claim to the proud title of the founder of a new school of art, and although Rome and Central Italy in general had been forced, ere now, to acknowledge the absolute superiority of his genius, the more northern provinces still awaited a proof of his powers. The desired opportunity had at last arrived. Never in the entire course of his career, not even at Assisi, had Giotto been offered a single commission of such dimensions as those of the present one, or one affording a more splendid occasion for the full exercise of his now mature genius. How he fulfilled the great task set before him, all who are interested in his progress and development now know, and the Arena Chapel ranks to-day as one of the greatest glories in the artistic history of Italy.

Turning to a detailed examination of the frescoes themselves, it will be well for us to take each subject in the order in which it was in all probability painted, and we may commence our review with the first scene in the series relating to the life of the Virgin, high up on the right-hand wall, nearest the tribune.’ Here Giotto has represented (I.) the Rejection of Joachim’s Offering. In this first work we become at once acquainted with that grandeur and simplicity of style which mark the entire series of frescoes. In the paucity of architectural detail, and the entire absence of all figures and accessories not having a direct connection with the subject to be represented, we find Giotto finally realizing to the full those ideals of conciseness and simplicity already apparent, to a lesser degree, in the later frescoes at Assisi. In the plastic grandeur and severity of form, the broad simplicity of drapery,, the directness of movement and expression, and the compressed significance of the smallest detail, we recognize the most essential and characteristic qualities of Giotto’s genius—qualities which are broadly manifest in every fresco which goes to make up this wonderful sequence of paintings. We need but cast a single glance at this first subject to realize the progress made by the master in the gradual perfection of all these characteristics of his art. His never-failing sense of dramatic effect, again, is at once apparent in the contrast between the two pairs of figures, the conflicting emotions which move the two principal actors in the scene being strongly set off by the quiet of the two minor personages within the screen of the Temple, where the priest is in the act of accepting the offering of a second worshipper. The whole scene, simply portrayed as it is, forms a drama in itself the hidden passion of which cannot fail to make itself felt ; and it is to this same deep sense of the tragedy and passion of the human heart that Giotto owes so much of that mysterious power which he wields over us in his representations of what may often, at first sight, appear but matters of everyday import.

Fine as it is, however, this fresco is far surpassed in beauty and depth of feeling by the one following (II.), in which Joachim is depicted as returning from the Temple to his Sheep-folds in the hill country (Pl. I8). With bowed head, his eyes bent upon the ground, he moves slowly forward, sorrowful and depressed by the words of the High Priest and their all too evident truth, utterly unconscious of all his surroundings. In its quiet dignity and grandeur, this noble figure remains unsurpassed by the work of any Christian artist before or after Giotto’s time, and stands before us as a lasting memorial of what the great painter’s genius was capable of in the matter of expression, as conveyed by attitude and movement, as well as by cast of countenance. Again, the reality of the whole scene cannot fail to impress itself deeply upon our memory. The contrasting figures, the joyful greeting of the dog, so natural in its movement as it leaps up before its master, the sense of the wilderness expressed so simply and yet with such unfailing effect by the cuffed mountains and a few scattered trees—all are touches of masterly power on the part of the artist. Even the feeling for beauty, at times so conspicuous by its apparent absence in some of Giotto’s later works, is here by no means lacking.

III. The Angel appears to St. Anna.

This fresco is again most Giottesque in its simplicity of conception. The sweeping flight of the angel, as it passes through the open window, is beautifully carried out, and the kneeling figure of St. Anna is a very noble one. In the outer entrance, her maid sits weaving—most natural in action. Giotto’s masterly use of light and shade in this painting has been justly commented upon by Mr. Ruskin.

IV. Joachim’s Sacrifice.

Giotto has invested this subject with an indefinable sense of mystery, which is enhanced by the wild and desolate aspect of the landscape. Most expressive is the figure of Joachim, as he gazes with awe and wonder at the apparition of the angel. The vague form of a winged spirit floats upward in the smoke of the burning sacrifice. In interesting contrast to these supernatural elements in the scene, is the group of goats and sheep in the foreground.

V. The Angel announces the Birth of the Virgin to Joachim. (Pl. 19.)

This is another most characteristic work of the painter. It is impossible to escape the sense of wildness and space produced by the background of cliffs and the precipitous hill to the right ; and Giotto here shows no slight know-ledge of the secrets of aerial perspective.

VI. The Meeting of Anna and Joachim at the Golden Gate.

Most lovely is the action and expression of the two principal figures in this scene, as they embrace each other on the bridge before the gate of the city. The apparent ugliness of some of the women’s faces is due principally to restoration.

Again quite a simple and realistic representation of the scene. Giotto still keeps to the prevalent custom of the time, in depicting simultaneously two different episodes relating to the same subject, and in the foreground we find two women engaged in washing and swaddling the newborn child. The graceful figure of the servant, without the door, involuntarily calls up before us the later creations of Fra Angelico.

VIII. The Presentation in the Temple.

A very beautiful composition, and full of varied interest and expression. The figure of the High Priest is most gravely dignified and noble. Very noticeable, also, is the splendid head of the white-haired patriarch who stands beside St. Joseph.

IX. The Bringing of the Rods to the High Priest.

Although not lacking in beauty of arrangement, this fresco is entirely eclipsed in interest by the one which follows after.

X. The Watching of the Rods.

Here the figures of the priest and the various suitors, grouped as they are about the altar, express, to an admirable degree, the tense expectation of the anxious watchers. The arrangement of the figures, and the peculiarly horizontal tendency of the entire composition, are strikingly impressive.

XI. The Marriage of the Virgin.

Very simply and beautifully composed. The young and girlish figure of the Virgin contrasts strongly with the older but manly one of St. Joseph. Full of the deepest feeling and expression is the figure of the youth to the left, in the act of breaking his rod across his knee. The quiet solemnity of the whole scene is broken only by the action of the young man who stands with raised hand behind the chosen bridegroom.

XII. The Return of the Virgin to her Home.

It would be difficult to describe in words the deep sense of calm solemnity expressed in this truly wonderful composition. The simple majesty of the different figures, and the striking effect of slow and measured movement imparted by the entire procession, are points to which the spectator’s attention cannot be too often called ; and we know of no existing work in which this same rhythmic sense of movement has been more perfectly expressed. Fortunately, although much damaged, this work is also one of the least repainted of the series.

XIII. and XIV. The Annunciation.

Giotto has divided this fresco—the connecting link of the two series of subjects relating to the lives of the Virgin and her Divine Son—between the spaces on either side of the arch opening into the tribune. The figure of the angel is of a divine majesty, as, with hand out-stretched in benediction, he announces his heavenly message. In his left hand he holds a scroll, in place of the customary lilies. The Virgin—a more fully developed figure than in the preceding scenes—is most beautiful and dignified. In neither case is there any effort at exaggerated or theatrical action, and the whole scene is imbued with a deep sense of that dignity and calm in which it must have been enacted.

XV. The Visitation.

Wonderfully simple and effective again, in the limited number of figures and almost total absence of accessories, either architectural or otherwise, Giotto has given us in this painting a striking example of his great powers of concentration. A comparison of this and the following frescoes with the representations of the same subjects at Assisi, will be of the greatest advantage to the student, in affording him an excellent opportunity for the study of the changes which had taken place in Giotto’s manner.

XVI. The Nativity of Christ. (Pl. 20.)

The first of the second tier of frescoes on the right wall—a very beautiful work, full of the deepest human sentiment and feeling. Upon comparing it with the fresco at Assisi, the painter’s progress in his ideals of simplicity and naturalism is apparent at a glance, Giotto having here reduced both the participants in the scene and the action itself, to the simplest possible limits. The traditional incident of the washing of the Child has been entirely done away with, and in its stead the Infant already washed and swathed, is being presented to Its mother, who, rising on her mattress, looks down with the deepest tenderness upon the new-born Saviour.

XVII. The Adoration of the Magi. (Pl. 21.)

In the general arrangement of this beautiful fresco Giotto has not essentially departed from his representation of the same subject at Assisi. The later work has gained, however, both in conciseness and simplicity.

XVIII. The Presentation in the Temple. (Pl. 22.)

Very striking, again, is the simplicity of this scene as compared with the earlier and more elaborate painting in the Lower Church at Assisi. Giotto, as usual, has sought to represent the subject in as natural a manner as possible, and he has been singularly successful in the child-like action of the little Christ, as He turns from the loving embrace of Simeon toward the outstretched arms of the Virgin.

XIX. The Flight into Egypt. (Pl. 23.)

This beautiful work is surely to be classed in the list of Giotto’s masterpieces, and it would be difficult to imagine a more perfect representation of the subject than that which the painter has here given us. As in the fresco at Assisi, we find the same sense of wildness and solitude most ably expressed in the simple landscape background. In the matter of composition the little processional group could hardly be better arranged, and both in movement and expression each figure is admirable to a degree.

XX. The Massacre of the Innocents.

Inferior as a whole to the painting at Assisi. A comparison of this work with Giovanni Pisano’s treatment of the same subject is most interesting, as clearly showing how far Giotto still remained behind that master in the depiction of violent movement and spontaneous action.

XXI. Christ and the Doctors in the Temple.

A very quiet composition, the most damaged of the entire series, although comparatively free from restoration.’

XXII. The Baptism of Christ.

Giotto has here held closely to the traditional Byzantine treatment of this subject. The splendid figure of the old disciple behind St. John probably represents St. Andrew. Very beautiful in expression is the group of attendant angels on the opposite bank.

XXIII. The Marriage at Cana.

Apart from its originality of conception, this fine fresco is an excellent example of Giotto’s powers in the simple and naturalistic treatment of an unusually difficult subject. The characterization of the different personages in the scene calls for especial remark, and some of the heads are of great individual beauty. Giotto’s study of natural movement is particularly apparent in the realistic figure engaged in filling the classic amphore to the right.

XXIV. The Raising of Lazarus.

A strikingly dramatic work in Giotto’s grandest style. We have already spoken of this fresco in comparison with the painter’s representation of the same subject in the chapel of the Magdalen at Assisi, which work it undoubtedly surpasses in composition and naturalistic vigour of expression. Giotto’s sense of plastic values is most strongly evident in the swathed form of Lazarus.

XXV. The Entry into Jerusalem. (Pl. 24.)

Another admirable example of Giotto’s exceptional powers in the expression of slow and measured movement. Very noble and fine are the figures and heads of Christ and of the foremost of the Apostles. The ass and the head of her foal are among the best representations of animals which we have from the painter’s hand.

XXVI. The Expulsion from the Temple.

Not so successful as many of the preceding frescoes, owing in part, no doubt, to the necessity for the realization of violent action. The figure of the disciple sheltering the frightened child beneath his mantle, to the extreme left, is masterly in its truth of action. Very interesting are the lions and horses which surmount the pilasters of the loggia—the latter unmistakably copied from the famous quadriga of St. Mark’s at Venice.

XXVII. The Hiring of Judas.

Despite its vastly different subject, this fresco may be said to rank with that of the Visitation in its simplicity and conciseness. The sense of mingled secrecy and fear, on the part of the two principal personages in the scene, is most strikingly expressed in their faces and their movements.

XXVIII. The Last Supper.

With his usual innate artistic sense of truth, Giotto has here made no attempt to distinguish Judas from the rest of the company by any of those base or vulgar characteristics with which the painters of a later period invariably endeavour to stamp his personality, and he still bears the halo together with the other Apostles.

XXIX. The Washing of the Feet. (Pl, 25.)

This subject, so seldom touched upon by later artists, has been here most beautifully treated by Giotto. The figure of Christ is very beautiful in attitude and gesture, and the varied feelings of the different disciples are aptly depicted in their faces. Wonderfully fine is the splendid figure of the old Apostle lacing his sandal in the fore-ground to the left.

XXX. The Betrayal.

Although avoiding, as usual, all exaggerated violence of action, Giotto has fully succeeded in representing the turbulent passion of the mob in this dramatic scene. In striking contrast to the vulgarity of His assailants, is the calmly dignified figure of Christ. To the left, the painter has attempted to depict, in as natural a manner as possible, the conventional episode of St. Peter cutting off the ear of Malchus.

XXXI. Christ brought before Caiaphas.

Here, as in the preceding fresco, the calm figure of Christ stands out in noble relief against the background of passion and disorder.

XXX II. The Scourging of Christ.

Giotto has succeeded admirably in representing the, coarse brutality of Christ’s persecutors. Strongly at variance with the work of later ages is the expression of patient resignation on the part of the Saviour Himself.

XXXIII. The Way to Golgotha.

Most dramatic is Giotto’s treatment of this scene. The attention is at once fixed upon the figure of Christ, as He looks backward toward His agonized mother, who strives in vain to reach Him.

XXXIV. The Crucifixion.

This fresco naturally provokes at once a comparison with Giotto’s earlier representation of the subject at Assisi —nor can we say that the painter has, upon the whole, surpassed his former effort. How far such a comparison is just or legitimate, however, it is difficult to say, as the spirit in which the two works are conceived seems to differ in both cases in no slight degree. Whereas the fresco at Assisi is marked by a far greater depth of spiritual significance and feeling, in this later representation at Padua we are plainly conscious of the artist’s desire to treat the subject in as naturalistic a manner as possible. To some temperaments more than to others, this Paduan work may appeal as being the preferable of the two ; to our own mind, however, the superiority of the earlier conception remains unquestionable.

XXXV. The Entombment. (Pl. 26.)

This beautiful composition has justly been awarded no small amount of praise by all admirers of Giotto’s art, and even the most indifferent observer cannot fail to be impressed by the passionate intensity of the scene. Here, as in the preceding fresco of the Crucifixion, the rapid movement of the angels, as they wheel and circle through the air in a frenzied agony of grief, is most wonderfully expressed. The barren hill, and the bare and leafless branches of the tree, thrown out against the darkening sky, add strangely to the solemnity of the scene.

XXXVI. The Resurrection. (Pl. 27.)

It is quite beyond our power even to attempt a description of this most wonderful fresco, and we must refer the reader to the annexed illustration for anything resembling an adequate idea of its many beauties. The noble figure of Christ is certainly one of the most beautiful conceptions of the Redeemer ever given us by Giotto. Admirable beyond all words is the manner in which the mingled feelings of wonder, love, and longing, are ex-pressed in the raised head, the movement of the body, and the outstretched hands of the kneeling Magdalen. Most striking again, is the contrast between the majestic white-robed angels and the sleeping figures of the guards, as they lie grouped against the tomb, heavily unconscious of the celestial presence near them. Giotto’s conscientious care in the execution of the smallest details is clearly visible in the careful painting of the plants which spring up about Christ’s feet.

XXXVII. The Ascension.

Very grand and beautiful is the upward sweep of the figure of Christ and of the accompanying choirs of saints and angels. The more slowly moving figures of the two angels which follow after, seem set between the lightness of the heavenly company above and the earth-bound heaviness of those below. Very fine is the kneeling figure of the Virgin, and equally beautiful in expression those of the various disciples, as they watch the departing figure of their Lord.

XXXVIII. The Descent of the Holy Spirit.

Most peaceful and quiet in general effect. This fresco is the last of the series on the lateral walls.

In the lunette above the entrance to the tribune, Giotto painted what was undoubtedly intended to represent Christ Enthroned in Glory, surrounded by attendant angels. The central figure in this fresco is now so darkened and damaged as to be scarcely distinguishable from below, although upon close examination we may yet make out its general attitude and form. Many of the heads and figures of the accompanying angels are of great beauty of expression, but the whole work has suffered too severely for us to judge rightly even of its original effect as a composition.

We may now turn to what is at once the grandest and most monumental, if, at the same time, one of the least known of all Giotto’s works—the great fresco of the Last Judgment (Pl. 28). The immensity of this majestic work, covering as it does the entire surface of the entrance wall, renders impossible any adequate description of its manifold beauties ; nor do any reproductions or engravings exist through which the student may gain anything beyond a mere general idea of its composition and arrangement.’ A few words must therefore suffice to indicate the plan of Giotto’s conception of this colossal subject.

In a glory of the colours of the rainbow, in the centre of the painting, sits the Divine Judge, hieratic and supreme, simply clad and without a crown, His right hand outstretched toward the army of the Just in a gesture .of approval, His left turned down against the condemned souls of the Wicked. The glory which encircles Him is supported by twelve beautiful long-winged angels, four of whom announce the coming of the Final Judgment through the great trumpets which they hold. To right and left, on either side, sit the Twelve Apostles, each on his separate throne, and above them soar the mighty hosts of Heaven, with banners, swords, and lilies. Below the enthroned figure of the Judge, two great angels support the Cross of Redemption, at the foot of which is seen the kneeling figure of Enrico Scrovegno, in the act of presenting to three saintly beings, of truly heavenly beauty, the model of his chapel, borne on the shoulders of a monk. To the left, headed by the beautiful figure of the Virgin, herself surrounded by a glory supported by attendant angels, comes the gathering of the Saints and Martyrs, the Doctors and the Prophets. Below them, in another zone, are the arisen figures of the Just, led on by their angelic guardians, while, yet lower down, the dead still rise from out their graves. To the right, the entire lower division of the fresco is given up to the representation of Hell, the flames of which proceed from beneath the feet of Christ. At the bottom of this fiery region of the damned, sits the monstrous and gigantic figure of Lucifer, and about him the lost souls of the wicked undergo the hideous tortures common to the generality of such representations of the scene.

We must once more accentuate the utter impossibility of any adequate description of the countless beauties to be found in this truly marvellous work—a summary, as it may rightly be considered, of all Giotto’s great and varied powers. Indeed, a careful study of this wonderful creation might easily afford material sufficient for an entire volume of the size of this present monograph, and in his examination of the numberless details which this work contains, the student might find ample opportunity for the study of every phase of Giotto’s genius.

It will be unnecessary for us to here dilate upon the comparative perfection, both technical and otherwise, arrived at by Giotto in this great series of paintings, the progress and development of his art being far too evident, possibly to escape the notice of even the most casual observer among those who have followed us in our examination of the master’s earlier works.’ Here at Padua we find carried to the utmost possible limits, those efforts toward conciseness of representation and arrangement already so noticeable in Giotto’s earlier creations, and in this respect these frescoes mark a culminating epoch in the artist’s great career. In charm of colour and in abstract beauty, as in poetic delicacy of feeling, they may indeed be said to fall below the enchanting paintings in the Lower Church of S. Francis at Assisi, but Giotto has replaced those softer qualities with a monumental grandeur and dignity of style and of conception, which stamp these later works as unique, raising them at once above all criticism or comparison.

Unsurpassed as they are in splendid development of form, and in truthful effectiveness of movement and expression, it is perhaps not so much in their possession of these qualities—common, in a greater or a less degree to all of Giotto’s work—as in their grand simplicity and beauty of composition, that these frescoes of the Arena Chapel stand out most strongly against the work of the master’s earlier years. Although a thorough knowledge of pre-Giottesque art is essential to a true appreciation of the changes and innovations effected by Giotto in the treatment of his various subjects, it requires no very extraordinary degree of artistic understanding on the part of the student to recognize, at a single glance, the comparative perfection of distribution and design so apparent throughout the entire series. Despite the fact that, in the majority of his subjects, Giotto has not here departed from the fundamental arrangement of the traditional Byzantine compositions, the vital transformation which the ancient designs underwent at his hands is at once apparent to all who will spare the time necessary to a comparison of these frescoes with the older treatment of the same scenes by the artists of the Byzantine and Latin schools. In this great series of paintings at Padua, Giotto may truly be said not only to have perfected the iconography of Byzantium and the Middle Ages, but to have permanently fixed the laws of religious composition for the centuries that were to follow—and in this one respect alone, apart from all other claims to greatness, there is sufficient reason that his name should be handed down through all ‘the ages as one of the first and greatest of all modern Christian artists.

An excellent example for such a comparison—to mention but one of many similar works—is to be found in the bronze portals of the cathedral of Benevento, in Southern Italy. These remarkably fine doors, Byzantine products of the middle of the Twelfth Century, contain no less than forty-three subjects from the life of Christ, thus affording us an exceptional opportunity for comparing them with Giotto’s treatment of a great number of the same.