‘He is the Shakespeare of Painting.’ – Giotto’s Arena Chapel

July 30, 2020 at 6:58 pm (Art)

A panel from Giotto’s Arena Chapel serves as the cover art for a book I am currently reading – very slowly and deliberately: . The Arena Chapel, in Padua, Italy, was originally designed as a private place of worship. Covered frescoes painted by Giotto di Bondone, with assistance from those in his workshop, it was commissioned by a wealthy banker, Enrico Scrovegni, in the early 1300s. (Hence it is also referred to as the Scrovegni Chapel.)

The exterior of this edifice is appealing yet modest.

It gives little hint of the riches contained within:

In the book’s first chapter, Clark offers a minute analysis of  the panels that tell the story of Joachim. This rendering of that story appears on the site Christian iconography:

The canonical scriptures say nothing of the birth or parentage of Mary, but countless art works through the ages have taken their cue from legendary material. Starting in at least the 2nd century, this material proposes that Mary’s parents were named Joachim and Anna. Because they had been childless for 20 years, Joachim was expelled from the Temple when he brought his offering on the Feast of Dedication. Despondent, he went with his flocks into the mountains far away. Five months later an angel told him he was to be a father and should go to meet Anne at Jerusalem’s Golden Gate. While Joachim sacrificed a lamb in thanksgiving, the angel brought Anne the same message, and the couple met and embraced at the Golden Gate. When the child was born they named her Mary.


The Expulsion of Joachim

The absolute blue in Joachim’s Expulsion…conjuring an emptiness no human effort can ever stave off, uninflected and godforsaken, the Temple floating on it like a tipping life raft–seems to speak to a bleakness of vision that Giotto’s art, taken as a whole, surely exists to refute.


Joachim Among the Shepherds. I particularly love this panel because of the dog’s spontaneous expression of joy at seeing Joachim, and Joachim’s tender acknowledgement.


Annunciation to St. Anne


Joachim’s Sacrificial Offering


Joachim’s Dream

The blue in Joachim’s Dream is less cruel–the angel, after all, does appear in it–but it remains as cold as a color can be, pressing down into the desert at  the angel’s behest almost as far as Joachim’s halo….

Is that blue sky so cold; is it pressing down with such force? It does not appear so to me. And that angel seems more like a harbinger of goodness than anything else, caught as he is in the very act of materializing! And the animals there once again, sweetening the scene with their simple goodness.


Meeting at the Golden Gate

How wonderful is this image! Joachim and Anna embrace: they are going to have a child after all. And this child, a daughter they will call Mary, will become a most awesome part of the history of the world.

The story goes that Enrico Scrovegni commissioned the chapel as an act of penance:

There is a tradition that he hired Giotto to atone for the sin of usury, although there is debate about whether this idea has any foundation. Dante placed his father in the Seventh Circle of Hell for his notoriously ill-gotten gains, and Enrico himself was a moneylender on a grand scale; it is these facts that have given rise to the tradition. Against the idea that he founded the chapel as an act of atonement may be cited the fact that it was a very sumptuous commission for his own personal use, attached to the grand palace that he built for himself. In 1320 Enrico Scrovegni fled the wars and civil strife that plagued Padua at the time, and settled in Venice. He was formally banished from Padua in 1328, and died in Venice in 1336.

from the Wikipedia entry

If, in fact, the tradition holds true, then Scrovegni’s act of contrition gifted the world with one of its greatest works of art.






  1. kdwisni said,

    What a great entry! It immediately reminded me of a novel I read this spring by Michael Downing, called The Chapel. If I had my choice between being transported to the Sistine Chapel in Rome or the Arena Chapel in Padua, I would choose the latter in a heartbeat. Somehow, Giotto’s frescoes speak to me far more than Michelangelo’s magnificent but overwhelming masterworks. So I gave this somewhat improbable novel four stars because it gave me a chance to revisit–and linger in–Padua. It should also be of great interest to Dante fans, because the plot revolves around the attempt by the widow’s late husband, for much of his career, to write an offbeat interpretation of Dante’s life. I remember little of the romance at the center of the plot, just the enjoyment of hanging out in the Scrovegni/Arena Chapel for a prolonged visit.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Kay, for this thoughtful reply. I’ll keep the Downing title in mind.

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