Sunday, April 17, 2011

Holy Week with Giotto – Palm Sunday

Giotto, Jesus Enters Jerusalem
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel
"When Jesus and the disciples drew near Jerusalem
and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives,
Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them,
“Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately you will find an ass tethered,
and a colt with her.
Untie them and bring them here to me.
And if anyone should say anything to you, reply,
‘The master has need of them.’
Then he will send them at once.”
This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet
might be fulfilled:
Say to daughter Zion,
“Behold, your king comes to you,
meek and riding on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them.
They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them,
and he sat upon them.
The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road,
while others cut branches from the trees
and strewed them on the road.
The crowds preceding him and those following
kept crying out and saying:
“Hosanna to the Son of David;
blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord;
hosanna in the highest.”
And when he entered Jerusalem
the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?”
And the crowds replied,
“This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.” 

(Matthew 21:1-11)

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, the week that encompasses the pinnacle of the Christian year. During Holy Week Christians commemorate the events of the last week of Christ’s earthly life, culminating in the commemoration of the event that makes Christians Christian, the Resurrection.

The events of Holy Week have been portrayed in art over and over again throughout the centuries. However, nowhere have they been more intensively and beautifully represented than in the small chapel in Padua, called alternatively, the Arena Chapel or the Scrovegni Chapel, by the great 14th-century genius, Giotto di Bondone.

Giotto stands at the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. While monumental in its own right, his work broke new ground and points the direction that art would take to its culmination in the work of Raphael and Michelangelo. In spite of adhering to the medieval formula of a flat background, Giotto managed to create a sense of spatial reality, giving his figures weight and life. There is directness of observation and, above all, a projection of strong emotions, which raise these frescoes far beyond those of any others of his own time.

Giotto, Jesus Enters Jerusalem
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel
The chapel, which was a private chapel, attached to the Scrovegni family palace in Padua, was built around 1300, on a site used in antiquity as a Roman arena (hence its alternate name of Arena Chapel). Enrico Scrovegni commissioned Giotto to do the decorative frescoes, depicting events from the life of Christ and the life of the Virgin. The cycle of paintings on the life of Christ is probably the most complete ever done, including both the Nativity and the Ascension. It is those representing the Passion and Resurrection that will concern me this week.

Detail showing the head of the foal.

The Passion cycle begins, as it does in the Gospels, with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Jesus rides on a beautifully observed donkey, which is followed, just as in the Gospel narrative, by her foal, whose smaller head peeks out from among the disciples who follow behind.

Detail of the crowd at the gates.

From the gates of the city (on the right) a crowd of men, women and children pours out. Some of those in the forefront wave palm fronds. One is shown removing his over tunic, while another, his tunic already off, is shown laying it under the donkey’s hooves. Boys are shown in trees, having climbed up for palm branches and a better look.

Detail of the boys in the trees.

Detail of the disciples.

Behind the serious Jesus, who is shown making a gesture of blessing to the crowd, follow ten disciples. Four of them have visible faces. The rest are evidenced by their halos. Since Jesus is reported in the Gospels to have sent two disciples ahead to make arrangements, ten would be the correct number.  The blocky-headed, bearded man in the pinkish garment at the front is easily identifiable as Saint Peter.   The beardless young man at his left shoulder is Saint John the Evangelist. The bearded, long-haired man at Peter's right may be Saint James the Greater, older brother of John.  Together, these three make up the familiar group of disciples who were especially close to Jesus and his chosen witnesses:  Peter, James and John.

The background for this and all the other frescoes of the two cycles is the glorious dark blue called ultramarine. It is created by grinding the gemstone, lapis lazuli, from Afghanistan, into pigment to be mixed with the medium (in this case egg yolks). Its use is interesting on two levels. It creates a sense of a more naturalistic background, more realistic than the previous use of gold for backgrounds. But it is also an indication of the wealth of the Scrovegni family, for, because of its distant origin and rarity, ultramarine was more expensive to use than gold.

©  M. Duffy, 2011