Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266–1336) lived at a time of astounding artistic production. Cimabue, Arnolfo di Cambio, Giovanni Pisano, Duccio di Buoninsegna, and Pietro Cavallini are just a few of the named contemporaries and near contemporaries in his cultural milieu, but hundreds of artists whose names are lost to history were also producing mural painting, panel painting, manuscript illumination, and sculpture at this time in Italy. The subjects these artists depicted included some material unrelated to the Bible; Giotto, for instance, painted hagiographic themes, such as episodes from the life of St. Francis (in the Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence, and elsewhere) and Franciscan allegories in the Lower Church of San Francesco, Assisi. He also painted secular subjects, among them an astrological cycle in the Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, a cycle of famous men and women, now lost, in Naples, and an allegory of worldly glory, also lost, in Milan. But much religious art in late medieval Italy was devoted to the narratives of the Old and New Testaments; the work of Giotto is no exception.
Unfortunately, a phrase like “the work of Giotto” is fraught with difficulties; his oeuvre remains disputed to this day, and this essay is not the place to address controversies of attribution. While some of Giotto’s major works, such as the enormous mosaic known as the Navicella, depicting the miracle of Jesus walking on the water (Matt 14:24–32) for old St. Peter’s in Rome (now largely lost), represent biblical subjects, Giotto’s genius as an interpreter of the Bible is most fully revealed in his uncontested masterpiece, the Arena Chapel in Padua (1303–1305). We thus focus on the Arena frescoes—the attribution of which to Giotto has never been seriously questioned—but begin by confronting some of the complexities inherent in the question of Giotto and the Bible.
First, one should not imagine that Giotto and other artists in late medieval Italy consulted the Bible—or any written source for that matter—before composing their work. Aside from the educated elite, most people then encountered the Bible indirectly, and orally: through the biblical passages incorporated into the liturgy, through liturgical drama, and through sermons, not exclusively but especially those by mendicants. Giotto is a case in point: he spent his early years in Florence, living near the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where the great preacher Remigio de’ Girolami spoke regularly; some of Remigio’s themes seem to inform the Arena frescoes (Derbes and Sandona, 2008). Still more indirect exposure to biblical subjects came through visual art, especially through public art: the frescoes, panel paintings, and works of sculpture that were an essential part of the fabric of urban life in late medieval Italy.
A second, and related, complication is the fact that Christian themes in art, even Christological themes, were not necessarily biblical in origin. Like his contemporaries, Giotto painted Christian subjects drawn not exclusively from the canonical Gospels but also from apocryphal accounts: for instance, the narrative program of the Arena Chapel opens with the cycle of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, which has no canonical source, and continues with the early life of the Virgin, similarly grounded not in the Bible but in legendary accounts popularized in devotional texts like the Golden Legend. Even the depiction of such important Christian themes as the Nativity did not originate exclusively in the canonical Gospels: familiar details such as the bathing of the child by midwives or the presence of the ox and ass are not mentioned by the Evangelists (Matt 1:18–25; Luke 2:1–20). Many of these apocryphal insertions have a venerable history in Christian art; in including them, Giotto respects traditional iconographic formulas. But Giotto’s brilliance as a painter of Christian narrative depends in part on his manipulation of these formulas, his reshaping of traditional compositions with great subtlety and nuance. We begin by outlining the program of the Arena Chapel, then turn to some specific instances that illuminate Giotto’s approach to religious narrative.
The Arena Chapel narrative begins with apocryphal accounts of the parents of the Virgin Mary (Joachim and Anna), the childhood, and then the marriage of the Virgin Mary. Following this preface, the New Testament informs the remainder of the narrative—beginning with the Annunciation on the chancel arch (above the altar) followed by the Visitation, moving to the infancy of Christ (Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Presentation in the Temple, Flight into Egypt, Massacre of the Innocents, and Christ among the Doctors), the ministry and Passion (Baptism, Wedding at Cana, Raising of Lazarus, Entry into Jerusalem, Expulsion of the Merchants, Pact of Judas, Last Supper, Washing of the Feet, Betrayal of Judas, Trial before Caiaphas, Mocking, Way to Calvary, Crucifixion, and Lamentation), and ending with the Resurrection (Noli me tangere), Ascension, and Pentecost. With the exclusion of the first apocryphal scenes, the cycle includes 25 biblically based episodes. The Last Judgment on the west wall is of course related to several biblical references.
Aspects of the Old Testament act as a supporting framework for the Christian episodes—which is quite conventional. In the western half of the vault, the Virgin Mary is centrally framed by four prophets in golden medallions, each holding a scroll with a passage from his writing (Mal 3:1; Dan 6:26; Isa 7:14; Bar 3:36). In the eastern half of the vault, Christ is centrally framed by another four figures: three Hebrew prophets (Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Micah) and John the Baptist, here without representative scrolls. Quatrefoils in the decorative bands (segmenting the three registers of the narrative cycle) contain some Old Testament episodes. These quatrefoils are connected typologically with the New Testament episodes adjacent to them: for example, Moses Striking the Rock anticipates the Marriage at Cana; the Raising of the Brazen Serpent in the Desert (south wall, second band) anticipates the Crucifixion placed immediately to the right; and Ezekiel’s Fiery Chariot (south wall, fifth band) anticipates the adjacent Ascension.
Many of the subjects included in the Arena Chapel are typical of the artistic production of the period, but a few are unusual. The Expulsion of the Merchants (north wall, second register) is rarely depicted in the extant Italian murals of this period. The prominent placement of the Pact of Judas and the Visitation on the chancel arch is also anomalous. Occasionally the mode of depicting a scene breaks with convention or amplifies or supplements aspects of a biblical episode, for example, the roles of specific apostles in the ministry narratives (for the identification of apostles, see Lisner, 1990). Some scholars have explained these choices as compositionally driven (Alpatoff, 1947) or as mandated by concerns of the patron of the chapel, Enrico Scrovegni (Schlegel, 1969; Derbes and Sandona, 2008).
Perhaps the most distinctive quality of Giotto’s painting is the expressiveness he offers in human figures—their inner states fully realized in faces, gestures, and stances. The Dante scholar Erich Auerbach describes a poetic technique in the Divine Comedy as “figural realism”—meaning that the poet strategically deploys the recognizable, indeed the intensely familiar, elements of his world to reveal the broad concerns of salvation history; that phrase is aptly applied to the work of Giotto. Some of the most famous instances of Giotto’s figural realism appear, interestingly, in frescoes that are not canonical. The cycle of Joachim and Anna brilliantly captures Joachim’s devastation after his expulsion from the Temple, the questioning glances exchanged by the shepherds, and the tenderness of Anna, fingering Joachim’s hair and beard when they are reunited at the Golden Gate. Giotto’s penetrating depictions of human behavior in such images remind us that early apocryphal texts, and the later devotional tracts that they inspired, flesh out—in an almost literal sense—biblical narrative by ascribing a range of emotions to holy figures. The celebrated Lamentation, a theme also derived from noncanonical sources, offers another instance of figural realism in the harrowing depiction of the Virgin’s grief as she searches the face of her son. Her precise action corresponds closely to the description in the Meditations on the Life of Christ, reminding us of the interdependence of devotional texts and images in late medieval Italy.
But images that are obviously biblical in origin, such as the Raising of Lazarus, also reveal Giotto’s mastery. The extraordinary rendering of Lazarus makes the miracle of his resurrection that much more astonishing: his sunken cheeks and ghastly pallor convince viewers of his death—only moments ago, he was a corpse—but now his eyes begin to open, signaling his return to life.
Moreover, Giotto’s brilliance is not merely a matter of technical virtuosity. Rather, he brings great intellectual acumen to his work, subtly enlarging upon biblical narrative. On one level, the salvation story can be read in a conventionally linear fashion, but it can be read, too, in a manner reminiscent of the multiple levels of understanding that Dante calls “polysemy” (Haller, 1973, p. 99): through the strategic use of visual cues, Giotto prompts the viewer to make unexpected connections between episodes—thereby producing meaning that transcends the narrative per se.
A case in point involves the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated episodes in the life of Christ. On the south wall are the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (middle register) and the Betrayal of Christ (lower register). Not only are the episodes positioned centrally on the wall (the Presentation directly above the Betrayal ), but also the figure of Christ is central within each. The Temple architecture in the Presentation re-emphasizes that centrality, as does the niche of the personification of Justice below the Betrayal. And many other compositional choices connect the two biblical episodes (see Alpatoff, 1947; Derbes and Sandona, 2008); but the connection between the two scenes is not merely compositional, it is thematic as well. Mary and Judas are in striking opposition. In fulfillment of the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph present their firstborn to God (Exod 13:11–15; Luke 2:22–24), redeeming him then with the offering of five shekels (Num 18:15–17). Mary’s open arms emphasize the spirit of gift offering. In stark contrast, Giotto depicts Judas, having sold his master for 30 pieces of silver (Matt 26:15), as enveloping Christ in his cloak, animal-like, even voracious, as he moves toward Christ to kiss him, signaling his identity for the high priests. Mary has given her son; Judas takes him away. A careful viewer notices even subtler connections; for example, in the Presentation, the cruciform gesture of the Christ Child and his foreshortened foot point to his Passion and death—reminding the viewer of Simeon’s prophecy of the Passion, even as the Passion cycle is nearing its climax in the Betrayal directly below. Turning one’s attention to the chancel arch, Mary and Judas again face each other in opposition: Giotto places the Pact of Judas directly across the altar from the Visitation (see Derbes and Sandona  for a complete reading of the theological implications of this opposition). With yet another turn to the north wall, one may notice the connection between the foreshortened foot of the Child in the Presentation and the anticipatory Old Testament quatrefoil of Isaac’s Circumcision (second band, middle register), where Isaac’s foot is a clear visual echo of Christ’s. The typology of the sacrificial son thereby emerges.
This example of Giotto’s rendering of the Bible as an interconnected narrative is one among many that can be found in the Arena Chapel. This visual connectedness between biblical episodes—and even between biblical and apocryphal material—was part and parcel of the way medieval Christianity understood the scriptures. Biblical exegesis from the church fathers to the time of Giotto (and beyond) understood the Bible as much more than an inspired record of historical events in chronological order; like the connections made on the walls of the Arena Chapel, biblical stories were inextricably related to each other—even when separated by extended gaps of time. (For a full understanding of the interpretation of the Bible in the Middle Ages see the magisterial work of Henri de Lubac.)
A work like Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel, therefore, rests on homiletic and scholarly interpretations of the Bible that extend back for a millennium. Giotto’s genius was to render the biblical narratives in a compellingly familiar mode—the unbounded grief of a mother with her dead son; the wonder in the eyes of a disciple witnessing a miracle; the sadness in the eyes of a teacher gazing on his betrayer—and at the same time to demonstrate that they “fit” together in a cosmic plan, a figural realism comparable to the poetic technique of Giotto’s contemporary, Dante Alighieri.
- Alpatoff, Michel. “The Parallelism of Giotto’s Paduan Frescoes.” In Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes, edited and translated by James H. Stubblebine, pp. 156–169. Norton Critical Studies in Art History. New York and London: Norton, 1969. Originally published in Art Bulletin 29, no. 3 (1947): 149–154.
- Auerbach, Erich. “Figura.” In Scenes from the Drama of European Literature: Six Essays, translated by Ralph Mannheim, pp. 11–76. New York: Meridian, 1959.
- Derbes, Anne, and Mark Sandona. The Usurer’s Heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008.
- Haller, Robert S. Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973.
- Lisner, Margrit. “Die Gewandfarben der Apostel in Giottos Arenafresken: Farbgebung und Farbikonographie, mit Notizen zu älteren Aposteldarstellungen in Florenz, Assisi und Rom.” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 53, no. 3 (1990): 309–375.
- Lubac, Henri de. Exégèse médiévale: les quatres sens de l’écriture. 2 vols. Paris: Aubier, 1959–1964.
- Schlegel, Ursula. “On the Picture Program of the Arena Chapel.” In Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes, edited and translated by James H. Stubblebine, pp. 182–202. Norton Critical Studies in Art History. New York and London: Norton, 1969.
- Banzato, Davide, Giuseppe Basile, and Francesca Flores d’Arcais, eds. La Cappella degli Scrovegni a Padova/The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. 2 vols. Mirabilia Italiae 13. Modena, Italy: F. C. Panini, 2005. These two volumes include an extraordinarily detailed photo atlas along with reliable and pertinent biblical citations related to the frescoes.
- Ladis, Andrew. Giotto’s O: Narrative, Figuration, and Pictorial Ingenuity in the Arena Chapel. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008.
Mark Sandona and Anne Derbes