Giotto’s Scrovengni chapel: betrayal, revenge and dorky camels

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It’s a devastating moment in the life of Joachim, a pious and generous man.  He wants most of all to give to the poor and sacrifice to the Lord, but the rabbi rudely rejects him.  As Joachim and his wife Anna are growing old but still childless, the rabbi declares they are cursed by God and unwelcome in his temple.  Joachim steps out of the temple with a heartbroken expression, clutching a tiny lamb, looking like he about to step into both a psychological and physical void.  With this painting, the first panel of the narrative in Giotto’s fresco cycles in the Scrovengni chapel of Padua, Giotto nudges Italian art into the beginning of the Renaissance.

I’ve seen a lot of religious art, and the stories of the lives of Mary and Jesus were old hat to me by the time I visited the Scrovengni chapel, but Giotto gave me empathy for the characters and a new psychological angle to the narrative.  Have you ever been rejected?  Then you can identify with Joachim’s hurt and shame and his spiritual revenge when his wife Anne become pregnant with the mother of Christ.  And surely anyone can see that the entire chapel is superbly a composed work of art.  Giotto’s genius was in knowing what to leave out: the work has a restricted palette, details are limited and there’s a remarkable consistency throughout the chapel.  It’s exceptionally easy to read, almost like a cartoon.  The scenes are a combination of staginess with a genuine humanity.  People actually look old, sad, angry and frightened—unlike the mask-faced figures of the Byzantine era.  If you are a follower of art history, consider this work was made in 1305, and then pick up whatever you’re drinking a give a toast to the outstanding accomplishment of Giotto di Bondone.

You need to reserve in advance to see the chapel.  Most of the slots are a ludicrously short 15 minutes.  We booked one 15 minute slot and another special 45 minute nighttime visit.  I strongly advise reserving more than one viewing to even begin to appreciate this masterwork.  Also, you absolutely should study the frescoes in advance.  (I found this book quite helpful).  Wikipedia and Web Gallery of Art (the source of all the pictures below) have decent pages on the chapel.

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View of the chapel interior.  The fresco stories are divided by trompe-l’œil painted bands and allegorical figures representing virtues and vices.   I didn’t pay too much attention to the Last Judgment scene at the end, which is a throwback to an earlier era of painting (and all those halos on the silly line up of angels in heaven give a bubble bath effect).  You can get an idea of the depth of field and uniformity of the painting from this photo.

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Meeting at the Golden Gate. Joachim and Anna kiss under an halo-arch. The bystanders form a gaper’s block to the scene, except for the mysterious lady in black, who pulls her scarf over her face.   Joachim and Anna really seem to love each other, with the affection of an old married couple.

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Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple.  Mary is supposed to be three years old when she climbs the steps to the temple.  Hmmm, well….maybe she was big for her age.  The two guys on the right are like “Whoa–would you look at that!?!?”

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Adoration of the Magi.  While waiting to see the chapel I said to HOB “I wonder if the camels with the 80’s bangs look as dorky in the real deal as they do in reproductions?”  (The answer is yes, they were ever so dorky in real life).

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Flight into Egypt.  Before GPS, you could get a floating angel to  point the way to Egypt.

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Massacre of the Innocents.  Obviously this is a horrible subject and the mothers of the slaughtered children appear genuinely anguished, but the bloodless pile of baby parts is bit hilarious.  Also, the funky buildings in the background are distracting.

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Marriage at Cana.  Jesus turns water into wine, and the fat guy on the right apparently drinks most of it himself.  Anyone know where I can get wallpaper like that?

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Raising of Lazarus.  The two figures to the right of the Lazarus mummy are clearly saying “He stinketh: for he has been dead four days.”

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Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple.  Jesus is opening a big can of whoop ass on those money changers at the temple.

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The Last Supper.  It’s so hard to concentrate on supper when your halo is covering the front of your face…..

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Kiss of Judas.  The drama! The betrayal!  OMG THIS PAINTING IS SO GREAT!  I love the pattern of the spears in the sky, and just look at the detail of the faces of the men following Judas!!

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Crucifixion.  A bloodless but still moving crucifixion.  The solders on the right are casting lots for Christ’s clothes, oblivious to the suffering of the surrounding angels and humans.

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The Lamentation.  A terribly bleak image.  Even the tree looks dead.

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Noli Me Tangere.  Those soldiers are wiped out!  Too bad, because this is the best part: Christ busts out of his tomb dressed in white with plants springing to life under his feet.  Mary Magdalene is on the scene, reaching out her hands while Jesus says “Don’t touch me!”  Like Joachim, Jesus is about to step off the frame of the picture, but with a feeling of triumph, not desolation.

 

 

How we got to Padua: train from Venice.

Where we slept: Hotel Al Cason.  Price: €79  for a double.  Recommended: yes.

 

8 comments

  1. I like how you’re explaining paintings/frescoes. You should issue an art guide 🙂

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  2. Thanks KleesButterfly. Maybe if I issued an art guide I could get an editor to correct all my spelling errors. : )

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  3. I was there recently with a friend, we liked the virtues and sins the best and the sky, that starrry sky is so beautiful. You explain it very nicely!
    🙂

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    1. Wasn’t Padua a gorgeous town Alicia? The students there made me happy too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I still need to write the post about the day trip to Padova…we stopped for a coffee at Caffè Pedrocchi and the waiter was so nice that we feel our experience in Padova was almost magical 🙂 I’ll write about it on my blog, promise!

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  4. btw I’m sending the link to your blog to a few friends because you explain things in detail and I know they’ll like that!

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    1. Thanks Alicia–I’m looking forward to see what you write about the chapel as well!

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  5. […] for a more detailed explanation of the frescoes make sure to check this blog post  from a fellow […]

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