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A Family's Redemption in Fresco

I think we started these art posts back in March. So we’re coming up on a whole year and we haven’t once mentioned the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel. Terrible oversight. This Adoration of the Magi (1305) is one of 37 scenes done by Giotto di Bondone to decorate the Chapel’s interior.

By looking at the Chapel’s fairly nondescript exterior, you wouldn’t know that its interior holds one of the most influential accomplishments of western art.

Hopefully my wide shot below will help you appreciate the undertaking, one that took Giotto and 40 assistants about 625 ‘work days’ to complete.

The Chapel is named for its patron, a wealthy banker named Enrico Scrovegni. His family’s banking fortune was primarily amassed through lending at interest. We may not think twice about it today but in his world it was called usury and it was a sin. We have fairly pointed proof of that in The Divine Comedy because Dante identified Enrico’s father by name in the 7th circle of hell. Many believe that the chapel project was Enrico’s attempt to redeem his family’s reputation and save his own soul.

Motives for its construction aside, the Chapel deserves its rank as one of the western world’s greatest artistic monuments. And it’s probably Europe’s greatest pictorial depiction of Christian redemption.

As for the artist, Giotto is considered a genius and one of Europe’s great artistic innovators. Looking at his stuff today—with all the innovations and improvements since his time—you may wonder whether he deserves that kind of accolade. Trust me, he does. He was pretty pivotal in the transition from medieval and Byzantine styles to those of the Renaissance and beyond. If you hold his stuff up against the medieval works that came before him, it’s not that hard to see the difference. His work inspired very many artists after him, including Renaissance giants like Michelangelo and Raphael. If you ask me, his scene entitled The Lamentation is probably the best one on the chapel walls (I’ll have to write about that one at some point). But I used this piece for one particular touch: his depiction of the star of Bethlehem as a comet. That may not seem very noteworthy but it’s widely thought that Giotto’s sighting of Haley’s Comet in 1301 influenced his conception of the Biblical star.

Maybe I should end the year on a humorous note. It was said that Giotto was a rather unattractive man. One of his friends described him to a later biographer as the ugliest man in Florence. And apparently the apple didn’t fall far from the tree: his kids all had plain and forgettable faces at best. When an acquaintance mused aloud to him how a man of such beautiful talent could produce such ugly children, Giotto replied “I make my paintings by day and my babies by night.”

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