The Bible says ‘it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven..’
Enrico Scrovegni must have had this unpalatable truth echoing in his ears when he decided to commission Giotto, the most famous fresco painter of the day, to paint the interior walls of the Arena Chapel in Padova for him, in the early years of the 14th century, from 1303-1305 to be precise.
ENRICO SCROVEGNI – was from a family of money lenders. His father was mentioned by Dante, Italy’s equivalent of Shakespeare in his epic poem ‘The Divine Comedy’. Mr Scrovegni Senior had a special place in hell (the inferno) reserved just for him to atone for his sins as a money lender and exploiter of the less fortunate. Imagine seeing your wealthy father surrounded by burning flames and eyeless skulls, unable to escape from the terror and wrath of hell. How’s that for a motivation to buy your way into the afterlife.
As Enrico Scrovegni advanced in years he built a spectacular villa for himself with a private chapel, next door to the Roman theatre ruins, in the City of Padova. He then hired Giotto, the most celebrated fresco painter of the day, to travel north from Assisi, where he’d spent years working on the frescoes that adorn the Basilica of San Francesco. Giotto’s brief was to decorate the inside of the chapel with scenes from the Life of Christ. A project that he delivered from 1303-1305.
QUALITY & AGE – The quality of the frescoes, brilliance of the colours and the vibrancy of the scenes remains to this day. It’s worth pausing for a moment and considering that these frescoes are actually more than 700 years old. They were painted at a time when Edward I was the King of England. Two hundred years before Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic to ‘discover’ the New World. These frescoes are old and yet their clarity and colour shine on – a vibrant reminder to all of us of the richly talented fresco painters of medieval times.
FRESCO painting is a precise art. The artist painted directly onto the plaster of the wall. Firstly a rough outline of the painting was drawn on to the flat surface, using charcoal. Then coloured powders (pigments) were mixed with water to create a paste which was applied to the newly plastered walls. The porous walls literally absorbed the paint and sucked it into the wall as the plaster dried, creating a hard enduring surface. Effectively the paint and plaster bonded together to create a coloured wall, where the colour penetrated the surface of the wall. Painting and wall became one profound image.
THE FRESCO CYCLES – A series of square panels decorate the walls of the chapel from about shoulder height up to the ceiling. These fresco cycles are divided into ‘The Life of Christ’ and ‘The Life of the Virgin’ along with tales from ‘Joachim and Anna’ taken from the Old Testament. The ceiling is a deep, celestial blue, dotted with golden stars. The ceiling alone is magical and entrancing.
This image (above) shows Christ on the cross with Mary Magdalen weeping at his feet. The soldiers and knights argue about what to do with Christ’s clothing. Whilst the higher frame shows a watery baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Christ’s body is dreamlike almost ethereal. He looks like an aquatic creature surrounded by lush rich green and blue hues. There’s a magical quality to the light as Christ’s frame is submerged in the river’s depths.
Next comes the ‘Entry into Jerusalem’ with Jesus riding on a donkey, with the gates of the city of Jerusalem clearly visible in the background. The scene below is Christ’s ascent into heaven. He is surrounded by saints and angels, including two very knowing looking guardian angels with coloured wings and fingers pointing skyward – to the celestial paradise I’m guessing.
ENTRY INTO HELL – In Medieval Times a bit of fire and brimstone was never far away. Here at the Scrovegni there’s a wonderful ‘Last Judgement’ painted on the back wall of the chapel. A huge, contorted, pot-bellied Satan is depicted eating babies. Souls arriving in hell are dismembered, naked and ‘fallen’ in every sense. Scorching hot flames create a blood-red backdrop to scenes of carnage and torture.
Just as a reminder – these frescoes were created between 1303-1305. A graphic portrayal of life and death, good and evil. A permanent record of fresco art painted by the master of the day. So the question I’d like to ask is this one: did the chapel frescoes save Enrico Scrovegni from his fate? Was he able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Well I’m guessing it was too late for daddio. Just a year or so later Dante mentioned Rinaldo, the father in the ‘Inferno’ where he placed Scrovegni Senior amongst the other usurers or money lenders (Chapter XVII, 64-66). It amuses me to think that Giotto might well have depicted Rinaldo in this ‘Inferno’ scene, without telling his boss, Enrico, which character was his father! My money’s on the man to the right of Satan, with the dark demon attacking him.
- Too late for daddio? According to Italian Wikipedia, probably yes! “Infondata la notizia secondo cui Enrico Scrovegni fece costruire questo edificio sacro in espiazione del peccato di usura commesso dal padre Rinaldo (o Reginaldo), che Dante Alighieri, qualche anno dopo la conclusione del ciclo giottesco, pone all’Inferno tra gli usurai (XVII, 64-66)”.
- Damp and humidity are the arch enemies of the fresco. Dampness leads to mould and algal blooms that discolour and disfigure the fresco surfaces, growing on and over the paintings. The Scrovegni Chapel now has an outer chamber where visitors cool down and watch a video before entering the chapel. In this way humidity in the chapel is kept at acceptable levels
- Padova is a wonderful university city. Well worth a visit.
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- With thanks to Nicole Friedler for some great photography. www.nicolefriedler.com
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- Updated: 20th October 2019