Joy and Grief in the Frescoes of the Arena Chapel

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

In the Arena Chapel, also known as the Scrovengi Chapel, in Padua, Italy, Giotto created a stunning room of frescoes based on the life of the Virgin Mary and the Paschal Mystery of Christ.  The chapel is 69 feet long, 26 feet wide, and 43 feet high.

This painting is from the cycle within the frescoes that focuses on the life of Joachim and is entitled Meeting at the Golden Gate.  After learning they will have a child, Mary, Joachim and Anna come together at the gate for a kiss and an embrace:

http://www.wga.hu/index1.html

 We see the two becoming one not just in their embrace but in their intertwining halos as well.  While most of the other figures direct their gaze toward Joachim and Anna, the woman in black turns away.  She may represent the suffering Mary will experience.

Mary's suffering is illustrated in Lamentation, one of the paintings illustrating the Paschal Mystery:

http://www.wga.hu/index1.html

Every figure in the painting directs their attention, and therefore the viewer's attention, toward Mary's embrace of her Son.  The figures on the right include Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathia, and Mary Magdalene at the feet of Jesus.  The focused grief of the figures in the bottom half of the painting may be compared to the more fierce responses of the angels above.

Material for this post is drawn from "The Majesty of Duccio and Giotto," one of the lectures in The World's Greatest Paintings (public library) by William Gross, and the photos are drawn from the Web Gallery of Art.