Three hours in the Scrovegni Chapel
On March 18, at 9-30 AM, in Padova, Italy, I stepped into the Scrovegni Chapel for what would be a three hour visit.
This visit was a most brilliant gift. You must understand, first of all, as anyone who has ever been there well knows, that you are only allowed fifteen minutes in the chapel, and those fifteen minutes cost 12 euros. It is possible to book a double turn on summer evenings; but even half an hour is scarcely enough time to see each of the 40 frescoes and the wall decorations which are an integral part of the design. This is an endless source of frustration to those of us who love the frescoes painted here by Giotto around 1305. Even the casual visitor, merely ticking off items on a checklist of things to be done, or the garrulous school children with cellphones in hand, are instantly overwhelmed. There is simply too much information to process in 15 or 30 minute increments.
A couple weeks ago I was opining to my friends Amy and Tom over lunch just how frustrating that was. Amy simply said, "you don't have my friends." She said she would see what she could do and get back to me. The result was an "unlimited" visit.
My first visit to the Scrovegni Chapel was in the winter of 2006. At that time I wrote of the visit, "There are certain things for which nothing prepares you." Scrovegni was a total revelation. (If you manage to read this through, then you might be interested in that first impression.)
I made subsequent visits, but on each occasion I was so disoriented by the overall splendor of the place that it was difficult to focus. Sometimes the angle of the sun and the light were against me. I decided only to look at one or two of the frescoes, and, adhered to the mantra I had developed in Assisi, "follow the light". Returning became expensive.
My introduction to the Scrovegni chapel coincided with my discovery of the Gothic, led by my teacher, the inestimable John Ruskin. The high renaissance lost its allure, compared to the art that gave birth to it, the frescoes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As my love of the Gothic grew, I was drawn to Assisi, to see Giotto's frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco. Those five days, burned indelibly in my memory, were an artistic and spiritual epiphany (as recounted here, here, here, and here). Assisi is a very special place; it was here that St. Francis was born and morphed into the radiant creature who became both a saint and the spiritual founder of the Franciscan order. These vibrations rise from deep in the Umbrian hills, like the olive trees, providing shade and sustenance.
The experience at Assisi cannot be more different from Scrovegni. The Basilica di San Francesco is free, the doors open to the air. I could sit and ponder the miraculous images at will. I spent three or four hours a day there, until sponge-like I was saturated. The guards got to know me. I spent the rest of my time exploring the medieval town and the other landmarks of St. Francis's story, feeling deeply moved by the rich young man who gave up everything to follow a calling so humble and incomprehensible that miracles accrued around him the way families accrue around others, manifestations of an unlimited and unconditional love of all creation. This was the man who preached to the birds.
The panel in the Basilica di San Francesco entitled Predica agli Uccelli (Sermon to the Birds) is inexpressibly touching in its simplicity and in its humility. At liberty to linger over these images, I began to decipher their meaning and to parse the visual language which Giotto employs to tell his story, to understand how these paintings work as narrative, a movie spread across the walls, each leading to the next, plot point to plot point. I began to grasp the techniques used to guide our eyes and our hearts through the unfolding of the tale.
I left Assisi a changed person, different from how I came, both in my understanding and appreciation of this art, and in the profound impact of the story of Saint Francis; not the later versions in which he was twisted by the Church into a militant crusader, but the essential story of a man filled with endless and unconditional love for all creation.
In the past five years I have contemplated an extraordinary amount of great art, from the ancient Greeks and Assyrians and Sumerians to the art of now. Last winter when I was in Munich, I chanced through the Glyptotek. I was stunned by the Greek statues there, or the good Roman copies of them. What is most striking is their lifelike quality. One would not be surprised to see them move. I saw clearly on that cold winter day that all western art has always aspired to the Greek, that -- for whatever reason -- the Greek stonework represents a flood tide of human creativity, unsurpassed by anyone at any time. This was the ideal toward which the renaissance, and the Romans who inspired it, strove.
That was when I decided I needed to go to London to see the Parthenon ("Elgin") marbles. In their presence I thoroughly understood why all western art aspired to them. Though they are mostly broken and fragmentary, what remains of them is of such ravishing beauty that how they might have been when new and freshly painted boggles the mind. Every piece is filled with action; though they may be carved in stone, they are alive with movement. They are, and this is essential, narrative-driven. They tell stories. They unfold in time, the time it takes for us to follow the story and the time it takes for the story to happen. All the greatest art tells stories, and in most cases the greatest is the greatest because the artists invented ever new and more compelling ways to tell their stories.
I visited the Scrovegni Chapel fresh from my trip to London with those thoughts on my mind.
The Scrovegni Chapel is also known as the Arena Chapel because it was added to the Scrovegni palace which was built at the end of the thirteenth century on the site of a Roman arena. Scarcely half a block away is the Chiesa degli Eremitani, a much larger gothic church that was almost totally destroyed by bombs during World War II, shattering forever the Mantegna frescoes on the walls of the Ovetari Chapel. What remains is beautiful indeed; but very little little remains.
It is important to bear this in mind when entering the Scrovegni Chapel, which is small, compact, and could easily have been entirely reduced to rubble by one errant bomb. That it survives at all, that the frescoes remain nearly intact, seven hundred years after they were painted, is nothing short of miraculous.
The building itself is an uprepossessing Gothic brick structure of no particular distinction other than the miracle of its survival. The palace it abutted is gone; the Roman arena is a crumbling mass of skeletal remains. In the "Last Judgement" covering the west wall of the interior of the chapel, Enrico Scrovegni kneels, presenting a model of the chapel -- its pink stucco exterior still fresh, edged with white marble work -- to the Virgin.
Scrovegni was an unconscionably rich usurer with a very bad reputation. It was said that he built the chapel to secure his place in heaven. Given how it turned out, I would be willing to cut him some slack. He built the building and hired Giotto to paint the interior because Giotto was the most celebrated artist of his time.
More is known about Giotto than many of the early artists, but the facts, derived from contracts, letters, legal documents, provide only a skeleton, and as for the character of the man, we must rely on notoriously subjective history, such as Vasari's account in his Lives. In a certain sense, the life of Giotto can be viewed as a myth, much like the myth of St. Francis he illustrated in churches.
He was, the story goes, a particularly clever and happy lad of ten, tending sheep, when the great artist Cimabue chanced upon him and saw that he was drawing incredibly lifelike sheep on flat rocks with a sharp stone. (This would be panel one in the fresco cycle of the Life of Giotto.)
Cimabue himself is another legendary artist of the earliest dawn of the Renaissance. According to Vasari, Cimabue surpassed his teachers because they, Greek (read Byzantine) masters, "never caring to advance their art, did everything not in the good manner of ancient Greece, but after the rude manner of those times." The stranglehold of hieratic Byzantine iconography was being undermined by artists like Cimabue, and later Giotto, who "[drew] accurately from life which had been neglected for more than two hundred years."
First Cimabue, and later Giotto, were invited to decorate the interior of the newly constructed Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi (ca. 1296). The flowering of the order of Franciscans was certainly a boon to Giotto. His talents were clearly superior and soon he was in great demand throughout Italy, in Assisi, in Padova, in Florence, in Naples, in Milan, in Rome, painting not only the story of St. Francis but the central stories of Christianity.
What he painted was, then, and remains, unique in the breadth of its humanity. He did not paint the perfect musculature of the Greeks and Romans, the classic ideals of form and feature that were taken up again by the renaissance. He painted, instead, real people, in real situations, expressing real emotions appropriate to the scene. In doing so, he animated them in a way not seen since the Parthenon friezes and pediments danced in technicolor. Giotto infused his figures with life.
What is a "fresco"? At the risk of being pedantic, I think it is necessary to address certain features of this particular medium, to put the achievement into perspective.
Medieval buildings were constructed of wood (all those long vanished) or brick and stone, as had been the Roman buildings before them. In many cases, the older Roman structures were used as quarries for the building materials needed for new construction. Certainly brick and stone from the old Roman arena were used to build the Scrovegni palace, now itself vanished more completely than the arena it was built from.
The brick walls, inside and out, might then be covered with plaster, which provided a smooth surface to decorate. After mosaics and marble cladding, the most expensive interior wall coverings were tapestries, which provided insulation and warmth as well as decorative beauty and could even be hung over bare bricks. The more money you had to spend, the more splendid the tapestries you commissioned, heavy with gold and silver thread which had the added advantage of amplifying light. Pope Leo X, when he commissioned drawings from Rafaello for a set of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, specifically requested that large quantities of gold and silver thread be employed in the weaving to make the tapestries as luxurious as possible.
The idea of painting walls was a no-brainer, but pigments applied to dry plaster did not adhere well; they cracked and flaked. However, if certain pigments were applied while the plaster was still wet, they fused with the wet plaster, they bonded; when they dried the colors retained both their brightness and their finish. This technique, called "buon fresco," -- good fresco -- was the most complex and painstakingly laborious, but provided images that have lasted for almost a millenium. And they were cheaper, even throwing in the artists' fees, than weaving fine tapestries. The pigments were not as expensive, the gold Byzantine backgrounds were replaced with naturalistic skies and landscapes; the plaster was cheap enough; and the artists were paid for their practical skills, not in proportion to their genius. Not everyone had pockets as deep as the Pope, and to a man like Scrovegni a painted interior by Master Giotto was made even more appealing by its relatively modest price tag.
There were tremendous technical difficulties to creating a frescoed wall. First of all there was its size. Obviously an entire wall could not be painted before the plaster dried. A first coating of plaster was applied, and then smaller sections were re-plastered and painted upon while still wet. The daily quotient was called a "giornata," a day, and depended upon what the artist had in mind.
Secondly, in order to cover an entire wall with a coherent narrative, the artists couldn't simply jump in and draw or paint freehand. Nor could it be painted, piece by piece, day by day, spontaneously. As with tapestries, drawings had to made first. These drawings were called cartoons. They were rougly sketched in charcoal and then drawn even more finely with a reddish chalk on paper or cloth. The cartoon was placed against the wall. The outlines of the design were pricked and often rubbed with bags of charcoal dust which penetrated the pricked holes and left an outline on the plaster. Only then, day by day, section by section, the colors were applied to the final image.
Thirdly, Giotto painted over forty fresco panels in the Scrovegni chapel. They run along the walls, in three tiers, to be read in sequence, from left to right, like a picture book. Not only did each panel have to be painted, but the entire sequence of panels had to be determined. They not only read sequentially, but they can be read vertically as well. Laterally they tell the story; vertically they are linked symbolically. In addition to the lateral and vertical thrusts, the walls face each other and there is also a mystical/symbolic correspondence between images facing each other across the chapel. It is a veritable cat's-cradle of narrative thrust and symbolic correspondences, intricately planned and drawn before any pigment ever touched wet plaster. It had to be. The way it all fits together is too deliberate. Part of Giotto's genius is precisely the way in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts even though no part is less than perfect.
Walking into the Scrovegni Chapel is in fact like walking into storybook unfolding in every direction. But there is also something in the aggregate, in the overall impact of the space separate from the beauty of its component parts. It was something I first noticed at the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, and which is equally evident in the Scrovegni chapel.
This overall impact can only be called festive. There is something positively joyous in the decoration of these basilicas; as if they had been created for a cosmic birthday party. Every surface is decorated, some painted like marble, others like gift and candy wrappers, colorful geometic patterns and sumptuous floral designs that fill the spaces around and between the fresco panels themselves. They are filled with trompe l'oeil architectural illusions and textured surfaces that don't exist. In Assisi the pilasters and vaults are tattooed with festive patterns, with swirls and stripes in pastels and blazing jewel tones. Here religion presented itself as a gala experience, with joy exuberantly wrapping the deeper mysteries explored in the painted panels telling the stories.
The practical perspective (in a time whose "perspective" was considered primitive compared to the fetishized perspective of the high renaissance), evidenced in the trompe l'oeil architectural details, is painted flawlessly, so flawlessly that you are easily taken in, your eye is completely deceived. You believe they are real. Twice, in Assisi, I was fooled by the dentils, toothlike notches that decorate the cornices under the frescoes. On Tuesday, standing in the central aisle, I was totally convinced the cornices and dentils were real, walked over, touched them. They were flat, two-dimensional, illusory. But again on Thursday they fooled me. "I touched them," I thought. Or did I? They looked so real I doubted myself. I had to touch them again, so complete was the illusion.
Scrovegni is filled with such detail. There is a sly and joyous virtuosity at work framing the main feature: the narrative itself.
It was a pleasure to visit the Scrovegni Chapel with Tom. He is a professor of art history, a specialist in the Italian renaissance, and didn't mind the questions with which I peppered him. Additionally, his eye, drawn to different details, helped me to see things I might otherwise have missed. Below the bottom tier of frescos are the famous Virtues and Vices panels painted in an ancient Roman technique to look as though they were carved in marble. But there are also smaller plaques painted between these panels, architectural details. Tom pointed to one in particular, its corner chipped off, as if it were part of an ancient wall.
"I never quite appreciated before," he said to me, pointing this out, "how masterful they were, in their presentation of space and time." Not only in the narrative sense, he stressed; the stories unfold in time and space. But in details like that, which are illusions occupying space and alluding to the passage of time, reminding us of our mortality.
There is a small decorative plaque between panels 24 ( The Miracle at Cana ) and 25 (The Raising of Lazarus) on the north wall which shows Jonah's legs sticking out of the mouth of the whale into which he is disappearing. It is a miniature; there are several between the major panels on this wall. I mentioned it to Tom, a perfect little masterpiece where the part (we neither see all or Jonah nor all of the whale) stands for the whole.
"Those are Old Testament images which prefigure the events in the subsequent panels," Tom replied. Old Testament Jonah in the belly of the whale prefigures Christ's death. The whale can also be seen as swallowing him, or regurgitating him, which prefigures the resurrection. I needed Tom's binoculars to see the lovely panel of the lioness with three cubs. "The newborn cubs were dead for three days and then the mother breathed life into them." Tom said. "Christ lay entombed for three days."
Enjoying the luxury of time, I started with the first panel, The Rejection of Joachim's Sacrifice, and carefully followed the entire sequence of the narrative, through events from the life of Joachim, Mary's father, occupying the top tier of the south wall. Facing this sequence, on the top tier of the north wall, the Scenes from the Life of the Virgin begin. These run to the arch in front of the chancel on the east wall and culminate in the annunciation -- God sending the angel to Mary, above, and the angel making the announcement to Mary below. This carries the eye to the Scenes from the Life of Christ running around the south wall and up the north wall.
I spent an hour following the line of the narrative, which culminates, on the west wall with the Last Judgment. It is a triumphantly medieval conception, Dantesque in its layered storytelling, for here everything happens at once and wherever your eye goes, it is drawn around and through all the aspects of the climactic moment.
Having read through the story, I luxuriated in the individual images. At one point both Tom and I were both looking at The Flight into Egypt. He asked me what I made of the gesture the green-robed figure on the left was making with his right hand. I said that it looked to me as though it were designed to continue the diagonal thrust along the line of the strap across the donkeys rear haunches and up through the upper right quadrant, where an angel hovers above Joseph and a steep mountain road cascades through the center of the image, both outlining Mary and leading into the distance.
"The gestures are all symbolic," Tom said. "It means something. Even if its reference is obscure to us, Giotto was making a statement with it."
I mentioned that I thought the narrative techniques here were quite different from those of the Basilica di San Francesco where the eye is drawn directly from panel to panel more vigorously. These seemed more self-contained to me.
"I was noticing how they are arranged to lead the eye from the foreground into the background," Tom said. His point was that Giotto had reached a very high level of spatial awareness, and that the narrative occupied an interior space as well as the exterior, temporal, thrust leading to the next image.
The more I looked, the more I was struck not by the painterly techniques, but by the essence of the story itself.
For most of my life I viewed paintings such as these as works of art, detached from their religious significance. It was easy enough. I was raised as a non-practicing Jew; Christianity was at best alien, at worst hostile. When I was seven a Catholic family lived in the apartment below us, and they had several children, two my age. We often played elaborate psychodramas of their devising, in which I was invariably cast into a pit of snakes or otherwise humiliated for being a Christ-killer, which I wasn't because I had no idea who Christ was. But they knew, and they knew I was, and the dramas they acted out with me were liturgical in essence and childhood-fantasy in their dramaturgy. They usually ended with the girl closest to my age, Maureen, stealing impassioned kisses at game's end while admonishing me, "Don't tell my brother! He'll beat you up!"
I easily separated the artistry from the religious content, in music as well as in visual art. Everything changed for me in Assisi, when I stepped into the narrative of Saint Frances. Experiencing the content made the images more vivid and meaningful, so that the story of the gentle saint filled me with wonder. I opened myself to experiencing it as in insider; certainly not an orthodox insider, but an insider nonetheless. This was easy with the story of Saint Francis. The Scrovegni frescoes, however, are the distillation of the entire Christian mythos and I could hardly divorce subject matter from its representation. This greatest of all art compelled me to consider its meaning, and tendered the central concepts of sin and redemption for my contemplation. I am gay, I am Jewish, I was a communist, I am an agnostic. My sins are legion, nor are they things I could or would change. I know there is mystery and magic at the center of the universe but I prefer not to translate it into anthropomorphic terms, nor subscribe to any dogma. I feel the Unnamed in my own moments of spiritual exaltation; I am filled with gratitude and compassion in my own way, not only at certain times but at any time. I felt deeply that religion, in my humble opinion, should begin with joy and gratitude and end in forgiveness. These are interior acts. They live deep within and need not be worn on one's sleeve.
Jesus was, after all, an outsider; he infuriated the religious and political establishment with his radical departure from the prevailing orthodoxy and his contempt for worldly possessions. "It is easier," he said, "for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven." He threw the money changers from the temple. How can this square with today's neo-Calvinist billionaires? How has this ever squared with the splendor and luxury of the Catholic church? What sense can be made of Lloyd Blankfein's claim that, as Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs he has "been doing God's work"? Logic and faith must be twisted like a pretzel for such accommodations. As with the story of Saint Francis, one must penetrate the accretions of centuries of dogma and self-serving doctrinal debate to get in touch with the real impulses and the real message.
Artists like Giotto facilitate this, and that is what makes their art so brilliant. The Scrovegni frescoes, though orthodox enough, are filled with real people to whom extraordinary things are happening. Calaphas is so angry at Jesus he tears open his shirt (the same gesture seen in the "Ira" (anger) panel of the Seven Vices). The ass upon which Jesus rides into Jerusalem is docile, humble, his eyes sweet, serene, resigned. The mothers weep real tears as their children are brutally hacked up in the Slaughter of the Innocents. The religious subtext is subsumed in the human drama and made comprehensible by the simple reality of recognizable people. As the story unfolds the characters' faces become familiar, they wear the same clothes so that we know who they are even when their backs are toward us. Everything conspires to fill us with understanding.
As architecture meets (and often exceeds) our need for shelter, art meets our need for beauty, for transcendence. Through art we can transcend our place and time. We can read the Parthenon marbles, we can experience the Passion through Giotto's pictures. We encounter the eternal.
When I think about these things, my mind goes back to something I read about Schopenhauer. I am no philosopher, and have never read Schopenhauer, but I read about Schopenhauer's influence on Wagner in Bruce Magee's fascinating book "The Tristan Chord." He distills the essence of Schopenhauer as follows. There is what we can know, and what we cannot know because we cannot apprehend it directly. That which lies beyond our comprehension is the "thing in itself." We lack the senses, the means, the capability to experience or comprehend the thing-in-itself, which can be looked at as the direct experience of the transcendent, the majesty and terror at the heart of creation, the subject of Greek tragedy, the essence of the universe, otherwise dressed as a god in the center of a religious cosmology. It's there but we cannot know it directly, just as we would go blind if we stared into the sun.
But there are clues, approximations, intimations, from nature and from its representation in art. For Schopenhauer two particularly human phenomena most closely approximate the experience of the thing-in-itself: sexual orgasm and opera. (Now here, I thought, is a man after my own heart!)
Little need be said here about orgasm; we can at least all agree that we know what it is, both in its electrifying presence and its sweet and peaceful aftermath. But you have to love opera as I do, or as Schopenhauer must have, to understand that part of the proposition. I can only say that opera provides a unique opportunity; what Wagner called the gesamtkunstwerk, the fusion of all the arts into a unified, universal whole. In opera not only is our ear engaged, but also our eyes; music and visual and dramatic spectacle fuse into a triple-whammy. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Although the perfect 10 -- when it all comes together -- is elusive, its pursuit is rewarded with lots of 7s, 8s, and even 9s, enough to keep you going, to know that every now and then there will be more, the full Monty, the unmitigated brush with glory.
But I must add to those experiences, for me, certain works of art, certainly the Parthenon Marbles and the frescoes of the Scrovegni chapel. They have the power to shift the tectonic plates of everday life, burst the sky and shower radiance. In my own personal pursuit of the revelations that art provides, I have found that the great churches of the world, filled with silence, are spiritual places where we are invited to contemplate the eternal; but when they are filled with music, we hear it as well as see it. We feel it. For an instant or an hour, we become sublime.
There is nothing in this world, no surface existing, that douldn't be improved by a Giotto fresco, preferably a Saint Francis cycle. (The saint preaching to the birds or stripping off his clothing to return to his father as he rejects worldly weath, might well be placed beside the banks and bourses of the world as a reminder of true worth.) These works certainly take me into the presence of whatever you wish to call it: god, nirvana, bliss, the thing-in-itself, the sublime. That's where I make my peace with existence in all its wrinkles and permutations of sorrow and joy, grief and ecstasy; where I experience my transcendence and offer my gratitude. My avatar, my Virgil in the dark forest of human folly, is art, which invariably inspires me to praise, joy, and forgiveness.
The Scrovegni Chapel is the crystallization of the love at the heart of the story. It is a gift to us all, to remind us of the heights of which we are capable and the depths to which we sink. Whether by virtue of, or in spite of, its religious language, it allows us to experience our own transcendence of suffering and ascent to paradise.
The west wall is a single picture: The Last Judgement. It's all there, unfolding in complex narrative waves and swirls, the ecstatic peace of heaven, the torments of hell, the peculiar existential crossroads of purgatory, culminating with the compassionate Jesus at its center. Everything is interconnected. At the foot of the painting Enrico Scrovegni offers his lovely pink chapel to the Virgin, hoping to secure his place in heaven. It is peculiarly ironic. His father Roderigo was carefully placed by Dante in the inner ring of the seventh circle of hell, where the usurers along with the sodomites suffer in a burning desert swept by a rain of fire. Hoping to avoid such a fate, Enrico Scrovegni offers up the lovely chapel, decorated by Giotto. I think it fitting that Giotto's work is offered up to the Virgin, who was as sure to be pleased by its felicitous beauties as we are.
That, in the end, is the essence of art. It is a point of tangency with the sublime and renders it comprehensible. In the world of the painted image, nothing compares to the emotional, visceral, spiritual impact of Giotto. In the Scrovegni Chapel he provides us a direct connection to the love that animates the universe.