It has been said that by the time of his death 1337, the artist Giotto di Bondone “had revived painting from its long sleep” and that his “brush created figures that truly seemed to live and breathe.” 1 One of the greatest testimonies to his visionary abilities is inscribed on the walls of a small chapel in Padua, Italy. Here Giotto “frescoed the Christian story from its beginning in the life of Mary to its close in the Last Judgement … [s]ome forty scenes tell this holy story.” 2 These images express an evocative quality that at once captivates and mesmerizes those whose gaze falls upon them:
Beyond a physical truth, Giotto’ scenes have an emotional truth. This is achieved not so much through facial expression – his faces seem very much alike – as by gesture, posture, and the relations of figures one to the other. 3
Two of these images in particular seem to speak to this series of meditations. The first is that of the Nativity. 4 The painting is full of figures – angels overhead expressing reverence, praise, and infinite gratitude; Joseph dreaming dreams of how protect the Child and Mother from terrible danger; and peaceful shepherds and calm animals attending. Also present is a triangular stone landscape which finds its apex and origin at the uppermost point of the scene – a point marked by the tip of one angel’s homage-gathered hands and another’s wing. It expands as it pours downward, finding its full expression in an embrace of the reclining Mother holding her Child, as if she were catching him in the act of his most gracious condescension, just before he touches the earth. 5 Only women’s hands touch the Body of the Child, which is wrapped tightly in bands of cloth – swaddling yes, and yet also a foreshadowing of the future. 6
Another key painting with which Giotto adorned the walls of the chapel in Padua is that of the Lamentation. 7 Here the Mother, in her deep blue robes, upholds and provides a resting place for the battered body of her Child. With an arm around the back of her Son’s neck and the other across his heart, his Mother Mary further lifts his head, peering with a poignant and searching grief into the haloed, but lifeless face. Mary Magdalene, with her red hair, holds his feet with her mouth slightly open, as if silently struggling to breathe. Two other women each hold one of the Lord’s hands. We see the face of one of these tender witnesses, but not that of the other. And yet another woman, whose back is to us, assists the Blessed Mother in supporting Jesus’s head by cradling it in her hands. Only women touch the Body. It is also they that express outwardly much of the emotion of the moment, although they are accompanied in this holy attendance by angels in the darkened air overhead. And the expressions of these heavenly beings to what they see powerfully conveys a spectrum of reactions to an inconceivable horror, tragedy, and loss. There are men present as well. The two bearded and haloed figures, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea, stand off to the right. Their solemn, motionless reserve conveys its own distinctive lament. And a beardless figure, the Beloved Disciple, Saint John, stands as if between the men and the women, extending his arms wide in grief and clearly expressing emotion on his face. 8 But with all that is enfolding in the scene, the artist very much wishes to focus the viewers’ eyes, their hearts, and their minds at one singular point. Behind all these figures, there is a stone-like hill. At its peak there is a tree, whose presence conveys both barrenness and the bare beginnings of life. The shape and the declining slope of the little hill leads the viewer’s eyes down and down until they find a focal point in the upper bodies of Mother and Son. It is here that Giotto wishes us to linger – on these two figures made almost as one in this moment. 9
- A. Richard Turner, “Giotto and the Scrovegni Chapel,” in Madeleine L’Engle, The Glorious Impossible. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1990. A. Richard Turner (1932-2011) was Professor of Fine Arts at New York University.
- A. Richard Turner, “Giotto and the Scrovegni Chapel,” in Madeleine L’Engle, The Glorious Impossible. Professor Turner explains the history of the project: “The banker Enrico Scrovegni offered the chapel and its frescoes (wall paintings on plaster) to Mary and Jesus, in the hope that this good work might help pay for the sins of Enrico’s father, an infamous moneylender who had violated the Christian faith.” (Ibid.)
- A. Richard Turner, “Giotto and the Scrovegni Chapel,” in Madeleine L’Engle, The Glorious Impossible.
- Image One below is of Giotto’s Nativity. Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-17-_-_Nativity,_Birth_of_Jesus.jpg Along with his medieval contemporaries Bernard of Clairvaux was captivated by the Incarnation, and the mind-stretching contraries present in the doctrine. In his sermon, “On Our Lord’s Nativity,” the Cistercian teaches: “The solemnity of our Lord’s Nativity is indeed a great and glorious day, but a short one, and a short day calls for a short sermon. No wonder if we make a short speech, since God the Father has made an abbreviated Word – Verbum abbreviatum. Would you know how long and how short is the Word he has made? This Word says, ‘I fill heaven and earth,’ [Jer. 23.24] yet, now that ‘the Word is made flesh,’ [John 1.14] He is placed in a narrow manger. The Psalmist exclaimed, ‘From eternity and to eternity thou are God,’ [Ps. 89.2] yet, behold! He is a Child of a day. And why this? What necessity was there that the Lord of Majesty should so annihilate [exinaniret] Himself, should thus humble [humiliaret] Himself, thus abbreviate [abbreviaret] Himself, except to show that we should do in like manner. He now proclaims by example what He will one day preach in words – ‘Learn of Me, for I am meek and humble of heart’ …” [Mt. 11.29]. Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent & Christmas. Compiled and translated at St. Mary’s Convent, York, from the Edition (1508), in blackletter, of St. Bernard’s Sermons and Letters. London: R. & T. Washbourne, LTD., 1909, page 101. Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/sermonsofstberna00bernuoft/page/100/mode/2up?view=theater For the Latin text of Bernard’s sermon, Hathi Trust Digital Library: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044021140215&view=1up&seq=166
- In his third sermon, “On the Vigil of the Nativity,” Bernard of Clairvaux preaches: “Majesty compressed himself to join to our dust the best thing he had, which is himself. God and dust, majesty and weakness, utter lowliness and utter sublimity were united in a single person. Nothing is more sublime than God, nothing is lower than dust–and yet God descended into dust with great condescension and dust ascended into God with great honor …” Bernard of Clairvaux, “On the Eve of the Lord’s Birth, Sermon Three” in Sermons for Advent and the Christmas Season (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 2007), p. 66. Retrieved from the blog, Historia et Memoria: https://wp.cune.edu/matthewphillips/2021/12/14/god-descends-into-dust/
- See John 19:39-40 – Vulgate, Douay-Rheims, Wycliffe translations – Image Two below.
- Image Three below is of Giotto’s Lamentation. Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-36-_-_Lamentation_(The_Mourning_of_Christ)_adj.jpg For a wonderfully helpful introduction to Giotto’s Lamentation, see: “Part 3: The Lamentation from Giotto’s Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, Padua, c. 1305 Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, and Smarthistory.” Khan Academy: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/early-europe-and-colonial-americas/medieval-europe-islamic-world/v/giotto-arena-scrovegni-chapel-part-3-of-4
- Depictions of the events of Jesus’ Passion in medieval Christian art and literature are many and varied. It has been said that these retellings attempt to fill in spaces in the narrative which the Gospels pass over in silence. One such depiction, one that speaks to the moments unfolding in Giotto’s Lamentation, comes from the 14th text, “The Privity of the Passion,” which is itself a Middle English rendering of an earlier Latin work: “Then they rose up and made themselves ready to take him down. Joseph set up a ladder on the right side and drew the nail out of [Jesus’s] right hand … and he gave it to John … Nicodemus went up on the left side and took out that nail and gave it to John. Then Nicodemus came down and went to the feet and Joseph supported the body of Jesus …Then our lady took the one hand that hung down with great reverence and put it to her face and beheld it and kissed it with many tears … When the nail in the feet was pulled out, Joseph came quietly down and then they all took his blessed body and laid down on the ground. And our lady took the head on her knee, and Mary Magdalene his feet, where she had found so much grace before; all the others stood about him … weeping, as if he had been their own child.” (“The Privity of the Passion,” Cultures of Piety: Medieval English Devotional Literature in Translation. Edited by Anne Clark Bartlett and Thomas H. Bestul. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999, pages 98-99). Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/culturesofpietym00unse/page/98/mode/2up ) Middle English: “Than rose þey vpe & mad þeme redy to take hyme downne. / Thane Iosephe sett vpe a leddere one þe ryghte syde, and drew owt þe nayle of his ryghte hande … and be-tuke it to Iohn … Þene Nychodeme wente vpe one þe lefte syde & toke owte þat nayle, & be-tuke it to Iohn. Þene Nichodeme com doune & went to þe fete, & Ioseph bare vpe þe body of Ihesu … Than tuke oure lady þat o hande þat hange downwarde, with gret reuerence, & putt it till hire face, & be-helde it & kyssed it with many teres … When þe nayle of þe fete was pullyd owte, Ioseph come softely doune, & þene þey all toke his blyssede body, & laide it downe one þe grownde. & our lady tuke his heuede one hyre kne, & Marie Maudeleyne his fete, where scho hade fune before-tyme ffull mekill grace; all þe toþer [stode] abowte hyme … wepynge, as it hade bene þeire owune getyne childe.” (“The Privity of the Passion,” Yorkshire Writers: Richard Rolle of Hampole and His Followers. Edited by C. Horstmann. D.S Brewer, 1985/1999, pages 209-210. Available online at Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/rollecmp/1:4.2.7?rgn=div3;view=fulltext )
- In a “Sermon for the Sunday within the Octave of the Assumption,” Bernard of Clairvaux writes: “The martyrdom [martyrium] of Mary … we find recorded for us both in the prophesy of Simeon and in the story of the Lord’s passion. ‘Behold,’ said the holy old man, speaking of the Infant Jesus, ‘this Child is set for a sign which shall be contradicted, and thine own soul,’ he added, addressing the Mother, ‘a sword shall piece’ [pertransibit] (Luke ii. 34, 35). Truly, O blessed Mother, truly did the iron pierce thy soul (Ps. civ. 18), for it could not otherwise pierce the Flesh of thy Son. After the death of thy Jesus – thy Jesus, I say, because although common to all of us He is in an especial manner thine – His Soul could not be wounded by the cruel lance that opened His side – not sparing Him even in death Whom it was no longer capable of hurting – but thy soul, O Mary, it could and did transpierce [pertransivit]. For his Soul no longer occupied His now lifeless Heart, whence thy soul could by no means be withdrawn. Consequently thy soul was transfixed [pertransivit] with the violence of sorrow [vis doloris], so that thou are justly proclaimed to be more than a martyr [plus quam martyrem], since the sufferings thou didst endure from the force of thy compassion far exceeded all the pains that could have been inflicted on thy flesh [in qua nimirum corporeae sensum passionis excesserit compassionis effectus] …. The Son’s death of pain was caused by love [charitas] greater than which no man hath (John xv. 13), and the Mother’s death of sympathy was caused by love [charitas] the like of which was never felt before in the heart of a pure creature.” (Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons for the Seasons & Principal Festivals of the Year. Translated from the Original Latin by a Priest of Mount Melleray, Volume III. Westminster, MD: The Carroll Press, 1950, pages 277-279. Retrieved from: Commentaries, Notes, Considerations: https://coelifluus.wordpress.com/2015/08/16/sermon-for-the-sunday-after-assumption/ The Latin text: “Dominica Infra Octavam Assumptionis B. V. Mariae,” in S. Bernardi, Opera Omnia, D. Joannis Mabillon. Volumen Secundum. 1854, columns 437-438. Retrieved from: Patrologiae cursus completus: Bernardus Claraevallensis – Google Books )
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