Padua, Chapel of Flesh

The Artist’s Experiment and Its Consequences

Both the man of science and
the man of art live always
at the edge of mystery.


AND THE PURSUITS OF BOTH, WE may say, are inevitably informed by whatever philosophical outlook they may have attached themselves to. In reading the works of Roger Bacon, one cannot go far without running into his Plotinian assumptions—his belief that the basis of the world is mystical but that our ultimate focus must be on the other world, the unchanging one, for ours is a sorry world of decay. If he was influenced in practical ways by Aristotle—as was every philosopher of the thirteenth century, for Aristotle was in the air they breathed—his ultimate loyalty was to the Christianized version of Plato that Augustine of Hippo had served forth so forcefully.

In midlife, Bacon entered the Franciscan order, approximately a half century after Francis had founded it; and his attachment to a neo-Franciscan mind-set is a notable aspect of his later work. Francis’s original idea that his followers should own nothing but live as perpetual beggars had proved difficult, almost impossible, to abide by as time went on and as the order’s duties called it to administer educational and medical institutions of various kinds. An enduring split opened up within the order between literalists and absolutists, on the one hand, who came to be called Spirituals, and those, on the other, who were more practical and relativist and who came to be called Conventuals. (Roger’s affinity was with the Spirituals.)

But this split, which at times sank even to violence and threatened the dissolution of the order, was as nothing compared to the gulf that opened between the followers of Saint Francis, the gentle, ill-educated Italian poor man, and the followers of Saint Dominic de Guzmán, the well-educated but militant Spanish nobleman who transformed himself into a riveting preacher against heretics. Dominic had founded his order not as a model of evangelical poverty but as an assault engine; and his followers, Dominicani, came to be satirized as “Domini canes,” dogs of the Lord, snarling and relentless in their pursuit of heretics.

The universities of Paris and Oxford, to which both orders supplied faculty, were periodically convulsed by waves of faculty discord, much of it Dominican versus Franciscan. Of course, non-friars—masters who were either diocesan priests or clerics in minor orders (and therefore free to marry)—could take a dim view of all friars, whether Dominican or Franciscan,a and even assert that no friar had any business teaching at a university. To hell with these peace-disturbing routiers; let them return to the roads where they claim to belong.

In the second half of the thirteenth century, the Franciscans became more and more suspicious of the renaissance of Greek-inspired philosophy that was emerging in their midst. Taking refuge under Augustine’s banner, they came to see Aristotle’s thought as a sometimes useful but awfully dangerous instrument that assigned far too much value to unaided reason. The muddled human mind, damaged by sin, wanders too easily astray, so reason requires God’s illuminating revelation to keep it on the straight path. Indiscriminate reading of Aristotle and his commentators—so many of them Muslims, Jews, and heretical Christians—can lead only to disaster. Thomas Aquinas, in the course of his short life, had no such qualms either about Aristotle or about the central philosophical (and scientific) value of reason, whether aided or unaided by revelation. His writings formed the Dominicans’ blueprint for teaching, and “Thomism” became their rallying cry, as dear to Dominicans as it was fraught with peril to Franciscans.b

For his positive positions on Aristotelian thought and the value of reason, operating independently, Thomas, that most considered and undemonstrative of men, gained a posthumous reputation as an unreliable radical. In 1277, on the third anniversary of Thomas’s death, Étienne Tempier, bishop of Paris, solemnly condemned 219 “Aristotelian” propositions as heretical and grounds for the excommunication of anyone who was found to hold them. Tempier’s list largely consisted of propositions from the loonier liberal fringe of the neo-Aristotelian movement, but included in the list were a score of propositions drawn from the works of Thomas Aquinas. This condemnation was enthusiastically seconded by Robert Kilwardby, archbishop of Canterbury and himself a Dominican. So we may say that, in the short run, Thomism lost.

In the very long run, however, things would turn out rather differently. Thomism never disappeared from university circles because the dons could never stop arguing over it—and a vigorous episcopal condemnation so often foretells future success. Less than fifty years after his death, Thomas Aquinas was raised to the altars as a canonized saint by Pope John XXII, who found the Franciscans repulsive. (With their one habit each and their bare feet trailing street offal in a time before the invention of sanitation departments, you could certainly smell the Spirituals coming long before they made their appearance.) In 1879, Thomas’s philosophical and theological writings were finally accepted by Pope Leo XIII as the official teaching of the Catholic Church. But this late papal approbation was something of a Pyrrhic victory, for the pope who proposed it viewed Thomism principally as a weapon to be used against the rising political and social liberalism of nineteenth-century Europe. By the time Leo gave his seal of approval (more than six centuries after Thomas’s death), many Thomistic categories, strategies, and interpretations had outlived their usefulness and grown archaic, unwieldy, and irrelevant to contemporary concerns.c

Thomas, the Dominican figure with the most enduring historical influence, nonetheless takes a backseat to Francis, whose influence was never narrowly intellectual but broadly cultural. Hard as it would be to imagine the likeness of any Dominican being used as a contemporary ikon, everyone still knows the identification of the simple cinctured figure with arms extended who stands in so many modern gardens, usually in the middle of the birdbath. Francis the gesturer, le jongleur de Dieu, God’s tumbler (as he was called in his lifetime), continues even in our day to enthrall imaginations. When I find myself in New York—that most contemporary of cities—in early October, I seldom fail to attend the spectacular chanted celebration of Francis’s feast day at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, complete with a stately main-aisle procession of animals small and large, domestic and exotic—an ox, an ass, rare birds, insects, and reptiles, a camel, a horse, sometimes even an elephant—the great mock-Gothic church resounding (below the celestial sounds of Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia) with the earthly cries of all the New York pets whose owners have brought them to be solemnly blessed for the coming year.

Whereas Thomas impressed intellectuals, Francis has always captivated ordinary people, and I suspect he always will. The gentle presence of Assisi’s Little Poor Man so reverberates through contemporary attitudes toward nature, ecology, and the animal kingdom that it needs no further elaboration here. What the reader is less likely to be aware of, however, is Francis’s lasting impact on the arts, especially on the plastic arts, theater, and (believe it or not) film. To appreciate this impact, we must return to the moment—which we studied earlier in the apse of Santa Maria in Trastevere—when Western art moved to separate itself from static Greek formalism and began to become its irrepressibly lively self.

The moment was not really a moment, more like a century. This “moment” of movement began in anonymous demonstrations of happiness, such as the famous “smiling angel” of Rheims or the almost comically contented face of the Trastevere Christ greeting his mother in Heaven—so far removed from the humorless angels (who saw nothing funny about anything) and the scowling, all-powerful Pantocrator (All-Ruler) Christs who had previously dominated Greek and Roman apses. But in the disposition of figures, the Trastevere apse follows the old Byzantine model. The figures (except for Christ and Mary) are not related to one another: they stand as abstractions against a cold gold background. They have no context but the gold that surrounds them, no identity but their particular form of dress, no individuality but the symbols they hold in their hands. Expressionless, they stare down at us, a panel of heavenly judges.

The famous smiling angel on the facade of the cathedral at Rheims. (Photo Credit 6.1)

Jesus as Pantocrator (All-Ruler), in an eleventh-century Greek mosaic that dominates the ceiling of the monastery church at Daphni. (Photo Credit 6.2)

Francis knew nothing technical about the arts, at least nothing beyond a rudimentary appreciation of the new lyricism of his time. Though his prayers did indeed bear the imprint of the troubadours, he never attempted to make a mosaic, to paint, or to draw. Nor is there any record of his writing or directing a mystery play or even putting on the plainest of one-acters. But he understood the importance of gesture—of corporeal expression that speaks beyond words—and so he was able to do something that would profoundly affect both plastic and performance arts, that took the new lyrical sensibility and combined it with a barely born ocular sensibility, and that brought both to a fruition never before dreamed.

In the generation after Francis, the most notable Franciscan was the Italian master Bonaventure, a contentiously conservative figure at the University of Paris, who as general of the order attempted unsuccessfully to prevent Roger Bacon from publishing his discoveries. He also, after collecting many eyewitness accounts, wrote a biography of Francis, an account full of marvels, not all of which we need take literally. It contains, however, a particularly instructive narrative of the Great Gesturer at Christmastide:

Now three years before his death it befell that he was minded, at the town of Greccio, to celebrate the memory of the Birth of the Child Jesus, with all the added solemnity that he might, for the kindling of devotion. That this might not seem an innovation, he sought and obtained licence from the Supreme Pontiff, and then made ready a manger, and bade hay, together with an ox and an ass, be brought unto the place. The Brethren were called together, the folk assembled, the wood echoed with their voices, and that august night was made radiant and solemn with many bright lights, and with tuneful and sonorous praises. The man of God, filled with tender love, stood before the manger, bathed in tears, and overflowing with joy. Solemn Masses were celebrated over the manger, Francis, the Levite of Christ, chanting the Holy Gospel. Then he preached unto the folk standing round the Birth of the King in poverty, calling Him, when he wished to name Him, the Child of Bethlehem, by reason of his tender love for Him. A certain knight, valorous and true, MesserJohn of Greccio, who for the love of Christ had left the secular army, and was bound by closest friendship unto the man of God, declared that he beheld a little Child right fair to see sleeping in that manger, Who seemed awakened from sleep when the blessed Father Francis embraced him in both arms.

If this translation gives some sense of Bonaventure’s credulous piety and of his tendency to wrap the founder of his order in unearthly light, it also has about it the sort of emotional ambience we still seek out at Christmas. There is no reason to doubt that John of Greccio gave this narrative to Bonaventure, though we needn’t believe that the wooden Babe in the manger came alive at Francis’s touch, only that John in the unearthly illumination of Christmas night believed that was what he saw.

Francis of Assisi’s first presepio or crèche. Fresco by Giotto in the basilica at Assisi. Note the reduced size of ox and ass, meant perhaps to minimize their importance in this scene. (Photo Credit 6.3)

There is some slight evidence that Italians before Francis may have been known to fashion a wooden bambino to lay before the altar at the midnight Christ-mass. But leading an ox and an ass into the sanctuary was an original idea. With it began the tradition of the presepio, or Christmas crèche, the practice of arranging a tableau of live creatures, both animal and human, near the Christmas altar, to portray the story of the first Christmas night. Eventually, the tradition divided in two, giving us a crèche of statues on display throughout the Christmas season and a pageant of live actors, usually children, to dramatize the Christmas story separately. But leave it to Francis to lead large live animals into the church and even to insist on real hay.

Bonaventure is intent on telling us many things: that Francis first sought the pope’s permission for his innovation (most unlikely), that Francis acted as deacon, chanting the gospel of Christmas and giving a tender sermond (most likely), and that all was radiant and solemn, tuneful and sonorous (more or less, no doubt). But the biographer seems not to have noticed the import of what Francis was doing. Francis must have asked himself several questions before directing this wonderfully excessive display: what did the stable look like? what was it like to give birth to a child there “betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass”? what did the baby look like? what did the baby feel? As Francis had told his friend John, “I wish to make a memorial of that child who was born in Bethlehem and, as far as is possible, behold with bodily eyes the hardships of his infant state, lying on hay in a manger with the ox and the ass standing by.” Though Bonaventure fails to name them, it’s possible, even likely, that Francis on this or another occasion brought in a nursing mother to play Mary and a man to play Joseph, perhaps children to play angels. Eventually, of course, there would be shepherds, wise men and their train, and a whole menagerie that included sheep, a cock, and even camels.

This archetypal tableau, presented to the people of Greccio in the vale of Rieti on Christmas night in the year 1223, announced the end of the ikon and the beginning of realism. No more would the visual artist make a kind of Christian idol to be bowed before and held in awe. No more would traveling companies offer merely symbolic dramas with actors brought onstage to illustrate virtues and vices, as in the medieval drama Everyman—who is never any particular man.e The wholly new question to be asked was historical, emotional, particular, and human: what would it have been like to be there? This question, never asked before, was still being asked at the end of the Second World War by men like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini as they set aside fancy-dress filmmaking and artificial indoor sets and went out to the broken streets, peeling stairwells, pitted walls, and piteous disorder of Rome to direct the first films of Italian Neorealism, gathering ordinary people—nonactors—to play many parts. In the town of Greccio on Christmas night in 1223 were born the arts as we still know them.

The story is told by Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth-century Florentine artist and architect whose Lives of other artists is more famous than any of his surviving paintings and buildings. One day, probably in the late 1270s, a man was riding from Florence to Vespignano. He was Cimabue, the greatest artist of his day, whose tender brushstrokes had already departed, if a little tentatively, from the still-dominant Greek tradition. Cimabue passed a field where a boy of ten was watching sheep for his father. But this boy was no mere shepherd, for he was watching the sheep with a pointed stone in one hand while drawing a likeness of a sheep on a larger stone, “a flat, smooth slab.” Cimabue dismounted to take a closer look and was amazed by the drawing he saw. Here was a ten-year-old peasant who was a talented artist. At Cimabue’s invitation, the boy, Giotto di Bondone, went to work in Cimabue’s Florentine studio. By his late teens he was painting panels for local churches. By about the age of twenty Giotto could be found on a scaffold at Assisi in the nave of the just-completed basilica, painting frescoes to adorn the lavish new church dedicated to Assisi’s new saint. Though Francis would have decried such attention to himself (he had, after all, asked to be buried among convicted criminals), we can only be grateful that the basilica that rose over his bones became the occasion for the astonishing homage that Giotto would render.

Sixth-century Byzantine Virgin and Child in the Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna. (Photo Credit 6.4)

Before we allow ourselves to drown happily in the splendor of Assisi, we should take a quick overall look at Giotto’s (equally quick) development from sketching shepherd to assured painter. Whatever his sheep may have looked like, the artistic models that surrounded the boy Giotto were all severely Greek.f He would have been familiar with the standard apparitions that loomed everywhere in thirteenth-century Italy. Two images, in particular, were omnipresent: Virgin and Child Enthroned and Christ Crucified. No matter where you went, they pretty much seemed the same, awesomely rigid images to be looked up to and invoked. In Cimabue’s scarce surviving works, we can trace his break with this ikonic tradition. His Virgin, at least when contrasted with its Greek model, is sweet and smiling, his Child actually childlike. Giotto goes further: though his earliest (probable) madonna—a badly damaged study in tempera on a wooden panel—may be a bit stiff, she looks like a real woman, someone who might actually show up this afternoon at the parish church of Borgo San Lorenzo in Florence, where the panel is still displayed. The teenage Giotto’s model was no Greek ikon but a local mother; and from her watchful expression we can still surmise that she had mixed feelings about serving as model for this brutal-looking boy.

Cimabue’s Madonna and Child with Angels and Prophets, painted c. 1260 for the Church of the Trinity, Florence, and now in the Uffizi Gallery. (Photo Credit 6.5)

Giotto’s wryly realistic Madonna of Borgo San Lorenzo. (Photo Credit 6.6)

For Giotto, the creator of so much beauty, was himself no beauty. Giovanni Boccaccio, the daring Florentine satirist who was Giotto’s younger contemporary, reminds us that “amazing genius is often found to have been placed in the ugliest of men”—and that Giotto was one of these, a man of bottomless humility, who “always refused to be called ‘Maestro,’ even though he was the master of all living artists and had rightfully acquired the title. And this title which he refused shone all the more brightly in him in that it was eagerly usurped by those who knew far less than himself, or by his own disciples. But for all the greatness of his art, neither was he physically more handsome, nor had he a face more pleasing in any way, than Messer Forese da Rabatta”—whom Boccaccio has previously described as having “a small, deformed body, and a flat, pushed-in face.” No doubt Boccaccio is exaggerating slightly for the sake of his narrative, but we learn from other witnesses that Giotto had an excessively broad face and a short, stout, barrel-chested body and that he always maintained the manner of a modest man—not the usual way with artists then or now.

Giotto’s subsequent madonnas, the virgins of his mature art, go even further in the direction of realistic portrayal. His Ognissanti Madonna, now in the Uffizi in Florence, has an insouciant air—her lips parted in a half smile over her white teeth, her young breasts pointed and pressing against her nearly translucent white dress—that would have been impossible to any painter before him. This madonna’s expression is reserved but earthy and almost amused.

There is never anything amusing about crucifixion, but even in this subject we may trace Giotto’s development. The severe Greek ikon gives way in Cimabue’s curvilinear treatment to a more supple, more balletic, less exalted sense of the human body. Giotto, inhis crucifixions, however, eschews all artistic swish: here is a good man dying on a cross, surrounded by his few suffering friends. That’s all. Don’t show off, artista. Don’t even reach for anything like gory sensationalism. Pity, that’s all. Pity and profound reverence for human suffering. And silent contemplation. However innovative, however magisterial his work becomes, Giotto’s reverent humility makes all his art into prayer. He is, in the truest sense, Franciscan.

Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna (Madonna of All Saints), now in the Uffizi. (Photo Credit 6.7)

Cimabue’s Crucifixion at Arezzo. (Photo Credit 6.8)

Thirteenth-century Greek Crucifixion. (Photo Credit 6.9)

Giotto’s Crucifixion in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. (Photo Credit 6.10)

Giotto, throughout his adult life a Franciscan tertiary—a lay (presumably married) member of the Franciscan order—must have felt deeply his vocation to portray the life of Francis in paint on the walls of the upper church in Assisi’s new basilica. Still working formally under the tutelage of Cimabue, who had been given the commission to oversee the decoration of the upper church, Giotto was allowed, it would appear, complete freedom over the series of twenty-eight frescoed scenes that would adorn the lower walls—a quiet admission, perhaps, by Cimabue that his student had already surpassed him. The result would be a necklace of scenes so detailed and complete in their physicality that Europe had seen nothing like them since the long-ago death of classical fresco art.

The technique of making a fresco is excruciating in its demands on the artist, for the scene must be painted rapidly on wet plaster (fresco meaning “fresh” in Italian). The artist can sketch out for completion only as much of the scene as he can confidently cover in one day’s light, for by the time the sun returns the next day the wall will already be too dry. The advantage of such a technique is that the pigments fuse with the wall itself during the drying process, becoming more permanent and, in their effect on the viewer, more substantial and profound, for the colors take on a vivid depth and eternality impossible on a wooden panel. The disadvantage, in addition to the anxiety of racing against time, is that there is no going back, no possibility of correcting a mistake at a later date.

In Giotto’s frescoes, Francis at all times wears his golden halo—without which detail the friars of the basilica would undoubtedly have been unwilling to pay for the paint. But in other ways there is scant allowance for otherworldliness. The three-dimensionality of the figures is unlike anything seen since ancient times, thanks to careful gradations of color, which turn darker toward the edges of each figure. To thirteenth-century eyes, each figure in these scenes might as well have been a hologram, for it seemed to pop out and become as rounded as in life, “making it,” as Boccaccio claimed, “so much like its original in Nature that it seemed more like the original than a reproduction. Many times, in fact, while looking at paintings by this man, the observer’s visual sense was known to err, taking what was painted to be the very thing itself.” Though at first glance the scenes made by Giotto and his assistants—of whom we can identify at least four—look to us like paintings of the late thirteenth century, we can with a little effort come to see them with the eyes of Giotto’s contemporaries.

Renunciation of Worldly Goods by Giotto, Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi. (Photo Credit 6.11)

The saint is often seen in profile—an absolute no-no in Byzantine ikonography and a startling innovation in Giotto’s time—and in physical association with other human beings, giving, taking, talking, confronting, thanking. He is never alone and exalted, always on the same level as others, always engaged with them. His is a life of encounters, for as Martin Buber said, “All real living is meeting.” In Giotto’s fresco cycle, we meet a real saint in motion, living a real life on the same plane as everyone else. Each scene is enclosed within painted architectural elements—elaborately executed trompe l’oeil marble corbels—that enhance the impression of three-dimensionality, the impression that we are looking at these scenes through a series of open windows, leading us into another man’s life, allowing us to spy on him and gain some insight into his inner self. We have for so long been used to such depictions that it requires some concentration for us to appreciate again the thunderous revelation that these frescoes were in their time.

Though it is not possible for us to linger here over each of the twenty-eight images, a closer look at four of them will give us sustenance for our continuing Giotto journey. The Renunciation of Worldly Goods, the scene in which Francis also renounces his father, is a fine example of Giotto’s democratic spirit, for all participants, even the distracted bishop, face one another on the same plane. The father’s punishing right arm is restrained discreetly by his neighbor, for violence is always muted in Giotto. The gulf between father and son is black, immense, and uncrossable, relieved only by Francis’s hands petitioning the dimly distant hand of God far above the town. All the figures are framed by the actual buildings of Assisi, domestic and secular on the left, public and sacred on the right—pink, yellow, white, and blue, demonstrations of Assisi’s pride in its mercantile adornments as against the nakedness of the humble saint.

Dream of Innocent III by Giotto, Basilica of Saint Francis. (Photo Credit 6.12)

In the Dream of Innocent III, the pope lies in his private chamber, the carefully detailed curtains that surround his sleeping alcove attesting to the reality of the scene (even if he is unlikely to have worn his pontifical robes and golden mitre to bed). He dreams that his cathedral church of San Giovanni in Laterano is falling down, held aloft only by the strength of the Little Poor Man of Assisi. It was because of this nightmare that Innocent resolved in the morning to give his approval to Francis’s peculiar experiment of the Lesser Brothers (or Friars Minor). The dramatic center of the scene is the stressed young face of Francis, all calm concentration and determination to succeed, his thick right wrist supporting the entire building.

A personal favorite of mine is the Exorcism of the Demons of Arezzo, not so much for the demons (who, it must be admitted, are wonderfully individualized in their high dudgeon), nor even for Francis, kneeling humbly in prayer behind the official exorcist and giving the exorcism wings, as it were. What attracts me here is the detailed recital of Arezzo’s glorious architecture, caught as if in a freeze-frame, just as it was in Giotto’s day, rising in aspiration above the city’s walls, a colorful fantasy of medieval skyscrapers. Either the exorcism failed to rid the city of all its demons or they crept back sometime later (perhaps through the infernal cleft that spreads so ominously under the walls), for lovely Arezzo morphed into an enthusiastic center of Italian fascism in the 1930s, later serving Roberto Benigni as the setting for his comic and touching holocaust film, La vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful).

Exorcism of the Demons of Arezzo by Giotto, Basilica of Saint Francis. (Photo Credit 6.13)

Saint Francis Mourned by Saint Clare by Giotto, Basilica of Saint Francis. (Photo Credit 6.14)

The last scene we shall examine in this cycle is Saint Francis Mourned by Saint Clare, a fresco in which Giotto’s assistants probably had a hand. It is a pity that the face of Clare is ruined, but the stance of her body leaves no doubt as to her attitude. Francis, even dead, seems more alive than any of the grieving onlookers, and the inclination of his head to Clare’s, and hers to his, resolves all ambiguity: here was a mighty friendship. Francis often warned his followers that they should not be surprised if he turned up one day with children of his own. This was taken by pious interpreters like Bonaventure to mean that Francis was conscious in his holy humility that even a saint could fall into the most despicable of sins. I rather think he meant that, though he had been given his life’s commission by God and had to follow it, he was a man like other men and would much have preferred to take a wife, know fleshly intimacy, and love the children of his body. Here his bier is laid out before San Damiano, the chapel he had restored and later turned over to Clare and her sisters; and his face in Giotto’s depiction still gives off an aura of the romantic masculinity that might have taken him to a far more ordinary, more obvious, more human way of life, rather than to weary death at forty-five. He married a concept, whom he gallantly called Lady Poverty, but he gave every evidence of being a man of tangibility, who constantly ran his fingers over the world of the senses and loved everything those fingers touched.

Detail of Saint Francis Mourned by Saint Clare. (Photo Credit 6.15)

Though death anchors the foreground of the fresco, this is, as the Veronese critic Francesca Flores d’Arcais calls it, “one of the most animated scenes in the cycle … The nuns pour out of the church in a fluttering of veils with the vivacity of an airy flight of brown swallows,” volatile, unstable testaments to chastity. The men of Assisi in their “brightly colored clothes,” purchased, for all we know, from old Bernardone, cluster together weightily in democratic fraternity, their heads bobbing. They are the people from whom Francis sprang, the men he might have remained among and been one of. Beyond them a boy—a child like the one Francis and Clare never had together—climbs a tree to get a better look. But Francis and Clare occupy the lower center of the picture, as they occupy the minds of every viewer, medieval and modern. Here, at this nearly breathing still point between Francis and Clare, “is a feeling” as Flores d’Arcais puts it, “of intense rapport.”

As Francis brought new tangibility to the life of the spirit, Giotto restored a like tangibility to art. But the Francis cycle at Assisi was almost a finger exercise compared with what came next.

In the first decade of the fourteenth century, Giotto, now in his mid-thirties, was invited to execute a commission in Padua by Enrico Scrovegni, an ambitious and very wealthy merchant-banker. Ser Scrovegni had recently purchased the ruins of the ancient Roman arena in his city, and there he intended to build an imposing palace for himself with an adjoining chapel. Would Giotto decorate the chapel? It was to be a relatively small, private family chapel, but Scrovegni had big plans for it: he wanted an artistic jewel that would wow his friends, intimidate his enemies, and last forever. He got what he wanted.

Padua (Padova to Italians) hosts the second oldest university in Italy, nearly a century old by the time Giotto finished his chapel, and its streets and cafés have long echoed with the lively clamor of student laughter and student despair. The city boasts some of the largest and best-proportioned piazzas in Italy, as well as a twisting fantasy of domes and towers—the breathtaking Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, dedicated to the Portuguese Franciscan who died several decades before Giotto was born and became one of Christendom’s best-loved saints. As many as five million pilgrims a year still visit his basilica, which is called Il Santo (The Saint) by all Padovani. Padua, almost impossible to drive into today because of its latticework of one-way streets and its absence of parking spaces, may have been only marginally more accessible in Giotto’s time, for it has always been a crowded, not-so-negotiable place, laid out awkwardly in the shadow of Venice. But once you succeed in dismounting your horse or getting out of your car, Padua yields the sort of refreshing and stimulating encounters that no pilgrim would willingly pass up. Even today, its principal jewel is not the Scrovegni palace, pulled down in the nineteenth century, nor even the miraculous apparition of Il Santo, but the unassuming building of modest proportions called the Scrovegni (or Arena) Chapel, the sole survivor of Ser Scrovegni’s monumental building program.

A visit to the chapel today can be a disappointment, if only because its present keepers push visitors through with such alarming alacrity. If ever one needed a generous amount of time to ponder a work of art, it is in this unique room, some sixty-seven feet by twenty-eight, nearly sixty-one feet high, roofed by a tunnel vault. The overwhelming impression on entering is of Deep Blue, somewhat darker and more vibrant than azure and tending here and there toward turquoise. Not only do most of the scenes that adorn the walls show this blue as background, the whole of the dominating vault is painted blue, interrupted by little else than small gold stars, which seem only to intensify the color. This is the sky, of course, but not quite the sky at earthly midnight or midday but a sky that seems to have exchanged places with the sea, a sky of cosmic spectacle and mysterious comfort.

Interior of Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, with frescoes painted by Giotto. (Photo Credit 6.16)

On the entrance wall, Giotto has painted a Last Judgment, a fearful enough representation, yet something to contemplate rather than quake under. Unlike the later and more famous version by Michelangelo, this Judgment does not rise up over the altar but is behind us, something to be reminded of on one’s way back into the world, not something to crush the viewer here and now beneath its awesome power. Each of the side walls holds four layers of scenes, the highest layer giving us the life of Mary and her parents (as narrated in apocryphal gospels), the second and third layers giving us the life of Christ (as narrated in the four canonical gospels of the New Testament). The lowest layer, just above the choir stalls, contains depictions of the Seven Virtues and Seven Vices, thus echoing gently the scene of Judgment that looms behind us.

The Virtues and Vices, painted as marbleized trompe l’oeil panels, are both charming and (in the case of the vices) comical, but they will not detain us now. The chapel has no apse; its principal focus—if one may speak of focus in a room so plenteous in attractions—is the triumphal arch that frames the sanctuary. The heavenly scene at its height is of God the Father instructing the Angel Gabriel that he is to bring to Mary the news of her impending pregnancy. Just below this scene are two panels on either side of the arch: on the left Gabriel descends to Mary; on the right Mary receives the news. Unsurprisingly, the chapel is dedicated to this Annunciation of the Incarnation.

The richly pleasurable narrative scenes on the side walls, which command the bulk of the chapel’s space and send one’s eyes in all directions, are “read” by starting at the highest panel on the right, then moving rightward along the length of the top layer on the right-hand wall and then the left-hand wall till one has reached the top panel on the far left, the Procession at Mary’s Wedding to Joseph. Facing the triumphal arch and taking in the scenes of the Annunciation, one then drops down a level, studies theVisitation(Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist), and then begins again at the nearest scene on the second level of the right-hand wall, the Nativity of Jesus. Making a circuit of the second level rightward along the right-hand wall, then rightward along the left-hand wall, one arrives at last at the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (on what is called Palm Sunday). Facing the arch once more, one turns to read the first of the panels on the third level, the Last Supper. This is followed by a reading of all the panels on the third level, as one maintains a rightward direction down the right-hand wall, then up the left-hand wall till the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is reached, the last panel on the left-hand wall closest to the arch.

Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, Scrovegni Chapel. (Photo Credit 6.17)

I give these directions to emphasize how elaborate is the chapel’s plan and how much a successful visit to this shining room will be aided by prior study. To examine each scene in detail, however, would take a separate book (and several good ones are already available). All that can be done here is to point out one further complication in Giotto’s scheme and in so doing to draw your attention to three of the most compelling sets of scenes.

Mary receives Gabriel’s message, Scrovegni Chapel. (Photo Credit 6.18)

Though the obvious and most initially rewarding way to approach the chapel is to read its scenes chronologically, using the same order as we would for written text—from left to right and from top to bottom—it is also possible to read the scenes in columns from top to bottom. Often, if not always, Giotto has managed to enrich the meaning of one scene by the supporting presence of another. Take, for example, the Nativity of Jesus, in which we see Giotto moving toward a new sense of perspective. Though the rules for attaining three-dimensionality by the use of perspective would not be fully understood till after his time, Giotto takes significant steps in that direction by the dramatic use of foreshortening (the neck of the donkey, the placement of the stable, the half-hidden arm of the shepherd). Most innovative, however, is the charged seriousness of Mary’s profile as she stares in love and fear at her newborn Babe, while the nodding head of Joseph, old and weary, offers such a contrast. The ritualistic placement of the infant between mother and nursemaid has eucharistic significance. “This is his Body,” the two women could well be intoning, as they present the baby to one another, to the animals, and to the world. Any doubt that this is Giotto’s intent is dispelled by the scene directly below the Nativity,which is the Last Supper, at which Jesus, just prior to his crucifixion, offered his body as bread to his disciples with the words “This is my Body.”

Nativity of Jesus, Scrovegni Chapel. (Photo Credit 6.19)

Last Supper, Scrovegni Chapel. (Photo Credit 6.20)

Similarly, the Marriage Feast at Cana has eucharistic significance because it was at Cana that Jesus changed water into wine and because every mass is, to an extent, a marriage feast between Christ and the communicant. In support of this, we are given, in the scene just below the Marriage Feast, the Lamentation over Jesus, in which two women once again hold Jesus, offering him to us as they did at his Nativity. But this time they are holding the head of a fully grown dead man while three other women hold his hands and feet. The grief of the many human mourners is mirrored and strengthened by the mourning of angels in Heaven. Once again, “This is his Body” would provide the appropriate caption.

Marriage Feast at Cana, Scrovegni Chapel. (Photo Credit 6.21)

Such eucharistic messages will become only more explicit as Western art progresses. In Bernardino Luini’s remarkable version of the Lamentation, for instance, an early-sixteenth-century painting, the body of Jesus is presented to the viewer even more directly—from an altarlike stone platform covered in a linen cloth, which is the typical covering for a Catholic altar. A startlingly comprehensive exhibition that opened at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in late 1997 under the title “The Body of Christ in the Art of Europe and New Spain, 1150–1800” demonstrated conclusively that Catholic artists, from before the time of Giotto to well after, have repeatedly made connections between the Word-Made-Flesh—the Babe born at Bethlehem—and the eucharistic body of Christ offered in the mass. The Catholic belief that the mass is not merely a reenactment of the Last Supper but a kind of re-offering of the sacrifice of Jesus’s life on the cross at Calvary forms the ultimate theological basis for this visual connection.g

Lamentation over Jesus, Scrovegni Chapel. (Photo Credit 6.22)

But why, if we are not traditional Tridentine Catholics, should we care about this? What is this peculiar theological development to us?

Just as the Catholic Eucharist acted as catalyst for the development of Western science, it provided a basis for the development of artistic realism. The question “What is the Eucharist?” was soon followed by natural philosophers (one day to be called scientists) with the question “What is matter?” The same pondering on this Eucharist sparked in medieval artists a desire to present reality more fully, more accurately. Giotto’s Catholicism could conceivably have sent him in a completely different direction—toward, say, fanciful legends about the Holy Grail,h toward abstruse symbols and mythical animals like the unicorn, toward more gold and even less realism. Instead, his eucharistic Catholicism, informed by a Franciscan spirit, pushed him toward a nearly scientific quest to reproduce more exactingly in art the very things his eyes could see, his hands could touch, his heart could love—and preeminently among these lovable things the human body itself.

Ugly Giotto, lover of the human body and of human interactions. His ugliest subject is neither the crucifixion nor the figure of the dead Christ but the betrayal of Jesus by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before Jesus’s crucifixion. Judas, you will recall, had told the temple priests that for money he would identify Jesus with a kiss so that the Roman guard could arrest him. At the picture’s center, Judas embraces (in fact, envelops) Jesus, who studies him with sad compassion not very different from the expression of his mother Mary on the night of his birth, for both mother and son can see what lies ahead—the hideous suffering this night will bring in its wake. On the left, Peter severs the ear of the high priest’s servant, on the right an armed Roman soldier resolutely steps toward Jesus as soldiers at his back move in for the arrest. The night rings out with activity, torches and clubs are brandished aloft, and a shofar bleats its warning. It is by far Giotto’s most violent and upsetting picture. And Judas is so ugly, not because of his physiognomy but because of his expression, the resolute ugliness of someone cruelly set on doing evil.

Betrayal of Jesus by Judas, Scrovegni Chapel. (Photo Credit 6.23)

(Photo Credit 6.24)

In the back of the chapel is another face, the face of Giotto himself, painted by one of his assistants. Like Judas, he is shown in profile, the technique that Giotto championed. He stands, however, among the anonymous elect at the Last Judgment. Perhaps if seen full face he would look ugly, perhaps his body if separated from those on either side of him and turned toward us would be displeasing. But Giotto’s life has led him to eternal life with God. He has been saved, he’s on his way into Heaven; and his contentment, his beatitude, his high expectations for what comes next suffuse his features with a satisfying glow. The opposite of Judas’s screwed-up grimace, the face of Giotto, who labored without rest and with such dedication on an immensity of works, both surviving and lost, is just sublimely relaxed.

His work is done. His influence on generations to come, whether direct or indirect, on sculptors as well as painters, on Renaissance and modern artists as well as late-medieval ones—on Pisano, Ghiberti, Donatello, the Della Robbias, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, and Mantegna, on the inevitable trio of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and perhaps especially on that inspired superrealist Caravaggio—will be immeasurable. He, grandfather to them all, can at last let himself off the hook and enjoy his eternal rest.

And that is how life became art.

Giotto in yellow hat on his way to Heaven, Last Judgment, Scrovegni Chapel. (Photo Credit 6.26)

Campanile di Giotto, Florence. (Photo Credit 6.27)

Giotto’s Carraia Bridge, now destroyed, Florence. (Photo Credit 6.28)

a The words we now distinguish as cleric and clerk once referred to the same sort of person, one who could read and write and was therefore capable of acting clerically—as secretary to a man of importance, whether secular lord or bishop. For clerics in minor orders—those who had been ordained to simple tasks such as bellringer and acolyte but not to the diaconate or priesthood—ordination changed little in their lives, except that they could petition to be tried for a crime in ecclesiastical, rather than in the harsher secular, courts. The church preferred that all masters be ordained, at least to minor orders, because this gave the church greater control over university instruction. In addition to the diocesan clergy, attached to cathedrals, churches, and universities, there were monks abiding in monasteries, only some of whom were ordained as clerics. The others were called “brothers” and had no more clerical status than nuns or “sisters.” Friars, who were not confined to monasteries, were free to travel. Besides the Dominicans or Blackfriars (founded in 1216) and the Franciscans or Greyfriars (1223), the most prominent friars were the Carmelites or Whitefriars (1226) and the Augustinians or Austinfriars (1256). A friar might be an ordained priest but was more likely to be a simple “brother.”

b Though in this controversy the Dominicans come off with far less mud on them than the Franciscans, the Dominicans are covered in historical shame because of their support for and staffing of the Holy Inquisition and their embarrassing enthusiasm for burning heretics. During the late Pope John Paul II’s millennial year of apologies, the Dominicans somehow failed to apologize for their inhuman persecution of the Albigensians and many other “heretics.” Franciscans also played their part in these sadistic rituals, which ended often enough in the victim’s being burned at the stake, surrounded by splendidly costumed clerics and courtiers prancing in procession; but in the fourteenth century the Inquisition burned several innocuous Franciscan Spirituals. The object of the Inquisition was always the ferreting out of Christian heresy—that is, till the infamous Dominican Tomás de Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor in Spain from 1487 to 1498, initiated the persecution of thousands of Muslims and Jews on generally trumped-up charges.

c What Thomas Aquinas’s encyclopedic masterpiece, Summa Theologica (Sum Total of Theology), did for the thirteenth-century Hans Kung’s 700-page masterpiece of summation, Christ Sein (On Being a Christian), has done for our age, raising the hackles of defensive conservatives everywhere but welcomed gratefully by any Christian who appreciates the need for a new synthesis. The Swiss theologian’s reliance on ponderous Germanic theoreticians, especially Kant (and such neo-Kantians as Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Heidegger), may one day appear—inevitably—as useless as does Thomas’s reliance on Aristotle, but for us Kung’s analysis remains fresh and unlikely to reach its expiration date anytime soon.

d Francis allowed himself to be ordained deacon but never priest, a status to which he refused to aspire despite pressure from the church’s hierarchy, which took his refusal as a sign of humility. But Francis always considered himself a layman; his refusal to take the least step toward becoming part of the hierarchy (for priests can become bishops but deacons cannot) may have been dictated more by his quiet disapproval of priestly displays of power than by simple humility. Deacons, however, are permitted to proclaim the gospel in church and to preach on its text. The text of the Christmas midnight mass gospel is Luke 2:1–14, which takes us from the scene of a pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph, setting out from Nazareth for Bethlehem “to be taxed” by the Roman occupiers, through the birth of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem, to the appearance of an angel who informs local shepherds of the miraculous birth and is then joined by a heavenly choir singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”

e Greek ikons had flooded into Italy especially in the eighth and ninth centuries, as ikon artists and ikon-venerating monks migrated there to escape persecution by Greek ikonoklasts. Ikonoklasm (or image breaking) had the backing of many of the Byzantine emperors, who had come to believe that Islam’s rejection of human images found favor with God and was therefore responsible for Muslim military successes.

f Of course, such symbolic dramas continued to be staged. Everyman itself is later than Francis. But Francis opened up new possibilities.

g Since the Thomistic terminology of substance and accident (based on Aristotelian science) and, therefore, the Thomistic explanation of the Eucharist are no longer serviceable, readers of a speculative bent may find the painfully convoluted probe by the celebrated (and reviled) Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx in The Eucharist to be of some help in assessing contemporary approaches to eucharistic theology—but it is not for the fainthearted.

h The Holy Grail figures especially in the stories of the Arthurian cycle, though it may have had an earlier origin. It is the ultimate object of quest for the Knights of the Round Table, though only a perfectly pure knight can find it. It seems occasionally to change its shape (and even its function and meaning), but it is generally to be identified with the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. It was believed to have been brought to England after Jesus’s Passion by Joseph of Arimathea and buried in Chalice Well in Glastonbury.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!