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Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 1)

The Arena Chapel, commissioned by the Scrovegni Family, features Giotto's frescoes covering its walls. Organized in three registers, the chapel tells a continuous story of Christ's life. Enrico Scrovegni built the chapel to atone for the sin of usury. Giotto's naturalism and illusionism create earthly settings for the religious scenes. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Arena Chapel, a small private chapel that was connected to a palace that was owned by the Scrovegni Family. - [Beth] And it was the Scrovegni Family who commissioned Giotto to decorate this chapel with frescoes. - [Steven] It's called the Arena Chapel because it's next to ancient Roman arena. - [Beth] When you're inside it, as we are now, I have to say that it's taller than I expected and that feeling of being enclosed by images that happens when you're in a space entirely covered with fresco. - [Steven] There are lots of narrative scenes, but even in between those scenes are trompe l'oeil faux marble panels and we get the sense that there is inlaid stone, but in fact this is all painting. - [Beth] And that extends even onto the ceiling, where we have a star-studded blue sky with images of Christ and Mary and other saints and figures. - [Steven] The Arena Chapel is organized in a very strict way. Three registers begin at the top and move downward. I think of it as a spiral, that is it tells a continuous story. It begins with Christ's grandparents. It goes into the birth of Mary, her marriage, and then when we get down to the second register we get to Christ's life or ministry and then the bottom register is the Passion. These are the events at the end of Christ's life and immediately after his death. - [Beth] Now all of this is thanks to, strangely it might seem to us today, a sin: the sin of usury that weighed heavily on the conscious of Enrico Scrovegni, whose palace was next door and who owned this land and built this chapel and hired Giotto. His father was a usurer. Enrico himself was a usurer. - [Steven] What this means is he charged interest, just like when you borrow money from a bank you're charged interest, when you put money on a credit card you're charged interest, and so in a very Catholic environment, being a banker made you a lot of money, but it also, in your belief system, would send you to hell. And Dante, the great late Medieval poet in his most famous poem, The Divine Comedy, singles out Scrovegni's father for one of the more treacherous parts of hell. - [Beth] So Enrico was really worried and for this reason he did, in Catholic belief system, a good work. He built this chapel. This was his way of atoning for the sin of usury, hoping that this would help his soul to go to heaven. And we see Enrico himself here in this chapel on the wall over the entrance where Giotto painted the last judgment. We see Enrico kneeling, handing the chapel over - [Steven] To the three Marys, the Virgin Mary in the middle. - [Beth] Notice where Enrico has put himself is on the side of the blessed. In the last judgment we see Christ at the very top and the damned are on Christ's left and the blessed are on Christ's right and that's where we find Enrico. - [Steven] And the impetus for the entire cycle can be seen at the apex of the triumphal arch on the opposite wall with God, who calls Gabriel to his side, telling him to go to the Virgin Mary and announce to her that she will bear humanity's savior, that she will bear Christ. - [Beth] Interestingly, when Giotto painted God, he inserted a panel painting. So that is not fresco. It's interesting that he chose to paint it in the style that was more conservative, less earthly than the style that we see in the frescoes. But just to go back to that wall, we begin to see the illusionism that we see throughout the cycles. If we look to Mary and the angel, Giotto has created an architectural space for each of them. These are not panel paintings with gold backgrounds that suggest a divine space. These are earthly settings for Mary and the angel. - [Steven] Two scenes below the Annunciation are these wonderful empty architectural spaces, these rooms that have oil lanterns that hang from their ceilings. And there is such a delicate sense of space, of light and shadow. It is this example of naturalism and it shows Giotto's interest in the world, the present, the physical space that humanity occupies. (jazzy piano music)