Paradise regained

Three hours in the Scrovegni Chapel with Tom and Amy Worthen

Three uninterrupted hours in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova is a big deal. A fifteen-minute turn in the chapel cost fifteen euros (in the spring of 2010). On summer evenings it was possible to book a double turn, 30 minutes, barely enough time to view forty major fresco panels stacked three high and not counting all the other painted wall decorations. No time for details. There is too much information to process.

I opined about this to Amy and Tom Worthen over lunch one day. Amy said, “I may be able to help you out.” Without saying what, she promised to get back to me.

By way of background, the chapel was added onto the Scrovegni palace beside a Roman arena in the center of Padova at the end of the thirteenth century. Scarcely half a block away, the Chiesa degli Eremitani, a vast gothic structure, was substantially destroyed by Allied bombing at the end of World War II. The Mantegna frescoes on the walls of its Ovetari Chapel were shattered. The shards were preserved and early this century at attempt to reconstruct the Mantegna frescoes from the fragments was begun. What remains is beautiful but scant.

Scrovegni Chapel, on the other hand, is a compact, unprepossessing brick box of no particular distinction. The palace it abutted is gone; the Roman arena is an ovoid park strewn with skeletal remnants. In the Last Judgement covering the west wall of the interior of the chapel, Enrico Scrovegni, one of medieval Padua’s richest and most infamous usurers, kneels and presents his pristine pink chapel to the Virgin. He built the chapel to buy his way into heaven. It might easily have been reduced to small pile of rubble by an errant bomb during World War II, when the nearby Eremitani was bombed, shattering the priceless Mantegna frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel. That Scrovegni Chapel  survived is a miracle.

As for the artist, more is known about Giotto than many early artists, either because he towered so high above them, or because he had influential admirers.  The facts of his existence, derived from contracts, letters, and other legal documents, are bare bones; as for his character, we have primarily Vasari’s hagiography in his Lives. He was, the story goes, a particularly clever and happy lad of ten, tending sheep, when the great artist Cimabue chanced upon him and saw that he was drawing incredibly lifelike sheep on flat rocks with a sharp stone. That would be Panel #1 in the fresco cycle of the Life of Giotto. Although his life as we know it is a piece of semi-fiction, his frescoes are indisputably real, palpable, unsurpassed in the breadth of their humanity. Giotto eschewed the heroic physiques of the Greeks and the countless copies the Romans churned out like pancakes. Instead he took his inspiration from real people in real situations, animating both Testaments with a humanity not seen since pagan antiquity.

Amy called me back to tell me that we had an appointment at 9-30 on March 18, 2010, for an unlimited visit to Scrovegni Chapel. Unlimited. We could stay as long as we wanted. It was a dazzling gift.

Tom was an art historian who specialized in the Italian renaissance, especially in Venice. He was the perfect companion for the visit. Amy, sketchbook in hand, spent her time drawing the chapel while Tom and I circled it slowly. He didn’t mind my endless questions or strange theories. He pointed out details I hadn’t noticed and told me what part they played in the big picture so that I could grasp the overall design and inner connections of this overwhelming cat’s cradle of interconnections across four dimensions. “They can be read vertically as well as laterally,” Tom said. “The story runs across; the up and down links are thematic.”

The Virtues panels below the bottom tier of frescoes face the Vices panels across the room. They were painted in a ancient Roman technique so as to appear carved in marble. I was drawn to Charity, so famously characterized by Proust:

“…when [Swann] inquired after the kitchen-maid he would say: “Well, how goes it with Giotto’s Charity?” And indeed the poor girl, whose pregnancy had swelled and stoutened every part of her, even to her face, and the vertical, squared outlines of her cheeks, did distinctly suggest those virgins, so strong and mannish as to seem matrons rather, in whom the Virtues are personified in the Arena Chapel. And I can see now that those Virtues and Vices of Padua resembled her in another respect as well. For just as the figure of this girl had been enlarged by the additional symbol which she carried in her body, without appearing to understand what it meant, without any rendering in her facial expression of all its beauty and spiritual significance, but carried as if it were an ordinary and rather heavy burden, so it is without any apparent suspicion of what she is about that the powerfully built housewife who is portrayed in the Arena beneath the label ‘Caritas,’ and a reproduction of whose portrait hung upon the wall of my schoolroom at Combray, incarnates that virtue, for it seems impossible, that any thought of charity can ever have found expression in her vulgar and energetic face. By a fine stroke of the painter’s invention she is tumbling all the treasures of the earth at her feet, but exactly as if she were treading grapes in a wine-press to extract their juice, or, still more, as if she had climbed on a heap of sacks to raise herself higher; and she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say ‘handing’ it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to some one who had called down to ask her for it from the ground-level above.”

Other plaques are painted between these faux-marble panels. Tom pointed to one of them in particular, its corner chipped off.

“I never fully appreciated that before,” he said. “Look at that masterful rendering of time. Every detail tells us something. This is a memento mori. The chip in the ‘marble’ represents the passage of time, an illusion reminding us of our mortality.”

He pointed at another decorative plaque between panels 19 (The Crucifixion) and 20 (The lamentation of Christ) showing Jonah’s legs sticking out from the mouth of the whale into which he is disappearing. The viewer sees neither all of Jonah nor the whole whale. “It’s a perfect miniature masterpiece,” Tom said. “The part stands for the whole. We see very little and know everything we need to know.

“The Old Testament images,” he said, “prefigure the events in New Testament panels. Jonah in the belly of the whale prefigures Christ’s death. The whale can also be seen as swallowing him and regurgitating him, which prefigures the resurrection.”

I needed Tom’s binoculars to see the lioness with three cubs high on a decorative band. “The newborn cubs were dead for three days and then the mother breathed life into them.” Tom said. “Christ lay entombed for three days.”

Bit by bit the organic and self-reflecting design of the chapel came into focus.

 As we stood before the Flight into Egypt, Tom asked me what I made of the gesture the green-robed figure on the left was making with his right hand. I said it looked to me like a narrative device to carry the eye diagonally, along the line of the strap, across the donkey’s rear haunches, toward the angel hovering above Joseph.

“All the gestures are symbolic,” Tom said. “You have to assume Giotto was making a statement with it. It’s worth looking into.”

“The storytelling is so different here from the St. Francis cycle,” I said. “There he aggressively directed my eye from event to event. These seem more self-contained.”

Tom blinked and smiled. “I was just noticing each panel is arranged to lead the eye from the foreground into the background. They turn inward.” He noted that by this point Giotto had reached a very high level of spatial awareness.

Giotto exploded the static and stylized iconographic conventions he inherited. Calaphas is so angry at Jesus he tears open his shirt (the same gesture seen in the Ira – anger – panelof the Seven Vices). The ass Jesus rides into Jerusalem is docile, humble, eyes sweet, serene, resigned. The mothers weep real tears as their children are hacked to bits in the Slaughter of the Innocents. The religious drama unfolds through human dramas. The characters’ faces grow familiar; they wear the same clothes so that we know who they are even when their backs are toward us. The images conspire toward purpose and understanding. As architecture meets our need for shelter, these pictures meet our need for transcendence. For an instant, we experience the sublime.

Tom, only six months older than me, died suddenly and inexplicably on May 22, 2019. What a privilege and honor that memorable day turns out to have been. When I was young we called such fortuitous events “brushes with glory,” moments touched with magic, radiant and rare.

It was a rare day indeed and here is what I learned:

The Scrovegni frescoes provide a key to the mystery at the heart of everything. They are a gift to us all, to remind us of the heights of which we are capable and the depths to which we can sink. Whether by virtue of, or in spite of their religious language, they encourage us to transcend ourselves.

The west wall is devoted to the Last Judgment. Everything is there, unfolding in complex narrative waves and swirls: the ecstatic peace of heaven, the torments of hell, and the peculiar existential crossroads of greed and mortal terror where Enrico Scrovegni kneels and offers his lovely pink chapel to the Virgin hoping to win her favor. He was betting on her eye being delighted and her heart warmed by the felicitous beauties Giotto created, and which still provide a direct connection to the love animating the universe.

Thanks, Tom.

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