Giotto’s frescoes tell us the grand epoch of Christ
The following article was originally published at AnglicanAwakening.org.
“[Art is] a window to heaven… It is a way to see Him, to know Him, to love Him. It’s a way to know He is an awesome God, an omnipotent God. He reveals Himself through all these sculptures, these paintings.”
Fr. Gustavo Vidal (2016, Passey)
On the wall of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, a dramatic scene of chaos unfolds. Hordes of helmeted Romans press in upon the two figures at the center of the chaos. Lances, clubs, and burning torches tower above the crowd at various angels as the helmeted soldiers’ encroachment ensues. A beautifully clothed Sanhedrin official extends his arm. Pointing, the official directs the soldiers in their seizure of Jesus the Christ.
At the same time, a hooded figure stands firmly, his feet planted, serving as an impediment for Christ’s followers, arresting their efforts to move forward to defend Him. Peter’s eyes are sharply focused ahead of him. Clutching a dagger, Peter reaches over another figure to slice the ear of a Roman soldier.
At the center of the chaotic scene are Christ and Judas, their faces only a breath apart. As the helmeted soldiers press in, the duplicitous Judas Iscariot embraces Christ, his arms fully encircling Christ’s body. Boldly looking directly into Jesus’s eyes, Judas leans forward with puckered lips to deliver that stinging kiss of betrayal. Though surrounded by chaos, Christ’s focus is on Judas; His face appears calm, but He does not appear to be at peace. Rather, the expression on Jesus’s face in that moment suggests that, perhaps, Christ’s breath is held inside as He realizes that His time for suffering had come. Or perhaps, Christ’s expression is that of painful disappointment as he stares into the eyes of His friend and betrayer.
Standing embraced at the center of the composition, the two figures – teacher and pupil – appear to be frozen in that cutting moment of intimate betrayal; locked in a stillness which distinctly contrasts with the surrounding, helter-skelter clashings of the soldiers and disciples depicted in the scene.
Just a short distance away from the scene above, another scene unfolds; this time it is a scene of lamentation. Mary, the mother of Jesus, cradles His lifeless body which she has propped up upon her right knee. Another figure cradles Christ’s head. A woman crouches beside Christ, clutching His hands. Mary peers desperately upon the face of her lifeless son as if, in agonizing disbelief, she is pleading with Him to wake up.
A crowd surrounds Jesus, each figure visibly mourning in individual fashion. One man appears somber and reserved, and keeps to himself as he looks down upon Christ and His mother. Another man stretches his arms outward as his body bends in agony. A nearby woman rests her face on her hands in sorrow. Mary Magdalene cradles Jesus’s feet in her lap as she cries.
To the right of Christ and the crowd of mourners is a barren tree. The tree appears lifeless, yet we know that it will bloom again in the spring. Thus, this barren tree is an analogy for Christ and foreshadows His resurrection.
In the sky above the mourners is a host of angels. Like those in the crowd, the angels are afflicted by immense sorrow at the death of Jesus. One angel wrenches at his clothes. Another is contorted upward and cries out in anguish. Others stretch out their arms in torment. Both the heavens and the earth are gripped in the throes of sadness.
“Good religious art appeals to our senses and enriches our mental experience of the divine… Good art moves the heart.”
Fr. Bob Bussen (2016, Passey).
Both “The Kiss of Judas” and “The Lamentation” are frescoes created by an Italian artist named Giotto di Bondone (c. 1270-1337), “the first great exponent of fresco,” (King 2017, p. 14). “The towering figure who stands at the head of Italy’s glorious tradition of painting, Giotto set art on new paths with his naturalistic vision and wealth of human feeling,” (King 2017, p. 12). Of Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “He surpassed not only the masters of his epoch, but also those of many centuries before him,” (Codex Atlantics, c. 1500).
The interior of the Scrovegni Chapel is almost entirely covered in Giotto’s frescoes. In fact, the chapel walls act as a giant storyboard, with three levels of horizontal panels visually narrating the lives of Mary and Jesus (as shown in the picture below).
“Giotto’s figures have an entirely new feeling of volume and weight, and they are placed in settings that give a convincing appearance of recession, in contrast to the flat, otherworldly Byzantine style that had previously prevailed,” (King 2017, p. 14). “The scenes,” in the Scrovegni Chapel, “are varied in feeling, and through his mastery of gesture and facial expression Giotto shows an unprecedented ability to depict the emotions appropriate to each story – from the tenderness of the Nativity to the overwhelming grief of the mourners around Christ’s body,” (2017, King, p. 14).
Not long after the Scrovegni Chapel frescoes were completed (c. 1303-06), people from miles away began visiting. In a special for BBC, Sister Wendy Beckett explained, “People flocked here to see Giotto’s own miracle, the drama of the Christian stories painted as never before… It was as if up to now people had [only] had radio; then Giotto gives them television” (video). Sister Wendy later noted, “Giotto brought to life the mysteries of faith, and art was never the same again,” (2011, ICN).
In Giotto’s frescoes, visitors to the Scrovegni Chapel were provided a full sensory experience, accomplished through the implied movement, communicated emotions, and allegorical symbolism within each composition. Christians who visited began to more deeply connect, both emotionally and spiritually, to the grand epoch of Christ. So impactful was Giotto’s work, that in The Divine Comedy (completed c. 1320), Dante wrote, “Cimabue thought he held the field in painting, and now it is Giotto who is acclaimed, so that the glory of the former is dimmed.”
“The arts are a cup that will carry the water of life to the thirsty.”
Japanese Christian Painter, Makoto Fujimura (2011, Makoto)
Learning from Giotto
Religious art not only has the potential to connect people to God; it can also aid in the abstraction of complex ideas that are not directly communicated in text form (such as inferred situational emotions), as well as serve to embody the meaning of a concept.
For example, among the Scrovegni Chapel frescoes, Giotto included images of seven vices and seven virtues. To communicate the sinfulness or goodness of each, Giotto painted each as embodied in human form.
One of the vices painted by Giotto is envy (pictured above). Clutching a bag of money, Envy reaches out for more. Her insatiable appetite for the material possessions belonging to others is embodied in her snaked tongue, which is extended outwards and upwards from her mouth as if ready to bite her jealous eyes. With engrossed ears and animal horns, her sinfulness is on full display. She burns with envy as fire licks upwards from her feet. It is through this illustration that the ugliness of covetousness is communicated.
Religious art has also been vital in the development of visual art in the West. So important is religious art to Western history, that “[t]here are historians who are not believers, not Christians, who will say, ‘Without Christianity, visual art would not have flourished in the Western world,’” (2013, Herman). Furthermore, when it comes to the role of art in the development of culture, it has been said that “the only way to change culture is to create more of it,” (2010, Crouch).
The Anglican Book of Common Prayer contains a prayer “for church musicians and artists,” (2019, ACNA, p. 650). It reads:
“O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants on earth who seek through art and music to perfect the praises of your people. Grant them even now true glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (2019, ACNA, p. 650)
Although we recognize the importance of and pray for church artists, how many churches actually utilize the gifts of their artists like they utilize the gifts of their musicians? How many churches seek to maximize parishioners’ understanding of spiritual concepts or parishioners’ emotional/spiritual connection to biblical events (during Bible studies, for example) through the inclusion of great works of art like Giotto’s The Lamentation? How many churches dare to proclaim the ugliness of sin through the visual embodiment found in religious works, such as Giotto’s Envy?
When the church utilizes religious artwork in the “process for the church of proclaiming the gospel and living out the gospel,” the church gives to us “the language, the colors, the passion and the tastes,” (2011, Makoto). May we utilize the fullness of our God-given gifts in our efforts at bringing to life the Gospel of Jesus Christ within the hearts of others. Amen.
 Anglican Church in North America. (2019). The book of common prayer and administration of the sacraments with other rites and ceremonies of the church According to the use of the Anglican Church in North America, Together with the new coverdale psalter. Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press. Retrieved February 2, 2020, from http://bcp2019.anglicanchurch.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/BCP2019.pdf
 Crouch, A. (2010, November 22). Andy Crouch: Love and the risk of innovation. Retrieved February 2, 2020, from https://faithandleadership.com/multimedia/andy-crouch-love-and-the-risk-innovation
 Herman, B. (2013, May 20). Bruce Herman answers: Why is it important for Christians to make art? Retrieved February 2, 2020, from https://faithandleadership.com/bruce-herman-answers-why-it-important-christians-make-art
 Independent Catholic News. (2011, September 6). Sister Wendy chooses one charity’s Christmas cards. Retrieved February 10, 2020, from https://www.indcatholicnews.com/news/18833
 King, R. (2017). Artists: their lives and works. NY, NY: DK Publishing.
 Makoto Fujimura: The function of art. (2011, May 9). Retrieved February 10, 2020, from https://faithandleadership.com/makoto-fujimura-function-art
 Passey, B. (2016, March 26). Religious art connects people to God. Retrieved February 2, 2020, from https://amp.thespectrum.com/amp/82277344
Posted in: Art History, Famous Artwork, Uncategorized
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