Daily Dose of Europe: Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel

One thing I miss about traveling in Europe is stepping into a gorgeous space slathered with fine art. And the Scrovegni Chapel, in the Italian town of Padua, is one of my favorite lesser-known examples.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

Wallpapered with Giotto’s beautifully preserved cycle of 38 frescoes, the glorious Scrovegni Chapel depicts the life of Jesus with unprecedented realism. Painted around 1305, two full centuries before the High Renaissance, it’s considered to be the first piece of “modern” art. Europe was breaking out of the Middle Ages, and Giotto was painting real people in real scenes, expressing real human emotions.

The walls of this long, narrow chapel were Giotto’s canvas to tell the three-generation history of Jesus. Giotto’s storytelling style is straightforward, and anyone with knowledge of the episodes of Jesus’ life can read the chapel like a comic book.

It begins in the chapel’s upper corner with a heartbreaking episode that draws the viewer right in. Jesus’ grandpa, Joachim, is humiliated because he can’t produce a child. He returns dejectedly home, where miraculously, his wife gives birth to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

From this humble start, the story spirals clockwise around the chapel, from top to bottom: We see Jesus being born in a manger, baptized by John the Baptist, performing miracles, and so on. “Turning the page” to the chapel’s other wall, Giotto begins Jesus’ traumatic final days: the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest, and the Crucifixion. The story concludes on the rear wall with a giant fresco of Jesus reigning at the Last Judgment. And all this unfolds beneath a blue, starry sky overhead on the chapel ceiling.

Jesus’ life was so eventful that Giotto had to crystalize the story into just a few evocative scenes. He captures all the drama of the Passion in the Betrayal of Christ panel — a.k.a. Il Bacio, or “The Kiss.” Amid the chaos of battling soldiers, Giotto directs your eye to the crucial action in the center. There, Judas ensnares Jesus in his yellow robe (the color symbolizing envy), establishes meaningful eye contact, and kisses him. Jesus’ stone-faced response to his supposed friend says it all.

At age 35, at the height of his powers, Giotto tackled the Scrovegni, painting the entire chapel in 200 working days.

His frescoes were groundbreaking: more realistic, 3-D, and human than anything seen in a thousand years. Giotto set his religious scenes in the everyday world of rocks, trees, and animals. So, when Joachim returns home, his faithful dog leaps up to greet him, frozen realistically in mid-air. Giotto’s people, with their voluminous, deeply creased robes, are as sturdy and massive as Greek statues. They exude stage presence. Their gestures are simple but expressive: A head tilted down says dejection, clasped hands indicate hope.

Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel represents a turning point not only for European art, but also for a whole new way of thinking. It was Humanism — away from scenes of heaven and toward a more down-to-earth view, with man at the center.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Scrovegni.