Giotto and the Scrovegni Chapel
Giotto was the fulcrum on which the European art world turned. It pivoted around him from the rigidity of the Byzantine and Gothic to the flowing draped forms of the Renaissance.
Ten centuries and more from the crowning of Constantine and the faces of Philip and Caracalla. A thousand year gulf between Etruscans and Romans who last made images so real.
Giotto was called upon by Enrico Scrovegni to paint within the chapel, to restore grace to the Scrovegni name and spare his father from the fires of Hell.
Giotto filled the ceiling with stars and the faces of angels surrounding his savior. The walls burn with the colored murals of Mary and her son. Faces are round, clothing filled with flesh and feet stand solidly on the ground. But genius doesn't come from modeled bodies.
His compositions lead your eyes in a dance across the plaster scenes. Joachim and Anna, escaping from Egypt, are pushed to the right by rocks that move against them. From Jesus in his mother's arms, up the ledge, the tree, to heaven, to the angels looking back down on Jesus in his mother's arms.
At the end of the arc of the Golden Gate, Joachim and Anna exist only in the world of their reunion. They are shielded by the dark cloak of the hooded woman who stands between the gossips and the bridge. But a visual follow-the-leader goes only part of the way in explaining his mastery.
It's not just color, though the hues imbue moods to Mary in her room, Joachim in his dream; the dead and dying innocents: pierced infants drained of color and life.
Around the chapel the lines wind three times, each time to flash past the Last Judgement above the door. But Giotto, the master director, cuts from Herod to Judas: two frames, betrayal and suicide, side by side and then back to Jesus again.
But the characters are not cut-outs. Each face wraps a mind whose light shines with emotion; Herod's cold smile as the innocents die; Mary Magdeline's face holds the anguished emptiness of her future years; her hands hold the feet she rubbed with ointment and are now pierced from nails.
It's in these human faces that we see his genius, because we see ourselves. In the fresco's quick strokes, he paints faces that feel and hands that move us with familiar expressions of a lover's touch or a mother's embrace. Jesus clears the temple with a clenched fist. Judas is sold beneath the reassuring hands of the priest.
Close your eyes and imagine Giotto in Florence, in Rome, in Padua as he saw the world around him. Watching the faces, the hands. Seeing the people around him as they hadn't been seen by an artist in a thousand years. The door to Humanism—unlocked in Franciscan lessons—was about to swing wide and Giotto stood at the threshold.
link: Scrovegni Chapel [wikipedia]