Friday, 16 January 2009

Giotto di Bondone
La Cappella degli Scrovegni
31 October 2005

The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas) 1304-06
Fresco 200 x 185 cm

On the train journey from Venice to Padua the anticipation of seeing greatest single collection of frescoes in the world was building with every mile. Arriving at Padua station I immediately walked to the chapel to book the earliest ticket I could, to give me the maximum amount of time to see the paintings. Knowing that the timed tickets were at 30minute intervals I had naively expected to be able to stay as long as I liked.

The reality of modern art tourism was a shock. The 30 minutes was a fixed time, of which the first 15 minutes were spent in a dehumidifying chamber waiting for admission to the chapel itself. 15 minutes is an absurd amount of time to spend with so many paintings, I can spend a couple of hours over just one. The fastest art experience I have ever had in my life!

So, despite being well prepared, I found the visit overwhelming. To say that the chapel is stunning would be an understatement and it is hard to believe that it was completed in two years. I had taken my sketch book in but given the brief encounter with the paintings I had to concentrate on looking and forego notes let alone sketching. Yet being ushered out into the sun 15 minutes later I am not sure how much I had absorbed other than despite (or because of) the simple compositions and colour schemes, the spirit of each scene had stood out at a glance whilst maintaining a unity between the works.

Perhaps the most memorable of the individual frescoes was the one depicting the betrayal of Christ by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane. The composition is thickly filled with figures, staves and lanterns and gives a good sense of the clash between the ‘followers’ and the soldiery. The figures of Christ and Judas stand out from the crowd and there is no mistaking what is happening. It is not filled with a wistful melancholy but the embrace of betrayal is met with an all-knowing expression of absolute forgiveness and the knowing what is to follow as the high priest orders the arrest of Christ.

Perhaps the most amazing feature of Giotto’s style is the variety of emotion and facial expression he achieves despite the simplicity of the faces. The comparison between Judas's sinister and animalistic kiss and the very private and intimate kiss from The Annunciation gives an indication of the level of subtlety he has mastered. Childless Joachim and Anna are meeting to share the knowledge of the impending birth that will change their lives forever. It is mouth to mouth and the eye contact is direct away from the main group inside the Golden Gate whereas in the betrayal kiss the faces are nose to nose and the group crowds around transfixed.

Perhaps that is his greatest quality; being able to make all the subjects individuals and yet a master of injecting feeling into the scenes whilst ensuring the ‘meaning’ isn’t diluted. I have since tried to emulate the amount of emotion which Giotto is capable of expressing by a single gesture, and can appreciate just how hard it is to avoid lapsing into caricature.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Oh, Giotto's frescoes -I have stood there for some time- are for me one of the most beautiful paintings! Especially the scene between Jesus and Judas- as they look at each other -so deeply into their eyes- and I can imagine what they are thinking and feeling at this moment-yes, it is one existential moment- frozen, better eternalized by Giotto- in this moment there lies a kind of sadness and disappointment and melancholy considering the loss of friendschap and confidence...- yes, the each other meeting eyes/looks of figures are Giotto's special- I remember the meeting of King Salomo and Queen Saba in Arezzo, the annunciation of angel Gabriel to Mary in Florence... Giotto is one of the most genious artists indeed- and his colours are vivid although a bit fading!

  2. These pics could confirm the thesis of Lessing in his essay "Laokoon..."- Giotto has chosen the one decisive turning/crisis-point of the story/event where we can at the same point look back and forward- I have the feeling as if the story could also end in another way, a positive way, than the bible has reported- maybe because of the atmosphere of intimacy between the two men -despite the betrayal- created and -at the same time- threatened by the circle of all the weapons around- Giotto choose the moment before the kiss in opposite to other paintings of this subject, only the gestures are speaking, in the bible we hear Jesus and Judas saying some words before the kiss- it is a scene 'crackling' by the inner emotions and tensions! An absolute highlight of painting!

    (I had some problems to post the comments, therefore I chose the easiest way as Anonymus, it's okay, Ph.Kl.)