Every painting is a voyage into a sacred harbour.
~Giotto di Bondone
My visit to the Scrovegni Chapel was a highlight of my recent trip but truly, it was more than that…it was one of the all-time great art experiences I’ve ever had. The chapel and the Giotto frescoes just blew me away.
Giotto lived from 1266-1337 and painted these frescoes in 1303-5. Before Giotto, most devotional art was pretty static - icons of the Madonna or the saints that were more like portraits than narratives. Giotto was the first great artist to paint the stories.
Sometimes I think that the so-called “Greatest Story Ever Told” has been told (and painted) for so long and in so many ways, it’s become too familiar and often feels very worn out. At times I find myself in churches looking at paintings and feeling like, “Ho hum, another nativity, another crucifixion.” The thing that really blew me away about Giotto is that he made the story completely fresh for me which, considering that his frescoes are 700 years old, is so amazing and truly genius.
In the chapel, there are three bands of images. The top row shows scenes from the life of the Virgin and the bottom two rows are scenes from the life of Christ. The chancel shows the Annunciation, and the Last Judgment is on the opposite west wall. You can see these frescoes very well because the chapel is so small, and there’s all this cool and colorful architectural detail painted in between the scenes with some impressive illusionistic work and painted marble. Around the bottom, there are these funky little images of the Virtues and Vices painted in monochrome, and the vault is frescoed in sky blue with stars.
There’s something very special about seeing an entire chapel painted with one man’s vision. Really, my emotions at the Scrovegni were very similar to the ones I had in the Sistine Chapel – just sheer awe and amazement at the genius that created such beauty. But in some ways, I enjoyed the Scrovegni Chapel more because it’s smaller and more intimate. Michelangelo is all about grandeur and magnificence and drama (and I love his work), but Giotto's art has this innocence and sweetness that's very wonderful and moving. I left this Chapel completely blissed out.
There are a bunch of places on the web where you can see the entire fresco cycle; I picked out a few images and some quotes that I like.
“When I see the Giotto frescoes at Padua, I do not trouble myself to recognize which scene of the life of Christ I have before me, but I immediately understand the sentiment which emerges from it, for it is in the lines, the composition, the color.”
"He painted the Madonna and St. Joseph and the Christ, yes, by all means ... but essentially Mamma, Papa and Baby.”
The Adoration of the Magi (I loved all the animals in these frescoes but especially these camels!).
Wedding at Cana
"Everyone who saw 'The Lamentation of Christ' on the chapel walls would have known the story well - that Jesus died on the cross and that a profound sorrow ensued. Giotto took that intellectual conviction and made it throb in the nerves."
~Sister Wendy Beckett
"Giotto threw aside all the glitter, and all the conventionalism, and declared that he saw the sky blue, the tablecloth white, and angels, when he dreamed of them, rosy, and he simply founded the schools of colour in Italy -- Venetian and all. And what is more, nobody discovered much about colour after him."
Architectural details and images of saints in between each scene:
From the Virtues and Vices panels, this is Hope (Spes):
The photo at the very top of this post is the view facing the chancel while the one below is the opposite wall, where Giotto's "Last Judgment" is.
"Giotto brought to life the mysteries of faith, and art was never the same again."