Origins of Medieval Tuscan Painting III. Giotto: the Frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel and later works

View of the interior of the Scrovegni Chapel, also known as the Arena Chapel, a small church in Padua (Italy), seen towards the main entrance door. This chapel contains a fresco cycle by Giotto, completed about 1305, which covers all the internal surfaces of the chapel, including the ceiling. The church was dedicated to Santa Maria della Carità and consecrated in 1305. Much of Giotto’s fresco cycle focuses on the life of the Virgin Mary and celebrates her role in human salvation.

Giotto also painted other set of frescoes in which he took advantage of old evangelical stories to present them rejuvenated to his contemporaries. It is the series of frescoes in the small chapel that Arrigo Scrovegni, lord of Padua, had built in the center of the Roman amphitheater of this city to commemorate the martyrs sacrificed there. This amphitheater or arena of Padua surrounds the chapel with an atmosphere of solitude and silence that greatly favors the contemplation of Giotto’s paintings. This small sanctuary was all decorated by Giotto’s own hand or by disciples who worked there under his immediate direction. It includes 38 panels whose themes are based, some on the Canonical Gospels, and others on the apocryphal Gospel of St. James where the legends of Joachim and Anne are told. In this text the story of Joachim is portrayed as a romantic novel in where he, though jealous of his wife, returns for a tender reconciliation after fleeing to the desert. Giotto, with his great narrative force, gave new life to these scenes like the one that represents Joachim pensive in the midst of the shepherds. Here, the landscape is simply indicated with some rocks and a few trees to give an idea of ​​a rustic environment. Here we are still somewhat far from the days when artists will enjoy freedom in technique and composition to enjoy themselves in the use and master of perspective and the impression of a local environment.

The interior of the Scrovegni Chapel seen towards the main altar.

The Gospel of St. James also offers apocryphal details about the birth, childhood and betrothal of the Virgin, all of these themes that the Byzantines were pleased to illustrate and that Giotto, being himself religious, also repeated by infusing them with modern significance. The important characteristic of these frescoes is the sentimentality portrayed by the holy people, who show themselves superior because of their capacity to love. But when the drama of the Passion ended, the paroxysm of pain and the agitated souls of the characters are shown with broken gestures. Dante had to recognize there characters from his own Divine Comedy as if he was looking into a mirror. Dantesque and giottesque are almost synonymous.

Most of the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel represent extensive cycles showing the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin. Picture above and below are examples showing the different sacred stories Giotto used to represent the story of salvation. The Annunciation with The Virgin Receiving the Message located in the right lunette of the triumphal arch of the main altar (left); Joachim and Anne Meeting at the Golden Gate, from the Legend of Saint Joachim located  on the upper tier, south wall (right).
Left: Joachim among the Shepherds (upper tier, south wall). Right: Marriage of the Virgin (upper tier, north wall).
Left: Visitation (triumphal arch). Right: Nativity, Birth of Jesus (middle tier, south wall).

The main interest of Giotto’s frescoes in Padua and Assisi always lies in the artist’s insight to analyze the intimate depths of the human soul. The spectator that for the first time, without being prepared, see these two monumental sets of paintings would perhaps be somewhat baffled by the naive simplification of the backgrounds, the simplicity of the landscapes drawn with miniature trees, and the childish looking architectures of fantastic buildings, sustained by unbelievable thin little columns with which Giotto wanted to represent the temple of Jerusalem or the palaces of his time. But for this great artist all of that was less than secondary, the main focus, almost the only thing, is the human soul protagonist in all the scenes. Dante’s friend had to be distinguished precisely by this: Giotto, like the Florentine poet, closely observes the immense multitude of beings that act upon the Earth in order to give each one his/her gesture, his/her own soul, his/her characteristic look, which expresses the torment or joy of that particular being in one of the moments of his/her existence.

Left: Expulsion of the money changers from the temple. Right: Entry into Jerusalem. Both frescoes located in the middle tier, north wall.
Left: Judas’ Betrayal (triumphal arch). Right: The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas) (lower tier, south wall).
Left: Crucifixion. Right: Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ). Both frescoes located in the lower tier, north wall.
A 1673 engraving showing the location of Giotto’s monumental Navicella mosaic on the portico of Old St. Peter’s Basilica.

In addition, Giotto decorated part of the ancient basilica of St. Peter, in the Vatican, which was destroyed when the current church was built. From that set of compositions only remains a few fragments of the mosaic once located over the entrance door representing a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 14: 24–32) of Christ walking on the water. It was also Giotto’s work the main altar of the old Vatican basilica, whose few fragments are kept in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. Today they are important because very few paintings on panel by Giotto are preserved. The most characteristic of his painted panels in this genre is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence: represents a Madonna sitting on a throne, surrounded by saints and angels. The throne is no longer the Byzantine ivory throne of the Virgins of Cimabue, but a very Italian throne, richly decorated with mosaics. The angels, kneeling, present small vases with flowers and look with affectionate intensity to the motherly figure, a woman with developed breasts and wide lap, majestically wrapped in the folds of her robe, almost statuesque. Her head also has new and human beauty: it corresponds to that of a woman with a thick neck and a face very similar to that of the Tuscan peasants, so elegant by nature.

Left: Ascension (lower tier, north wall). Giotto’s frescoes also included panels in grisaille (monochrome) representing the Vices and Virtues, pictured at the right the figure of the Infidelity (located in the bottom tier, north wall with the Vices).
Left: Panel in grisaille with the figure of Justice (bottom tier, south wall with the Seven virtues). Right: the vault represents the eighth day, the time of eternity and God’s time, it includes eight planets (the tondos which enclose the seven great prophets of the Old Testament plus John the Baptist) and two suns (with God and the Madonna and Child), the blue sky is studded with eight-point stars (8, sideways, symbolizing infinity).
The Last Judgment fresco located on the counter-facade.

At the end of his life, Giotto, after establishing his reputation throughout Italy, also established it in his homeland. His triumph couldn’t be more complete. In 1334 the City Council called him to Florence to be appointed as chief architect to Florence Cathedral. He was called under this dictate: “That for the works that are being carried out in the city of Florence, and paid for by the common citizens, be executed in the most perfect manner, which would not be possible if an eminent and experienced director did not direct them and as in the whole world no one can be found better than the Master Giotto di Bondone, he will be called in his hometown Magnus Magister and publicly recognized as such”. Giotto died in 1337, he was 69-70 years old. But he had left a well formed school. Giotto was the first painter that widely and systematically depicted three-dimensional figures in the history of western European art.

Only two bust-length figures of angels in roundels survive from the original Navicella mosaic by Giotto located at Old St. Peter’s Basilica, both have been heavily restored. One of them remains in the Vatican (right), while the other was given to the church of San Pietro Ispano in Boville Ernica (left). These images were probably located in a border of the mosaic.
The Navicella (meaning “little ship”) mosaic (originally located in Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome), was a large and famous mosaic by Giotto (ca. 1305-1313) that occupied a large part of the wall above the entrance arcade, facing the main facade of the basilica across the courtyard. It depicted the scene of Christ walking on the water. The mosaic was almost entirely destroyed during the construction of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century. Above is pictured the full-scale copy in oil, commissioned by the Vatican from Francesco Berretta in 1628. The full mosaic was probably about 9.4 by 13 mt (31 ft × 43 ft), with an inscription in Latin verse running below the image.
Front side view of the Stefaneschi triptych by Giotto (Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome). Its name comes from Cardinal Giacomo Gaetani Stefaneschi who commission it to serve as an altarpiece for one of the altars of Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This altarpiece is painted on both sides so it could be seen by the congregation from the front and the canons of the church from the back. The central front panel represents Saint Peter enthroned, flanked by saints, with Cardinal Stefaneschi himself kneeling at Peter’s right offering up this altarpiece in reduced size. Saints James and Paul are in the left panel and John the Evangelist and Andrew are in the right. Two of the three predella panels are lost, but they surely all represented half-length figures of saints.
Back view of the Stefaneschi triptych. The main central panel represents Christ enthroned flanked by angels with a kneeling Cardinal Stefaneschi at his right foot. In the left panel is the crucifixion of Peter, and on the right is the beheading of St. Paul. The predella depicts the Virgin and Child flanked by angels in the center and standing figures of the 12 apostles at the sides.
The Ognissanti Madonna, ca. 1310,  tempera on panel, by Giotto (Uffizi Gallery, Florence).The painting represents a Maestà (the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child seated on her lap), with saints and angels surrounding them on all sides. It is often regarded as the first painting of the Renaissance because of its naturalism and escape from the constructing iconographic rules of Gothic art. It was originally painted for the Ognissanti church in Florence.

To the left, a detail of Virgin Mary and Christ Child from the Madonna Ognissanti. This panel painting continued the traditional Italo-Byzantine style by using gold coloring and a flat golden background. The altarpiece still retains the stiffness of Byzantine art, and the hierarchy of scale, making the centralized Madonna and the Christ Child much larger in size than the surrounding figures. But in this painting the figures appear weighty and are reminiscent of three-dimensional sculptures. The Madonna’s intricately decorated throne with clearly Italian Gothic design, shows Cosmatesque decoration popular in Rome since the Early Christian period and in Tuscany in the Late Middle Ages. The painting also seems heavily influenced by the enthroned virgins painted by Cimabue, traditionally recognized as Giotto’s teacher, as seen in the very symmetrical composition of the piece. The tranquility of Giotto’s figures resembled also the style of Pietro Cavallini.


Tondo: (From the Italian rotondo, meaning “round”, plural “tondi” or “tondos”). A Renaissance term for a circular work of art, either a painting or a sculpture.