PICTURING THE PASSION: ‘The Entry into Jerusalem’ by Giotto (1305)

PICTURING THE PASSION: ‘The Entry into Jerusalem’ by Giotto (1305)

The story of art has been ruled by great artist like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli etc. The ‘father figure’ they sought to their career 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 captured the attention of Cimabue, the then famous, ‘bull headed’ artist. Cimabue carried off the boy to Florence to be his apprentice. However he was not spared of the young man’s banter. When Cimabue was absent, Giotto painted a lifelike fly on the face of a painting which appeared so real that the master, on his return, tried several times to shove it off. This impressed Cimabue who now invested more time and opportunities in his brilliant pupil.

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 served as restitution for his father’s involvement in unjust usury dealings.

One of the most famous and spectacular paintings in the Chapel is The Entry into Jerusalem.’ Against the backdrop of the brilliant blue sky, Giotto enlivens the procession scene in the foreground. The main protagonist i.e. Jesus Christ is placed at the center of the composition. The disciples (passive group) follow Him while the people of Jerusalem (active group) hail and honour Him.

As we glance and read the painting, notice the group of disciples huddled together on the left. Giotto presents to us a few portraits. The rest can be perceived through an accumulation of golden halos. They appear astonished and detached. A few are baffled for this scene contrasted Christ prediction of His rejection and eventual death. Unsettled, they wonder what lies ahead.

Before Christ is gathered the welcoming party. Each of them is distinctly detailed. They throng around the city gate to greet this new-found King. In absolute adoration, a few of them take off their cloaks and lay it down the dusty road, preparing a spontaneous ‘red-carpet’. Others scale trees to rip branches. As they wave the palm fronds in the air, they can be heard shouting and singing, ‘Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.’ 

Notice the two figures swinging on the trees. Dressed in white, they project angelic features that symbolize purity. They reiterate the words of the prophet Isaiah ‘Like an innocent lamb, He was led to the slaughter’. Thus they recall Christ imminent passion, death and resurrection. Interestingly, the two figures hang from trees placed on either side of Jesus. Does this not bring to mind the sight of crucifixion and that of the two thieves who were also crucified with Christ?  

In the center of the composition is the graceful Saviour, seated on a donkey with Messianic dignity. He is the largest figure in the painting. Executed with utmost brilliance and a three-dimensional aura, he is garbed in a red cloak signifying blood. His eyes focused, he firmly holds the harness of the donkey in His left hand. His right hand is raised in benediction. The three closed-in fingers represent the Trinity while the two upright fingers bear witness to His humanity and divinity.

One of the most alluring figures in the painting is the one depicted to our extreme right. Bent low, the man struggles to pull his green cloak off his head. The characteristics of this figure are transitional, cinematographic and concern the movement of time. While medieval art stressed on the heavenly, elongated, symmetrical and frontal characteristics, Giotto’s paintings attempted at an evolution from the Medieval to the Renaissance. He used techniques such as foreshortening and chiaroscuro to depict volume and movement. His figures lost their frontality and were painted realistically in profile, three quarter view or back view. Unlike medieval panel paintings, he did not use a gold background to suggest a divine space but rather presented an earthy architectural setting with blue skies, trees and archaic structures.

If you look at the garment wrapped around Christ waist you will observe that the blue pigment is almost entirely missing. 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 was because ultra-marine blue was derived from the expensive lapiz lazuli. Enrico Scrovegni did not want the brilliance of this lavish blue to be diminished by mixing it with wet plaster. Hence he suggested the method of fresco secco. The consequence of this experiment was that it did not last.

Apart from Christ, the key element in Giotto’s painting is undoubtedly the humble donkey. The donkey is one animal that has accompanied Christ right from His birth, be it on the way to Bethlehem or the Flight to Egypt. On His final journey, the donkey once again serves as a meek instrument in carrying and accompanying her Master to His destination. She plods forward gracefully sharing in the awareness of time and the prophecy of Zechariah: ‘Rejoice greatly, Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ The little colt is noticed tucking along Christ side.

With eyes of goodness and acumen, with one leg raised and the others firmly on the ground, the donkey stands in contrast to the group of disciples behind her and the make-shift crowd before her. One ear points backwards, attuned to her Lord; the other ear points forward, heeding the future. The donkey thus serves as a vehicle between the past and the future; between the ongoing praise and the forthcoming passion; a vehicle leading Christ to His death and resurrection!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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