Occasional Thoughts on Educational Technology and Life by Judy Brophy

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Giotto's Genius

I first became aware of Giotto in Santa Croce, Florence. Beauty and compassion shown out of his work like light. When I saw his much larger work, the frescos in Assisi’s upper church, I was overwhelmed with their size, beauty and humanity.

Particularly touching was the panel “Renunciation of Worldly Goods”, in which Francis stands clothed only in a sheet that a bishop-figure has wrapped around him. An older man holds a heap of fancy clothing. That man was Francis’ father and he was a cloth merchant. Giotto captured, along with the illumined Francis, the look on the face of Francis’ father, the consternation, anguish, the “where did I go wrong?” look of a parent that makes us realize suddenly that both to be a parent and to be related to a saint is not easy. It sets the exalted act in a more complex human context.

So when I saw a new book, Giotto’s O by Andrew Ladis, I grabbed it. Giotto’s O is the story of the Arena Chapel in Padua Italy which Giotto painted between 1305 and 1307. He painted every inch of the interior and because it’s dedicated to Mary, it is overwhelmingly blue.

The book is part description, part explication and part meditation. There are 64 panels telling Christ’s and Mary’s story and arranged in a way that creates a whole, a complete circle.

Ladis shows that there was complex planning behind the choice of content and the ordering of the murals.

In one paired set, the left hand mural shows Judas selling Jesus, while the right shows The Visitation, Elizabeth welcoming Mary. Depictions of the visitation are often most tender and moving. I love them because they are so wholly female, 2 pregnant women greeting, one older and one younger, both

unaccountably with child. In few scenes from the bible are all the main characters women, so it touches me in a personal way. The scene always has to me echoes of Mary being sent away to her cousins to be less of an embarrassment at home. Elizabeth welcomes her as an equal, another woman whose body is being taken over by natural forces.

To compare this scene with Judas’ betrayal is startling.

“To my knowledge, this is the only instance in Italian art where they are,” says Ladis. And there is no doubt that they are being compared. The figures in both panels are in mirror image, the colors used are the same. The embraces that Judas is receiving from a man and the devil show his undoing, his betrayal. The embrace of the two women shows an outpouring of love and concern for the other’s welfare. It seems the two panels show the best and worst that humans are capable of. For the rest of the meaning I will have to live with it for a while and see.

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