Italian Adventures: Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel

We’re continuing our advenures Italian Adventures in Padua at the astonishing Scrovegni Chapel.

Considered to be “one of the most supreme achievements in Western European Art,” (citation: Professor Kloss on The Great Courses), The Scrovegni Chapel includes frescos by Giotto that forever shifted the course of art history.

You’re thinking…that is a bold statement, why is this Chapel with Frescoes so important?

It has to do with the master who painted this Chapel – Giotto di Bodone…

Born in Tuscany, just outside of Florence in 1266, Giotto is technically a Medieval painter…however many art historians place Giotto with masters of the Early Renaissance because his art was so groundbreaking. Though he did not use the linear perspective that Brunelleschi and Maschio did a generation later, Giotto’s use of color, depth and expressionism created realistic scenes that were completely until anything seen to that time.

  • If you are interested in art and art history, check out my sister site Art Expeditions for Renaissance Wednesday lessons

Giotto has long been a favorite of mine. I discovered his art at my local museum (North Carolina Museum of Art – Raleigh) where we are blessed to have his Peruzzi Altarpiece on display

And while Giotto has amazing works showcased in museums and churches throughout the world, his masterpiece is in Padua at the Scrovegni Chapel.

Today we’re going to explore this amazing chapel in the heart of Padua.

Let’s start with some history and Quick Facts about the Scrovegni Chapel and Giotto:

  • The Scrovegni Chapel was built to atone for a ‘father’s sins.’
    • The Scrovegni family (not unlike The Medici in Florence) were a powerful banking family in 13th century Padua. Lending money with interest was considered a sin (usary) and therefore many banking families feared for their souls.
    • Reginaldo Scrovegni earned a poor reputation due to is lending practices…Dante put Reginaldo in ‘hell’ in his Inferno and the Church refused him a proper burial. It seems a bit harsh today (I like to think God is more forgiving) regardless, Reginaldo’s son, Enrico feared for his father’s soul and built the chapel in hopes of providing the family graces
  • He hired Giotto, a Florentine painter who was already well known in Italy for his work in Assisi, Rome and Tuscany
  • The Scrovegni Chapel is also known as The Arena Chapel because it was built on top of the foundations of the Roman arena in Padua.
  • It used to be connected to the Scovegni’s palace, but the chapel is all that remains.
    • It is nestled on the campus of the Musei Civici adjacent to an historic monastery. You can reserve tickets and plan your trip to the chapel here.
  • Giotto is believed to have painted the Scrovegni Chapel from 1303 to 1305, although some historians speculate he did not finish until 1310.
  • The Church has a simple exterior, but as you step inside heaven touches earth with a dazzling display of frescoes.
  • Medieval Art stressed an almost otherworldliness where realism wasn’t as important as symbolism, and while symbolism is extremely important in the Renaissance, The Renaissance demanded a realistic and classical interpretation. More depth and dynamicism in the art.
  • Giotto did not have the tool of linear perspective, and yet he creates scenes that are realistic and have a movement. You feel as though you can step into the emotion of the scene.
  • Take the picture below of Joachim’s Expulsion from The Temple…this doesn’t feel flat. You feel the fear and judgment – the scene tells a dynamic story!
  • The Scrovegni Chapel tells the story of the lives of The Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus. It also includes a larger than life Last Judgment scene at the entrance wall.
  • The church is 69 feet long and 26 feet wide with a 43 feet high to the vault ceiling. The church brings in natural light via a lancet window on the south wall.
  • Giotto divided the 38 fresco cycle into three horizontal tiers:
    • Top tier (right south wall) are dedicated to the stories of Mary’s parents – St. Anne and Joachim.
      • St. Anne and Joachim are based on Church tradition and apocryphal works. St. Anne was barren until she had Mary in her old age.
    • Middle Tier tells the stories of Christ from The Nativity to his Ministry
    • Bottom Tier: tells the stories of Jesus’s Last Supper through is crucifixion
    • The Last Judgment is on the entrance wall.
      • Interesting fact: Many Medieval and Renaissance churches have the Last Judgment as you enter the Chapel. The idea is you prepare your heart for repentence and renewal of faith before you take The Eucharist at Mass

The Chapel is painted completely in Frescoes…

What exactly is a fresco?

A fresco, which simply means “fresh” in Italian, was the principal method of decorating walls in (and before) The Renaissance. It is usually down by painting into wet plaster then the water based colors infuse with the wall as a permanent painting.

As you tour the chapel, take time to reflect on each scene and story. One of the most dramatic scenes is of Judas betraying Christ with a kiss. Look at the various expressions of the guards and disciples. The clubs and fiery torches – this was a Early Renaissance drama in paint.

If you are interested in visiting The Scrovegni Chapel on your upcoming Italian Adventure you will need reservations and well in advance, as only a limited number of visitors are allowed in at one time. Make your reservations here.

Next time we’ll get lost and found at The Basilica of St. Anthony before hitting the road towards Florence.

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