On the day I visited Padua, destroyer clouds were moving in from the west. The snow was knee-high. I had been asked to a tiny restaurant famous for its tiramisu—and to see Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes. Tiramisu—meaning “pull me up”—a famous dessert made with ladyfingers soaked in bitter coffee and mascarpone cream, was sublime. On another level, of course, there was the chapel.
Writing in his “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,” Giorgio Vasari, the first art historian, wrote that Giotto was responsible for “introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years.”
Medieval and Byzantine art in Western Europe was characterized by emotionless, flat, schematic representations of people, landscapes, animals, and objects. Giotto’s style of naturalism was revolutionary, writes illustrator Margherita Cole for My Modern Met; for this reason, he’s “often regarded as the father of the Italian Renaissance, and even the father of European painting.”
Legend has it that Giotto was born a farmer’s son around 1267 in the Mugello valley of northern Tuscany, Italy, near Florence. As a shepherd boy, Giotto was discovered by none other than Cimabue, a renowned Tuscan painter. Giotto’s realistic drawing of sheep so impressed Cimabue that he apprenticed the youngster.
Vasari recounts many stories about Giotto’s skill as an artist. On one occasion, Giotto painted such a lifelike fly in a painting that Cimabue tried several times to brush it away.
Though Giotto was a painter and an architect, he is best known for the frescoes he painted in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, completed around 1305. It is also known as the Arena Chapel because it was built near the site of an ancient Roman arena.
Originally, the Chapel was connected to the Scrovegni Palace. There are cynics who say that Enrico Scrovegni built the Chapel and commissioned the frescoes in an effort to atone for his father’s sin of usury. But no matter. Commissioning works of art for churches was a common way of doing good works.
From the outside, Scrovegni Chapel almost fails to snag one’s attention. The austere façade gives no hint of what lies within. When I crossed the threshold, I was transported to a celestial realm of transcendent and timeless beauty. On all the walls of this chapel are one of the supreme achievements of Western art.
Giotto is the master of visual storytelling. His fresco cycle of 38 narrative scenes is arranged in three horizontal tiers, telling stories of the Bible, among them the story of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Last Judgment—without words. In this way, the Scrovegni Chapel is rather like a magnificent comic book.
Consider that most people in medieval Europe were illiterate. They learned Biblical stories from their priests and by looking at paintings and sculptures. Giotto’s depictions of episodes from the life of Christ and Mary imbue a humanity to the Biblical stories.
Giotto’s protagonists have a pathos and gravitas that are both spiritual and earthly. The figures are solid and three-dimensional figures. Even their garments have form and weight. These characters are individuals. Each face is different.
In “Lamentation,” Christ’s body is cradled in the arms of the Virgin Mary. His body doesn’t touch the ground. Mary Magdalene grieves at his feet, and John the Evangelist opens his arms wide in shock and anguish. The emotion of the mourners is expressed through their hands, faces, and hunched bodies. There are two figures with their backs to the viewer.
In the traditional iconography of the time, the Biblical figures are marked by halos. In the middle ground, behind John, with calmer demeanors, are probably Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who are mentioned in the Gospels as having been present. Also in the middle ground on the left are a group of mourning women.
Giotto uses the landscape to emphasize the mood. The jagged diagonal line of a mountain ridge leads the eye to the Christ figure. On the right is a stark tree, symbolic of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, barren since the fall of man.
In the vast sky are 10 angels. The angels, some of which are foreshortened, convey their grief in different ways. Heaven and Earth join in mourning.
There is a quietness and peace that passes all understanding when you are in the Arena Chapel. Every painting is a silent prayer to the Creator God.
Perhaps this is yet another way in which Giotto demonstrates the eternal life of great art. His work exists outside linear time and his iconic themes remind us that truth is eternal.
Jani Allan is a journalist, columnist, writer, and broadcaster.