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Current time:0:00Total duration:25:10

The Arena Chapel (and Giotto's frescos) in virtual reality

Video transcript

(light jazz) - [Male Narrator] We're in the Arena Chapel, a small private chapel that was connected to a palace that was owned by the Scrovegni family. - [Female Narrator] And it was the Scrovegni family who commissioned Giotto to decorate this chapel with frescoes. - [Male Narrator] It's called the Arena Chapel because it's next to an ancient Roman arena. - [Female Narrator] 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 frescoes. - [Male Narrator] There are lots of narrative scenes, but even in between those scenes are trompe l'oeil four marble panels. And so we get the sense that there is inlaid stone but in fact, this is all painting. - [Female Narrator] 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. - [Male Narrator] 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 kind of spiral that as 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. 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 Savior, that she will bear Christ. - [Female Narrator] Interestingly, when Giotto painted God, he inserted a panel paintings, so that is not fresco. It's interesting that he chose to paint it in a style that was more conservative, less earthly than the style that we see in the frescoes. But just to go back to that annunciation and this wall, we begin to see the illusionism that we see throughout the cycles. If we'd 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. - [Male Narrator] There's another great example of the way that architecture and the sense of space is constructed even in this era before linear perspective: two scenes below the enunciation 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 pre-viewer example of naturalism, and it shows Giotto's interest in the world, the present, the physical space that humanity occupies. The narrative cycle begins on the right altar side in the top register. It introduces Joachim and Anna, the grandparents of Christ. - [Female Narrator] Mary's parents. - [Male Narrator] Joachim begins by being thrown out of the temple. - [Female Narrator] For his childlessness. - [Male Narrator] That's right. He's grown old without children. Don't take this too literally. It's not in the Bible. These are the extra stories that were added to the biblical narrative, because people wanted to know what happened in between the events that really are mentioned in the Bible. - [Female Narrator] Much of this is from a book called the Golden Legend that filled in that narrative. - [Male Narrator] Let's focus on the last scene on the right side of the upper register which is the meeting at the golden gate. To get here, what's happened is that Joachim has prayed to God, really wanting a child. Anna, his wife, has done the same and they've both been visited and been told that there is hope and they're shown coming together for the first time in front of Jerusalem, in front of the golden gate. - [Female Narrator] Each now with your awareness that their desire for a child, this wish has been fulfilled. - [Male Narrator] And we have this wonderful example of the humanism of Giotto. We see their faces together. It is a kiss. It is incredibly intimate. So personal, their face has come together. They touch and almost become a single face. - [Female Narrator] And we sense the warmth of their embrace, the warmth of the figures around them who watch and something that we see throughout this cycle: figures who have mass and volume to their bodies who exist three dimensionally in space, gone are the elongated swaying ethereal bodies of the Gothic period. And Giotto gives us figures that are bulky and monumental, where drapery pulls around their bodies, and taken together with the emotion in their faces, it's almost like we have real human beings in art for the first time in more than a thousand years. - [Male Narrator] Giotto, we think, was Cimabue's student and learned from that great master who had begun to experiment with the chiaroscuro, that you're speaking of, this light and shadow, this ability to model volume and form and mass, but nothing like what Giotto has achieved here. And you're right, it is the coming together of both the chiaroscuro as well as the emotion as well as the human interaction that creates the sense of the importance of our existence here on earth. - [Female Narrator] And I would also add the clarity of the gestures and the narrative. - [Male Narrator] Look at the way in which the city is not rendered in an accurate way. We have a schematic view, and yet it's everything we need. We have the gate of Jerusalem. Now, of course, Giotto had no idea what the architecture of Jerusalem looked like, yet from legend he has created this golden arch and this medieval looking fortified city. - [Female Narrator] But the forms are simplified. - [Male Narrator] It's a stage set and he wants those figures to be front and center. They are what's most important. If we move across to the other wall, the upper register continues the narrative: Mary is born. She's presented in the temple, she's married. And then we get back to the alter side of the chapel and there we reach the triumphal arch. And we're back to God the Father now, but below that we have the enunciation. - [Female Narrator] In the register below now, we see scenes from Christ's childhood, including- - [Male Narrator] The circumcision, the flight into Egypt. - [Female Narrator] The massacre of the innocence, and then moving to the next wall, we begin the story of the ministry of Christ and his miracles. - [Male Narrator] As the story unfolds from scene to scene, Christ is often shown in profile, which is derived from the Roman tradition of coinage which is the most noble way of representing a figure. And he's shown moving from left to right, which is the way that we're meant to read the scene. - [Female Narrator] So Giotto was helping us to move through the narrative from one scene to the next. And here we see Christ on a donkey with the apostles behind him. - [Male Narrator] You'll notice that Giotto does not really care to depict every single one of the 12 apostles. He's really giving us only three or four faces. And the rest are just an accumulation of halos. - [Female Narrator] There is that legacy of symbolic representation that we think of as more medieval. - [Male Narrator] Look at the way in which the figures in the lower right, there are three of them, begin to pull off their outer garment. One man is pulling his arm out of his sleeve. The next is taking the garment off his head. And the final one is placing that garment at the feet of the donkey in an act of respect. But it is almost cinemagraphic. There is this idea that is, I think, part of the chapel as a whole, that it is about the movement of time. This is one of the most innovative aspects of the entire chapel, I think. one technical issue: if you look at Christ, there is a blue garment that's wrapped around his waist, but the blue is almost entirely missing. And that's because the Arena Chapel is painted in buon fresco, true fresco, that is pigment is applied to wet plaster. - [Female Narrator] And when that happens, the pigment binds to the plaster and the paint becomes literally part of the wall. - [Male Narrator] That's right. The wall is stained. The problem is that blue was really expensive. Ultramarine blue came from lapis lazuli, which was a very expensive semi-precious stone. And Enrico Scrovegni, when he drew up the contract with Giotto, did not want the blues brilliance to be diminished by being mixed with a plaster. So he asked that it be applied as secco fresco. - [Female Narrator] Dry fresco. - [Male Narrator] That's right. On top of the wall. And the result is it didn't last. - [Female Narrator] Right, it didn't adhere to the wall as well as the paint that was applied to the wet plaster. And so sadly that's been flaked off and we really have to use our imagination to fill in a brilliant blue on that drapery. - [Male Narrator] Let's move on to the bottom register, to the end of Christ's life. On the lowest register, the register that's devoted to the scenes of the passion, is the arrest of Christ, also known as the kiss of Judas. - [Female Narrator] So this is the moment when Judas leads the Romans to Christ and they arrest him and take him away and torture him and ultimately crucify him. And remember, Judas is one of the 12 apostles, one of those considered closest to Christ. He betrays him for 30 pieces of silver. - [Male Narrator] And so it is all the more horrific, it's all the more a terrible betrayal, because this is one of the people that Christ trusted most. And Judas has betrayed Christ, not by pointing at him from afar, but with a kiss. - [Female Narrator] There's chaos here. - [Male Narrator] Well, that's right. That idea of the embrace is really important, I think, because look at the way that Giotto has the figure of Judas' arm and cloak wrapping around him, embracing him, enveloping him, and importantly, stopping him. Remember that in almost every scene we have noticed Christ moving from left to right in profile, but here Judas is an impediment. His progress is stopped. This is literally arresting his movement forward. - [Female Narrator] If we compare this, for example, to Duccio's "Betrayal of Christ," there Christ is frontal, here he's in profile. You're right, but it makes it so that Judas and Christ look at one another. Look at each other in the eye. Judas is a little bit shorter. He looks up at Christ. There's a sense of, to me, determination, but also at the same time maybe a hint of beginning to be sorry for what he's done. - [Male Narrator] Still corruption in that face versus the nobility of Christ's. - [Female Narrator] And a sense that Christ knew that this would happen, right? At the Last Supper he said, "One of you will betray me." And an acceptance of his destiny that we often see in images of Christ. - [Male Narrator] Let's go back to that idea of chaos that you raised before. Giotto has created the sense of violence. And one of the ways that he's done that is by reserving half the painting, the sky, just for those lances, for those torches, for those clubs, and the way in which they're not held in an orderly way, but they are helter skelter crossing at angles, they create this almost violent visual rhythm that draws our eyes down to Christ, down to Judas, but also feel dangerous. - [Female Narrator] But there's a sense of Judas and Christ anchoring the composition down as that chaos takes place around them. The most remarkable figure to me though, is the figure who leans his left side his body, and his elbow out of the composition almost right into our space. - [Male Narrator] It's amazing actually. And it almost prefigures the way that Caravaggio, who centuries later will master this idea of breaking the picture plane. - [Female Narrator] And then we also see another device that Giotto employees often in the Arena Chapel that is a figure with his back to us. And that figure seems to be pulling something that's out of the space of the panel, but look at his feet, perfectly foreshortened, grounded, there's that sense of Giotto-esque weight and monumentality to the figures, all of that modeling as we can follow the forms of the body underneath. - [Male Narrator] And Giotto was giving us this full sensory experience. We have this crowd of figures, the sense of violence. The crowd is multiplied because we can see numerous helmets, which by the way, would have originally been silver but have oxidized. - [Female Narrator] I think there's a sense of a crowd pressing in, of all these faces watching what's going to happen. - [Male Narrator] And there's one man on a horn, who's blowing, creating that sense of energy, this audio that goes with this painting that finishes the whole scene and its chaos and its drama. - [Female Narrator] Giotto is a master of the dramatic. - [Male Narrator] One of the most powerful scenes in the Chapel is the lamentation. Christ has been crucified, has been taken down off the cross and he's now being mourned by his mother, by his followers. - [Female Narrator] And that word that we use for this scene, lamentation, comes from the word to lament, to grieve. - [Male Narrator] This is one of the saddest images I've ever seen. We have Mary holding her dead son, and it reminds us of a scene that's across the wall of the Nativity, where there is this tenderness and this relationship between Mary and her infant son. And now we see Mary again, holding her adult now dead son. - [Female Narrator] On her lap, the way she does as a mother, when he's a child. - [Male Narrator] The idea of representing Christ as dead is a modern idea, putting emphasis on Christ as physical, as human. - [Female Narrator] I think we're struck by the simplicity of the composition. Giotto is placing all of this emphasis on the figures, he's simplified the background, but where we might expect to see the most important figure of Christ in the center, Giotto's moved him off to the left. The landscape is in service of drawing our eye down toward Christ, that rocky hill, that forms a landscape that moves our eye down to Mary and Christ. - [Male Narrator] And at the top, there's a tree and the tree might look dead, but of course it might also be winter. And that tree might grow leaves again in the spring. And it is an analogy to Christ and his eventual resurrection. - [Female Narrator] It's not just that the dead Christ is on his mother's lap, look at how she's raised her right knee to prop him up, look at how she bends forward- - [Male Narrator] And twists her body. - [Female Narrator] And puts her arms around him. One hand on his shoulder, another on his chest. She leans forward as if to plead with him to wake up, as if in disbelief that this could have happened. - [Male Narrator] At Christ's feet we scan Mary Magdalene with her typical red hair who is attending to his feet. And of course that's appropriate, giving the biblical tradition as well because she had anointed Christ's feet. And there's a real sense of tenderness there. You know, Giotto is so interested in naturalism that he's willing to show two figures, where we only see the backs. There's no representation of their faces at all. We would never have seen this in the medieval period. - [Female Narrator] And that's because those figures provide no information to the narrative. All that they do is frame Christ and Mary. They draw our eye to those most important figures. - [Male Narrator] We look at Christ and Mary, as they're looking at Christ and Mary. - [Female Narrator] Exactly, we become like them surrounding the body of Christ. But they also help to create an illusion of space. It's amazing to me how close they are to us, their bottoms almost move out into our space. Giotto makes it clear that these figures are looking in. And therefore, there is an in to look into. There's space here for the human figures to occupy. - [Male Narrator] But there are other than human figures here as well. There are angels, but these angels are not attached figures. They mourn, as we mourn, they (indistinct) their clothing, they tear it themselves. They pull their hair, they are in agony. - [Female Narrator] And Therefore, shortened. So like the figures with their backs to us, they assist in Giotto's creating an illusion of space. And like the angels above them, the human figures display their grief in different ways. Some are sad and resigned and kind of keep to themselves. Other figures threw their arms out. There's a real interest in individuality, in the different ways that people experience emotion. I always like to look at the feet and the feet of the figure on the far right, that sense of gravity and weight of a figure really standing on the ground, just like the figures who are sitting, not the medieval floating figures that we've come to expect. - [Male Narrator] Well, that ground is used for several purposes to root those figures, but also to draw our eye down to Christ or in another sense to allow us to move out of the picture. 'Cause as we move from the lamination, we move to the next image, which is the scene where Christ says "Do not touch me," when Mary Magdalene recognizes him as he has been resurrected. And you'll notice that Giotto has continued that mountain our eye then moves down, and so there is this visual relationship that is drawn between Christ's death, Christ mourning, and Christ's resurrection by the landscape that frames them. In the trompe l'oeil, a depictions of inset stone, there is another painted scene in the little quatrefoil. - [Female Narrator] And here we see Jonah being swallowed by the whale. - [Male Narrator] Well, it's a giant fish. - [Female Narrator] Well, throughout the chapel, we see this an Old Testament scene being paired with the New Testament and specifically Old Testament scenes that in some way prefigured the life of Christ. - [Male Narrator] So, Jonah is swallowed by this giant fish, by this whale, praises for forgiveness, having betrayed God, and is delivered from this fish. It is a perfect Old Testament analogy to the New Testament story of Christ's crucifixion and ultimate resurrection. It's a tour de force of emotion. It's such an expression of this late medieval period that is moving towards what we will eventually call the Renaissance. Below the passion scene is even more painting. There are these marvelous representations of virtues and vices that is expressions of good and evil. - [Female Narrator] And we're looking at the figure of envy. - [Male Narrator] It's one of my favorite figures. - [Female Narrator] Here's a figure in profile, engulfed in flames clutching a bag. - [Male Narrator] But reaching with her other hand for something she does not have, something that she wants. - [Female Narrator] Not content with what she has, she wants more. - [Male Narrator] She's got huge ears, it's as if every sense is attuned to what she does not have. - [Female Narrator] We see emerging from her mouth a snake who moves toward her eyes. - [Male Narrator] That's right, it doubles back on itself because it is what she sees that bites her in a sense. - [Female Narrator] And we have virtues and vices here because these are the good and evil that we confront, all of us in our lives. And these are the things that decide at the day of judgment, we go to heaven or hell. - [Male Narrator] They are in a sense abstractions of the ideas that are told in the stories above. The final virtue, as we move towards the exit of the Chapel is hope. And she is reaching upward, floating, a classicist figure. - [Female Narrator] And she's winged like an angel and is lifted up toward a figure on the upper right who's handing her crown. - [Male Narrator] And so hope, because she's in the corner, is looking up towards the Last Judgment and is of the same scale and her body is in the same diagonal position, as the elect in the bottom left corner - [Female Narrator] We see the elect, many of them with their hands in positions of prayer, looking up toward the enormous figure of Christ, the largest figure in this chapel. - [Male Narrator] And we should say that the elect are the blessed, that is, these are people that are going to heaven, and you'll see that they're actually accompanied by angels that look so caring and gentle. They're shepherding these people into heaven. And if you look carefully, you can see that their feet are not on the ground. They're actually levitating slightly, they're rising up. - [Female Narrator] These benevolent, generous expressions on the face of those angels as they look at all of these individuals who've made the choices in their lives that have led them to this moment of being blessed. - [Male Narrator] The choices that are laid out for us in the virtues and vices in the bottom panels, just below the elect, you can see that there are what seem to be children naked coming out of coffins, out of tombs. And those nude figures are meant to represent the souls that are to be judged by Christ, who, as you said, sits in the middle. He sits here as judge to judge those souls that are being wakened from the dead to determine whether or not they're blessed and get to go to heaven or if they're gonna end up on the right side of this painting in hell. - [Female Narrator] And so this follows very standard iconography, or standard composition of the last judgment with the blasted those we're going to heaven on Christ's right, and the damned below on Christ's left. Now, just either side of Christ though that division of left and right doesn't happen. - [Male Narrator] That's because this is heaven. - [Female Narrator] And there we see a court of saints and around that mandorla, that sort of full body halo around Christ, we see angels blowing trumpets. - [Male Narrator] These are images that come right out of the apocalypse, the gospel according to John. - [Female Narrator] The book of revelation. - [Male Narrator] we have the angels announcing the end of time. We have angels above them, rolling up the sky as if it were a scroll. And these are images that we generally see in last sessions because they are in the text of the Bible. - [Female Narrator] The scene of hell on the lower right with a larger blue figure that is meant to represent Satan, surrounding him our souls being tortured in hell. - [Male Narrator] A lot of his imagery is inspired, I think, indirectly by the work of Dante who had not so long ago written the "Divine Comedy," which was extremely popular. And he describes the landscape of hell. - [Female Narrator] And he equates the punishments of hell with the different kinds of sins that people committed. And so in the last judgment that we're looking at, and because the patron here was concerned with the sin of usury, we see usurers featured and they're being hung with the bags of money on the ropes that they're hanging from. - [Male Narrator] Right, usury is requiring interest for when you lend money. It's basically just the act of banking. And that was a mortal sin. In fact, Dante speaks at great length about the usurers who have their money bags hanging from their necks and are in one of the lowest of the circles of hell. Below the usurers you can actually make out a specific individual also hanged. This is Judas, the disciple that betrays Christ. - [Female Narrator] So anyone leaving the chapel from this exit, would look up at the scene of last judgment, up at the cross carried by two angels. Perhaps they would notice that figure that I just noticed, a figure behind the cross, sort of grasping it for dear life, and would also have looked up and have seen Enrico Scrovegni himself, the patron offering this chapel to the three Marys. - [Male Narrator] As the public would have walked outside after a sermon, after mass, perhaps, they would be reminded right before they walk back into the world, the world of desire, the world of sin, that the sacrifice that Christ had made, that story that had unfolded in his chapel comes down to decisions that they need to make in their own life. This is in a sense, a kind of last reminder before you walk out to take these stories seriously. - [Female Narrator] And Giotto makes it very easy for us to do that by painting these figures in their humanity, by making the narrative so easy and clear to read and by making something so beautiful, recognized for its beauty even when it was first painted. - [Male Narrator] That's right. Even in its own day. (light jazz)