The Giotto Arena Chapel Nativity is the subject for day 3 on our Advent in Art Series.
Background of the Giotto Arena Chapel
In a Northeast corner of Italy is the city of Padua. Even in 1303, Padua was a cosmopolitan center boasting a prestigious University. One of the residents was a man named Enrico Scrovegni, a successful banker, and by successful I mean he practiced usury (charging criminally high interest rates) and had accumulated a great deal of wealth. Due to the usury, the Scrovegni family was notorious, so notorious that when Dante was writing his Divine Comedy, he reserved a special place in the 7th circle of hell for Reginaldo Scrovegni, Enrico’s father.
Enrico, in a bid to improve his family’s reputation and perhaps save their immortal souls, built a church. The church was located next to the family palace which was built over an ancient Roman arena, thus the Scrovegni Chapel is commonly referred to as the Arena Chapel. By building, decorating, and staffing the church Enrico hoped to redeem a bit of his family’s honor, and earn God’s approval. He even had himself painted into the Last Judgement, presenting the Chapel to the Virgin Mary.
Giotto di Bondone
Giotto di Bondonne, an artist from Florence had earned a name for himself and was commissioned to decorate the interior of the Chapel with fresco paintings. As a result of the commission we have the Giotto Arena Chapel Nativity. Giorgio Vasari, in his The Lives of the Artists, published in 1550, recounts a bit about Giotto. While some doubt the truth of all of the stories, I’ll recount a few here.
It’s said that Giotto was a cheerful, intelligent child who was tending sheep when the great Florentine painter, Cimabue, saw him drawing pictures of sheep. He was so impressed he took him on as an apprentice. On one occasion Cimabue had left the workshop and Giotto painted a fly onto a face in a painting. Upon Cimabue’s return he tried several times to flick the fly off of the work.
At the left I’ve placed a work by the master Cimabue, next to Giotto’s work of the same subject. They were completed 20 years apart. You can see the obvious impact that Cimabue had on Giotto’s style, but also how different they are. Both have angels, Mary seated on a throne, and the infant Jesus. In Cimabue’s painting it’s almost as if I expect Jesus to slide off of her lap, and for Mary to tip forward out of the throne. While there is shading, overlapping, and some foreshortening it doesn’t have the realistic depth of Giotto’s work. Giotto’s Mary sits solidly on her throne, her knees’ come forward, as do the steps of the stairs. We are not concerned that the infant isn’t held securely.
The Arena, or Scrovegni Chapel
When Giotto got the commission for the Arena Chapel he must have been thrilled with the interior of the building. The outside, while tall and powerful, is very austere and seems to stand in direct contrast to the colorful beauty that awaits one upon entering. There are 6 tall windows on one wall, and that is all in terms of architectural detail. This gave the artist a wonderfully large blank canvas to fill.
The theme of the chapel, unsurprisingly, was salvation, and focuses on the life of the Virgin Mary, the life of Christ, and the Passion. On one of the end walls is the Annunciation, and on the opposite is the final judgement. As you can see in the photo, there are three bands of paintings. The highest band is the life of the Virgin Mary, the central band is the life of Christ, and the lowest band is the Passion or Christ’s final week and resurrection.
The chapel is considered one of the supreme achievements of Western art. This is not an overstatement, but universally agreed on. Giotto was a true genius, and the chapel was done at the height of his career. One entire building covered from floor to ceiling with one work after another, all by one artist, providing a unified narrative experience.
Giotto: Pioneer of the Renaissance
Giotto is a proto-Renaissance artist. He helped pioneer the movement toward realism that would mark the Renaissance. The influences upon him came from both the North, with the new naturalness of Gothic sculpture done in France, and from the south, where the Byzantine influence was still heavily felt. He managed to meld them together creating something new and compelling. Nicola Pisano’s sculptures were known to Giotto, and he attempted to accomplish what Pisano had achieved in sculpture with paint.
(An interesting side note, one of the three sculptures on the altar of the chapel is a Madonna sculpted by Nicola Pisano. The Madonna’s classical style is similar to Giotto’s frescoes and was created at the same time. The statue sits on the high altar of the chapel.)
Moving Towards Realism
The move to realism in sculpture began 100 years before realism in paintings. It is far easier to create realistic sculptures than realistic paintings. To achieve a true three dimensional effect in paint on a flat surface one must be adept at understanding and using perspective, foreshortening, and shading. Certainly, these were used in the past, and in a limited way in Byzantine art, but those artist had not been looking to communicate in the same way Giotto was.
For 1,000 years painters had been using the medium of paint to visually write stories. Yes, they were often beautiful, mystical even, but they were meant to communicate and teach the Biblical narrative and to direct believers hearts to God. With a great deal of the population illiterate, churches wrote with pictures and frescoes the great truths of the Bible. Artists were also constrained by the fear that graven images would lead believers into worshiping false gods, and so restraint was used, painting in stylized ways that avoided too much realism.
Workshops and Pattern Books
The leap that Giotto made might be more understandable if you have a clear picture of how artists worked during the middle ages and why painting had remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. Artists were skilled craftsmen. Apprenticed as a teen boy to a master, you would start out sweeping and fetching, move up to prepping panels and walls, and eventually learn to draw and paint….from patterns. All artists worked from pattern books and aspiring artists spent hours working to learn to reproduce the patterns. When a painting was commissioned, patterns from the book would be arranged within the prescribed space or frame and made to fit and tell the story.
Of course, some artists might become interested in something and add an original drawing, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Each master had a workshop and when he took on a large commission, those who worked for him would paint the portions he delegated to them. It is very difficult to determine which portions of a painting are actually the master’s brushstrokes, and which are artists working under him, because they all worked from the same patterns. While painting the Arena Chapel Giotto had 40 men working with him.
So throw out your idea of an artist sitting with his sketchbook on the beach sketching the ocean. That process came later. In this era, artists did not draw what they saw, the drew what they had been taught to reproduce. Some were very skilled at it, but it was a learned craft, and approached differently than how we typically envision the artist working.
Giotto Wants More
Giotto wanted more, he didn’t want to use his paintings just to give the viewer information, he wanted to transport them, so that they felt they were standing there as the sacred stories played out. He imagined expressions, gestures, movements. As he put himself in the role of Joseph, he thought about how would he walk, what would he look at? He noticed and attempted to reproduce a more real world. Having been trained in the same way as artists had for centuries, he was inspired by the new sculpture he was seeing, but didn’t possess the training to transfer that to painting, he was stepping out beyond what he knew. To our modern eye he hasn’t achieved realism, but in his time…he had begun a revolution.
Frescoes: Challenges and Advantages
As I mentioned, these paintings were all frescoes. Fresco means ‘fresh’. The area to be painted in a day was prepped with a thin layer of plaster, and while it was still wet, the artist painted with water colors on it. The pigments soaked into the plaster, and as it dried the paint became part of the wall. The paint did not just sit on the surface. If one were to scratch a fresco the color would remain true, as it had gone into the wall.
This presented challenges. The artist had to pre-determine how much he thought he could finish in a day. If he didn’t get as far as he’d planned, the unused plaster would have to be chipped away so that a new layer could be applied without creating an uneven surface. This also created issues with paint colors not matching exactly. It is often possible to see where each days work began. “Giornata” is the word for these areas, and came to mean “a day’s work”.
The blue areas you see in the painting had to be painted in secco. This means on a dry area. There were several reasons for this. The ultramarine pigment was very expensive, and when painting on wet plaster, more pigment is needed. Thus, to save money artist waited until the plaster and first layers of paint dried. The pigment also contained azurite, which can turn green on contact with water. And lastly the blue was more vibrant when applied on the dry surface. For these reasons Giotto painted the blue portions a secco.
Viewers of the Giotto Arena Chapel Nativity today can observe whole areas where the blue paint is ‘fugitive’ or has disappeared over time. Mary’s cloak used to be a rich dark blue, but the paint has faded in spots, and whole portions of the background have disappeared. When we consider the work was done 700 years ago, it seems to be in very good shape. I’ve included a picture of Christ arriving in Jerusalem, his robe has completely lost the rich blue color that originally had been painted on.
Reading the Giotto Arena Chapel Nativity
Given that Giotto was influenced by Gothic sculpting,and was looking to those sculptures as models, it is not surprising that his figures have a sculpted solidity. Look at Joseph, he is a solid triangular form, with the draping cloak, he looks sculpted.
While it might seem odd that Joseph has his back turned and appears to be sleeping during this momentous event, this is a traditional rendering of the story. Joseph, as a human man and sinner, was frequently painted as a benign older man, often asleep, who therefore, presented no threat to Mary’s virginity.
Animals and midwife
By contrast, the animals that are present, due to their innocence, watch with rapt attention as the sacred story unfolds. Traditionally there is a donkey and ox present in nativity paintings. In this work we also have sheep, which can be an allusion to Christ future sacrifice as the lamb of God.
We also note that there is a another woman present at the birth and is handing the swaddled baby to Mary as she is reclining after giving birth. Extra Biblical sources include stories of midwives being present at the birth.
Angels and Shepherds
Above the roof of the stable that Mary is in we have the angels. The angels present the only movement that we have in this work. Several of the angels are lifting their hands in prayer and rejoicing looking to the heavens. Another angel in the center appears to be glancing over the roof to get a glimpse of what is happening below, and the third is speaking to the two shepherds who are standing off to the side.
During this period artist frequently told multiple Biblical stories in the same painting. With the angel speaking to the shepherds we have the melding together of two stories. The annunciation to the shepherds is the part of the nativity narrative that recounts the angels arriving to a group of shepherds to tell them of Christ birth and give the directions to find the holy child. The second story, when they arrive at the stable and worship the newborn king, is knowns as the adoration of the shepherds.
The Virgin Mary and Jesus
The striking element of the Giotto Arena Chapel Nativity to me is the facial expressions of the holy family. Mary and Jesus are gazing at one another. This is not the Byzantine model where Mary is stoically looking out at the viewer. This is a mother gazing at her baby with wonder. Jesus looks back with intensity, and to my eye, an adult expression.
I find this picture of mother and child falls somewhere between the Byzantine and Renaissance images of the same subject. We have a more human picture of the family here than in Byzantine works, but we retain the idea that Jesus is divine in the aware, intelligent gaze of the baby Jesus.
When viewing this cropped detail of the painting you will notice that the halo around Jesus differs from the one behind Mary, Joseph, or the angels. Jesus head is framed by a cross. This is a known as a cruciform halo meant to remind us that Jesus was born to be sacrificed on the cross. Symbols foreshadowing Christ’s death are frequently included in Nativity scenes.
You will note, that Giotto is still using hieratic scale. Mary is much larger than the other figures in the painting, she certainly wouldn’t be able to stand up. This is because she is more important than any of the other figures. Size denoted importance, not reality.
Use of Space
In later Renaissance works we will feel as though we are drawn into the painting, into a real room or forest. There isn’t room for us in the foreground of this painting. This is more like viewing a play. There is real depth to the figures, but it is like the set on a stage. The figures are compressed into a shallow architectural space, much as they would be on a stage. Like a stage setting, the chairs are real, there are physical overhangs for roofs, but it is different than achieving the feeling of actually walking into a house. That degree of realism is still to come.
As we are used to camera’s and paintings so real it can be hard to tell if they are photographs, it can be easy to see the faults in this work, rather than the incredible leap that Giotto has achieved.
I hope to one day get the chance to walk into the Arena Chapel and view these works myself, but until then I will join my imagination with Giotto’s and wonder at the narrative story he has woven into the very walls of the this chapel. I would highly recommend watching this video, which will give you a better feel of the Chapel.
Follow this link to view the other posts in this series. If you are watching during December 2020, you can also head over to my YouTube channel where I am converting many of the Advent posts into videos.
Let me know what you think of Giotto’s works.
Have a wonderful Christmas season.
Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 4 Duccio
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website https://www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.