BEYOND THE OBVIOUS: the Glory of Jesus as expressed by the Genius of Giotto

BEYOND THE OBVIOUS: the Glory of Jesus as expressed by the Genius of Giotto in the ‘The Resurrection of Lazarus’ ; a frescos he painted inside the Arena or Scrovegni Chapel located in Padua, Italy

The story of art has been ruled by great artist like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli etc. but the influence they sought as a ‘father figure’ began his life as a shepherd boy. He used his brush to bring the Bible to life and made art more natural, more real. His name was Giotto. Regarded as the ‘Father of the Renaissance’, Ambrogiotto (Little Ambrose) was born in Tuscany in 1267.

Legend states that while tending sheep, Giotto would sketch on a sharp stone. His nature based drawings were so spectacular that it caught the attention of Cimabue, the then famous, ‘bull headed’ artist. With his father’s consent, Cimabue carried off the boy to Florence to be his apprentice. However he was not spared of the young boy’s banter. When Cimabue was absent, Giotto painted a lifelike fly on the face of the painting which was so realistic that Cimabue, on his return, tried several times to shove it off.

Giotto’s greatest masterpieces are the frescos he painted inside the Arena or Scrovegni Chapel located in Padua, Italy. It was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, a wealthy Italian banker in the early 1300’s. It was meant to be restitution for his father’s involvement in unjust usury dealings. In fact Dante, friend of Giotto, in his famous ‘Divine Comedy’ singles out Scrovegni’s father for one of the most treacherous parts of hell.

One of the spectacular paintings in the Chapel is The Resurrection of Lazarus.’ In this fresco, Giotto dauntlessly places the two main protagonists, Jesus and Lazarus, on the sides and not in the centre as was customary. Two groups are huddled on either side, one excited, astonished and seeking life while the other calm, majestic, representing the source of Life. Mary and Martha serve as a prayerful bridge between the two groups.

Giotto’s paintings are to be read from the left to the right. This is cinematographically illustrated by the ascension of the hill in the background, taking you to the climax, the resurrection of Lazarus!  The figure in the center is iconic and transitory. His hand towards Jesus expresses doubt while his opposite gaze, astonishment! Notice carefully the theme of ‘glance and hands’ used to convey naturalism and individuality.

Medieval art stressed on heavenly, spiritual, elongated, symmetrical and frontal characteristics. Giotto’s paintings attempted at an evolution from the Medieval to the Renaissance. He used techniques such as foreshortening (seeing a long object head-on so that it looks compressed) and chiaroscuro (use light and shadow to depict volume) to create an illusion of space. The figures lost their frontality and were painted realistically in profile, three quarter view or back view covered in monumental draperies that fell in natural folds

Flaking of blue paint is noticed on Jesus’ robe. This is because while the whole Chapel employed the technique of buon fresco or true fresco (paint on wet plaster), the blue portion is fresco secco (paint on dry plaster). The technical difference is due to the expensive lapiz lazuli which forms the source of the colour blue. Enrico Scrovegni did not want to entertain a further hole in his pocket.  

Giotto is remarkably remembered for his wacky wit. On one occasion, Giotto dressed in his Sunday best was knocked down by a pig. On picking himself, he quirkily stated, ‘The pig was quite right to knock me down. I have made lots of money by using pig bristles but have never returned to the pigs as much as a bowl of soup.’ In 1300 when Pope Boniface VIII asked Giotto for a sample of his work, Giotto obliged with just a perfect circle painted with one quick sweep of his arm. ‘You are rounder than Giotto’s O’, was soon the nickname for the foolish in the Papal household.

Finally, though Giotto is said to have been short in stature and ugly in looks, his ability to logically compress a long story in a single image with raw emotion and real essence absolutely surpasses the beauty of the world!

Joynel Fernandes

Assistant Director, Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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