The Scrovegni Chapel
Located in Padua, approximately 30 mins train ride from Venice in a small church known as The Scrovegni Chapel, are Giotto’s famed fresco’s. What a privilege and joy it was to visit Padua and see these 13th century frescos in person.
‘Fresco’ refers to large scale painting done on wet plaster. Water is used as the vehicle for the dry-powder pigment to merge with the plaster. With the setting of the plaster, the painting becomes a permanent part-of the wall.
The Inside of the Scrovegni Chapel is entirely covered in a fresco which tells the story of Christ through pictures. With even the ceiling being painted, you get the feeling you are incased by images.
Here is what I knew before setting foot in the small church:
- The chapel was built and commissioned to Giotto by a successful banker named Enrico Scrovegni.
- Scrovegni commissioned the building of the chapel to compensate for the sin of usury.
- In Catholic belief, usury (charging interest) was a sin and Scrovegni hoped this act would help his soul go to heaven.
So far I have learned a great deal more about art and art history. I can now recognise certain artistic styles. Seeing these works of art in context has been an unforgettable and enriching experience for me. Understanding the stylistic periods of classical, medieval, gothic and renaissance art, has given me an even greater appreciation for artists like Michelangelo and Giotto.
thinking about the frescoes in the context of which they were made
In ancient Greece and Rome, artists embraced the realities of the human body and the way that our bodies move in space (naturalism). For the next thousand years, after Europe transitioned from a pagan culture to a Christian one in the middle ages, the physical was largely ignored in favour of the heavenly, spiritual realm.
Most of the population of Europe was illiterate and couldn’t read the bible. People learned the stories of the Bible that would help them get to heaven, by hearing the words of the priest in the church, and by looking at paintings and sculptures. Medieval and gothic paintings typically depicted and flattened symbolic human figures.
Here are some ways in which Giotto’s painting moved beyond the Medieval style of spiritual representation.
- Christ is represented as dead, which puts an emphasise on him as being physical and human.
- Giotto chooses an earthly landscape setting for the lamentation of Christ.
- The two seated figures with their backs to us and the foreshortened bodies of the angles in the sky create the illusion of space.
- The scene appears to be played out by a real group of people. The figures are in active, natural poses: leaning, holding, sitting, and bending. They are monumental and solid unlike the floating figures of medieval art.
- Sorrow is expressed in a variety of ways on every face.
In the above scene I was drawn to the three urns/ceramic jugs lined up on the table at the lower right hand side. I giggled when I noticed the well rounded gentleman who seems to resemble the shape of the jugs. Both the character and the situation seem intentionally humorous. It made me want to spend more time in there to see if I could discover any other examples of Giotto’s sly comedic wit.
The monochrome allegories of Vices and Virtues
These figures depicting the ways of good verses evil are very potent. The most striking was the figure of Envy, in profile, engulfed by flames. She is clutching a bag but reaching in her other hand for something she does not have, not content with what she has, Envy wants more. A snake emerges from her mouth and doubles back on itself to stare her in the eyes because it is what she sees that bites her.
Looking at Giotto’s frescos made me feel profoundly human. I left feeling rather content with the life cycle as it presents in birth, life and death – my own fragile and beautiful mortality.