Arena chapel, Padua

(1305)
   The Arena Chapel is Giotto's best-preserved work. The artist received the commission from Enrico Scrovegni, a wealthy merchant whose father, Reginaldo Scrovegni, was the leading banker of Padua, qualified by Dante in the Inferno as an usurer. Enrico, troubled by the fact that usury is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, an activity in which he also engaged, built the Arena Chapel (beg. 1303) to expiate his sins and ensure his attainment of salvation. It is not clear how Giotto received the commission, though it is believed that it was through Scrovegni's wife, Iacopina d' Este, who was related to the Stefaneschi for whom Giotto had worked in Rome. The chapel received its appellation from the ancient Roman ruins of the arena upon which it was built. Though meant as a private family chapel, the Scrovegni occasionally allowed access to the public to view the frescoes. In 1304, Pope Benedict IX (1303-1304) in fact granted indulgences to pilgrims who visited the site. The fact that it was available for viewing ensured Giotto's success locally and abroad.
   The chapel is barrel vaulted and features six narrow windows on the south side, allowing a great deal of wall space for Giotto's frescoes. Thirty-eight scenes, taken from Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend, are arranged on three bands, with the life of the Virgin and her parents, Joachim and Anne, featured on the upper tier. In the middle level are scenes depicting Christ's life and mission, and on the lower tier are his Passion, death, and Resurrection. At the very bottom of the walls are faux marble panels flanked by the Seven Virtues and Deadly Sins, painted in grisaille. On the chapel's triumphal arch is a depiction of the Annunciation, and on the entrance wall is a Last Judgment with Enrico at the foot of Christ's empty cross presenting a model of the chapel to the Virgin of Charity, the Virgin Annunciate, and the angel Gabriel, the three figures to whom the chapel is dedicated. The chapel was consecrated on 15 March 1305, on the Feast of the Annunciation.
   The importance of Giotto's work in the Arena Chapel lies in the fact that he rejected the then-popular Maniera Greca mode of painting in favor of a more naturalistic representation of figures and back-grounds. Instead of the gilded backdrops of the Maniera Greca, Giotto chose a striking ultramarine blue that serves to unify the scenes. He rejected the gold striations of the Greek manner in favor of draperies that fall in a believable mode. He gave volume to his figures and placed them within, not in front of, structures and landscapes. In response to the "love thy neighbor as thine own self" teachings of St. Francis and his followers, Giotto humanized the depictions by including scenes of Christ's infancy, Joachim and Anne embracing, and angels crying over the death of Christ. Instead of symbolic images of Christ's sacrifice and focus on his divine nature, Giotto created a narration of his story, and that of his parents and grandparents, that present him as a character who belongs to the human realm and with which the faithful can identify.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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