Today is Palm Sunday. In five days time it will be Good Friday, which falls, this year, on a date pregnant with significance in the Christian calendar, namely 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation. As coincidence would have it, Good Friday also marks the 600th anniversary of the consecration of the Arena Chapel in Padua. The chapel was dedicated to the Virgin on 25 March 1305, having been decorated with frescoes by the early Renaissance master Giotto di Bondone. This week’s picture is Giotto’s Crucifixion, from that great cycle of paintings.
The gaunt, pathetically emaciated figure of the Saviour hangs from a cross that rises from a rudimentarily painted rock, beneath which a skull can be seen – indicating that this is Golgotha, “the place of the skull”. To Christ’s left, or sinister side, Roman soldiers argue about who shall have which of his clothes as a sorrowful St Peter looks on. To Christ’s right, there is a gathering of the righteous. Mary, supported by the holy women and comforted by St John, swoons in pity and pain. At Christ’s feet, Mary Magdalene weeps over his bloodied wounds in a frenzy of sorrow. Her agonies are echoed by the cries of the angels, hovering about the body of Christ in Giotto’s dark blue sky.
The artist was influenced by sacred theatre as well as by the ideal of empathetic piety preached by the mendicant orders of his time, such as the Franciscans. Pictures such as this were intended to help those gazing upon them to feel as though they were eyewitnesses at the Crucifixion itself, and thereby to feel the nature of Christ’s sufferings all the more keenly. Giotto’s design is stylised and symmetrical, the juxtaposition between mourners and soldiers intended to focus the thoughts of the devout on the consequences of their own responses to Christ’s death. Will they be among the damned, or among the saved? Mary Magdalene acts as a kind of role model for the viewer, embodying grief and repentance and fellow-feeling – gazing on Christ’s wounds, touching them, as if not just to share in his pain but to internalise it, to drink it in like holy wine. The tendons in his arms are visibly at full stretch. His hair, matted with sweat, falls across his cheeks. His eyes are closed, his head sagging in death.
To look at the picture in isolation is misleading. Roger Fry, who should have known better, once wrote of the Arena Chapel that its design “is made up of the sum of a number of different compositions. The time had not come for co-ordinating these into a single scheme, as Michelangelo did in the ceiling of the Sistine.” In fact, there are myriad subtle relationships between the different frescoes of the Arena Chapel cycle. Giotto was one of the first artists to exploit the rich potential for parallelisms and contrasts, of mood and meaning, not just between each successive scene in the cartoon-strip-like format of medieval narrative painting, but also between scenes in different registers of the fresco cycle as a whole.
The Passion cycle is underneath another band of frescoes telling the story of Christ’s Mission. Giotto has contrived it so that his Crucifixion is directly below the scene of Christ’s Baptism, and although there was no strong iconographic tradition of linking the two subjects, the artist forged links between them. Just like the Crucifixion, the Baptism is a work symmetrically arranged around the upright figure of Christ, although in the latter picture he is naturally shown in the flush and health of youth. Placing the Baptism above the Crucifixion in this way ingeniously suggests Christ’s eventual resurrection, the making whole of his wounded body. Giotto creates parallels between the two images in other ways too. In the Baptism he has three angels holding Christ’s clothes, as he immerses himself in the waters. They form an ironic, pointed contrast to the three soldiers in the later scene, arguing over his clothes. Evil is presented as a kind of parody of goodness.
Giotto’s frescoes express the passions at the centre of the Christian story with such power, that it is sometimes forgotten that they were originally painted for the private contemplation of a particular individual and his family. Enrico Scrovegni, who built the chapel beside his house on the site of the old Roman arena in Padua, was a usurer, or moneylender. His father, Reginaldo Scrovegni, who had amassed the family’s considerable fortune, was also a usurer, one of such notoriety that Dante reserved a special place for him in his Inferno. Reginaldo died in 1300, a Jubilee year for the church in which the Pope granted pardons for many who had committed great sins. It is not known if Enrico Scrovegni sought such a pardon, but it seems likely, for it was in the year of his father’s death that he renounced moneylending and commissioned Giotto to decorate the Arena Chapel. The frescoes are full of references to the sin of usury and it seems that the chapel as a whole was designed both as Scrovegni’s admission of past sins, and as an attempt to expiate them. This may explain why Mary Magdalene has been given such prominence in Giotto’s Crucifixion, in a striking departure from the conventions of late thirteenth and early fourteenth-century painting. Prostitutes were believed to occupy the same part of hell as usurers. In the medieval mind, there was an equivalence between the two activities, because moneylenders were thought to breed cash from cash in a way that was seen as a form of sexual perversion. So as well as embodying the repentant sinner in general, the Magdalen here stands for the repentant family of the Scrovegni – whose hot and fearful tears would, they hoped, win them a reprieve from the fires of hell.