One of life’s little ironies is that there are no definitive images of the artist Giotto, the father of realistic art. It all begs a question of essence. His masterpiece is the interior of the Scrovegni Chapel where his frescoes both dazzle on their own merit and also establish precedence. They speak to his genius but more importantly, point to the Image in which he was created.
As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :
Nothing about the small and rather plain exterior of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua can prepare you for what is inside. It is like a simple unadorned jewelry box that contains unexpected and priceless treasures. There, in a small private chapel paid for by Enrico Scrovegni as atonement for his father’s usurious and unsavory financial dealings, is a breathtaking series of frescoes by Giotto illustrating the life of Mary and the life of Jesus, as well as a depiction of the last judgment. Nearly every surface is covered in paint, from floor to ceiling, including a bright blue night sky in the curved vault of the roof. There are about forty painted panels, each bursting with creative illustrations of the great sacred stories.
One of the most remarkable of these panels is The Lamentation of Christ, which shows the dead Jesus cradled in the arms of his mother, whose face displays her emotional anguish over the death of her son. That anguish is mirrored in the faces of other onlookers, especially in the faces of the angels who hover above the scene, wailing in grief over the slain Christ. This is not a calm and composed religious scene painted for the inspiration of the devout but a fully human moment, and we grasp the monumental tragedy through the expressions of the onlookers. They take us into the narrative and we experience it through them: through Mary’s unspeakable sorrow, through the lament of the angelic host, and through the gesture of John, whose arms are thrown backward in horror and unutterable grief.
Giotto has created a complex and busy arrangement, and some figures even have their backs to us, adding to the dimension of the work. But everything in the work pulls our eyes toward the face of the dead Christ, who while not at the physical center of the painting is clearly the central focus toward which everything points. Even the rocky ridge in the background descends from the right and toward Jesus. There is no question that something of unbelievable awfulness has taken place. The Son of God has been slain. And Giotto has captured the emotion of the moment.
Are you most inspired by realistic or abstract art?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
D I G D E E P E R
The Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto Di Bondone
Corrain, Lucia. Giotto and Medieval Art. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1995.
Stubblebine, James, ed. Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969.
Wolf, Norbert. Giotto. Köln: Taschen, 2006.
Giotto (c. 1267–1337), the usual name of Ambrogiotto di Bondone, Florentine painter. Acc. to G. Vasari, the 16th-cent. historian of Italian art, he was a pupil of *Cimabue; *Dante (Purg. 11. 94–6) linked them as the most important painters in Italy to date. Little is known of his life: in Rome he was patronized by Card. Stefaneschi; from c. 1329–33 he was in the employ of King Robert of Naples; and in 1334 he was appointed surveyor of the cathedral at Florence, where he initiated the building of the campanile. His work is important in the development of modern painting; he broke away from the rigid formality and stereotyped formulas characteristic of late Byzantine art in Italy and introduced a new sense of dramatic realism. Though it is a matter of dispute whether he designed the cycle of frescoes in the Upper Church at *Assisi—which include some of the most familiar images in the life of St *Francis—he was certainly responsible for those in the Arena Chapel at Padua and the Peruzzi and Bardi Chapels of Santa Croce in Florence; all demonstrate his concern for naturalism and his genius for narrative and characterization. In Rome his most spectacular work was the huge mosaic of the Navicella (the Ship of the Church, with Christ walking on the waters) in the old *St Peter’s, which was reworked in the 17th cent. Other works include the Ognissanti Madonna in the Uffizi in Florence.
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 681–682.
I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.
Let’s explore together!
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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.
He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.
He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.
Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.
He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.
Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com
Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
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