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Frescoes by Giotto in Padova’s Scrovegni Chapel

Padua, Italy

Padova’s Scrovegni Chapel, with its precious 14th-century frescoes by Giotto, is one of Italy’s most beloved art treasures. Giotto, considered the first modern painter, created scenes that were more realistic than anything that had been done for a thousand years.

Complete Video Script

Padova’s Scrovegni Chapel, with its precious 14th-century Giotto frescoes, is one of Italy’s most beloved art treasures. Considered too fragile to be seen by huge numbers of people, sights like this are open only to a limited number of visitors who make a reservation in advance.

Wallpapered with Giotto’s beautifully preserved cycle of frescoes, the glorious chapel — painted in about the year 1300 — depicts the lives of Jesus and Mary.

Giotto, considered the first modern painter, painted scenes that were more realistic and human than anything that had been done for a thousand years. Moving beyond medieval 2-D and gold leaf backgrounds, with these realistic ground-breaking frescoes, Giotto introduces nature — rocks, trees, animals — as a backdrop for religious scenes.

His people, with their voluminous, deeply creased robes, are as sturdy and massive as Greek statues. Their gestures are simple but expressive: Arm raised shows anger, head tilted down says dejection, arms flung out indicate anguish, and a tender kiss? Caring love.

Giotto’s storytelling style is straightforward, and anyone with a knowledge of the Bible can read the chapel like a picture book.

In the Betrayal of Christ, amid the crowded chaos of Jesus’ arrest, Giotto skillfully creates a focus upon the central action: Judas embraces Jesus, looks him straight in the eyes, and kisses him.

In The Deposition, Jesus has been taken down off the cross, and his followers weep and wail over his lifeless body. John the Evangelist spreads his arms wide and shrieks, his cries echoed by anguished angels above. Each face is a study in grief. Giotto emphasizes the human vulnerability of these figures.

And, like a centerpiece on the far wall, is The Last Judgment. Christ oversees the action as the saved, on his right, emerge grateful from their graves…and the damned, on his left, are just kicking off a hellish eternity.

Satan is a grotesque ogre munching on sinners. Around him, demons torture the damned in a scene right out of The Inferno by Dante… who happened to be Giotto’s friend.

Calmly isolated from the action is Enrico Scrovegni, who paid for all this art in an attempt to gain forgiveness for the sins of his wealthy and greedy father.

These frescoes are considered by many to be a precursor of the Renaissance to come. With this masterpiece — created 200 years before Leonardo and Michelangelo — Giotto seems to be making it clear: Europe was breaking out of the Middle Ages.