20 November 2021

How Giotto changed western
art with his frescoes in
the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

In Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua … the Deposition of Christ from the Cross (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is one of the most important, self-contained works of art in Western Europe. Its interior frescoes form one complete cycle, and this is the work of the Italian painter and architect Giotto di Bondone (ca 1267-1337), known generally as Giotto.

Giotto has been described as ‘the most sovereign master of painting in his time.’ He was born in Florence in the Late Middle Ages, and worked in the Gothic and early Renaissance period. His work marks a decisive break with the Byzantine style, prevalent at the time, and he initiated the Western art of painting as we know it today.

One morning last week, I took the train from Venice to Padua, primarily to see Giotto’s decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, which is undoubtedly his masterpiece. He completed his decoration of the chapel between 1303 and 1305 with a fresco cycle depicting the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ. This work is regarded as one of the supreme masterpieces of the Early Renaissance.

These frescoes are works of great narrative force and the have had a powerful influence on the development of European art. They mark the beginning of a revolution in mural painting and influenced fresco technique, style, and content for a whole century.

Giotto later designed the campanile or bell tower of Florence Cathedral in 1334. But there are few certainties about his life, although it is generally agreed he painted the frescoes in the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.

In Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua … the Raising of Lazarus from the Dead (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Scrovegni Chapel or Cappella degli Scrovegni is close to the Augustinian monastery or Monastero degli Eremitani in Padua, and both the chapel and the monastery are now part of the complex of the Museo Civico of Padua.

It is said the affluent banker Enrico Scrovegni of Padua commissioned the Scrovegni Chapel in 1303, hoping this deed would spare his dead father, Reginaldo, a usurer, from the eternal damnation that had been wished on him by Dante in his Inferno.

There are strict limits on the number of visitors allowed inside the chapel at any one time, and I had to spend 15 minutes before my visit in a decontamination chamber, during which a video presentation told the story of the chapel and Giotto’s frescoes.

Once inside the chapel, my visit was also limited to 15 minutes.

Giotto and his team covered all the internal surfaces of the chapel with frescoes, including the walls and the ceiling. The nave is 20.88 metres long, 8.41 metres wide, and 12.65 metres high. The apse area is composed of a square area (4.49 meters deep and 4.31 meters wide) and a pentagonal area (2.57 meters deep).

The largest element is the extensive cycles showing the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin Mary. The ‘Doom Wall’ at the east end or rear of the church has a large depiction of the Last Judgment. There are also monochrome panels in grisaille showing the Vices and Virtues.

In Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua … Christ enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The church was dedicated to Santa Maria della Carità on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1303, and consecrated on 25 March 1305. Much of Giotto’s fresco cycle focuses on the life of the Virgin Mary and celebrates her role in the story salvation.

The chapel is also known as the Arena Chapel because it was built on land bought by Scrovegni beside the site of the Roman arena in Padua in 1300. There he built his luxurious palace, and built the chapel beside it as his family’s private oratory and as a funerary monument for himself and his wife.

Scrovegni commissioned Giotto to decorate the chapel. Giotto had previously worked for the Franciscans in Assisi and Rimini, and was then working on the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua.

Giotto was about 36 or 38 when he worked on Scrovegni’s chapel with a team of about 40 collaborators. They calculated that 625 work days (giornati) were necessary to paint the chapel. A ‘work day’ meant that portion of each fresco that could be painted before the plaster dried and was no longer ‘fresh’ (fresco in Italian).

In January 1305, the Augustinian friars from the nearby Church of the Eremitani complained to the bishop that Scrovegni had not respected an original agreement and was transforming his oratory into a church with a bell tower, producing unfair competition with their church.

Perhaps because of this complaint, the apse and the wide transept of the chapel were demolished. Both can be seen on a model of the church in the fresco of the Last Judgment. The apse was the section where Scrovegni planned to have his tomb in the apse, and Enrico and his wife, Jacopina d'Este, were buried in the significantly reduced apse.

An unknown artist known as ‘The Master of the Scrovegni Choir’ worked at the chapel about 20 years after Giotto's work was completed. His work in the chapel includes two episodes from the Passion – the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Flagellation of Christ – and six monumental scenes on the side walls of the chancel that depict the last period of the Virgin Mary’s earthly life.

In Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua … the Cleansing of the Temple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Did Dante inspire Giotto? A posthumous portrait of Dante is included in the Paradise section of the frescoes.

Did Giotto follow a theological programme based on the work of St Thomas Aquinas or is his work wholly Augustinian?

Did Scrovegni insist that Giotto excluded any references to usury in the frescoes? Dante condemns Scrovegni’s father, Reginaldo, as a usurer in Canto 17 of the Inferno, but this was a few years after Giotto completed the chapel.

Many scholars also point out how Giotto has made a number of theological mistakes. For example, they say he placed Hope after Charity in the Virtues series, and that he did not include Avarice in the Vices series, perhaps because of the usual representation of Enrico Scrovegni as a usurer. However, Avarice, far from being absent in Giotto's cycle, is portrayed with Envy, which is placed facing the virtue of Charity, to indicate that Charity is the exact opposite of Envy. Charity crushes Envy’s money bag under her feet, while on the opposite wall red flames burn under Envy’s feet.

Giotto covered the whole surface of the chapel, including the walls and the ceiling, with frescoes. His cycle is organised along four tiers, each depicting episodes in Sacred History. Each tier is divided into frames, each forming a scene. The chapel is asymmetrical in shape, with six windows on the longer south wall, and this shape determined the layout of the decoration.

Giotto’s cycle recounts the story of salvation, beginning high up on the lunette of the triumphal arch, with God the Father instructing the Archangel Gabriel to make the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary.

The narrative continues with the stories of Joachim and Anne and the stories of the Virgin Mary, followed by scenes of the Annunciation and the Visitation.

The stories of Christ are placed on the middle tier of the south and north walls. The scene of Judas receiving the money to betray Christ is on the triumphal arch.

The lower tier of the south and north walls shows the Passion and Resurrection.

The last frame on the north wall shows the Pentecost.

The fourth tier begins at ground level with the monochromes of the Vices (north wall) and the Virtues (south wall).

The west wall (counter-façade) presents the Last Judgment.

In Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua … The west wall presents the Last Judgment (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The vault presents the eighth day, the time of eternity, God’s time, with eight planets – the tondos which enclose the seven great Biblical prophets along with Saint John the Baptist – and two suns that show God and the Madonna and Child; while the blue sky is studded with eight-point stars symbolising infinity.

The bottom tiers of the side walls feature 14 personifications in grisaille, representing single figures of Vices on the north wall and Virtues on the south wall. Each virtue and vice is embedded within a mirror-like marble frame, and they also represent the seventh day, the time between Christ’s birth and the Last Judgment.

The chapel was originally connected with the Scrovegni palace, which was built on what remained of the foundations of the elliptical ancient Roman arena. The palace was demolished in 1827 and its materials were used to build two condominiums on the site. The chapel was bought by the City of Padua in 1881, the condominiums were demolished, and work began on restoring the chapel.

A full-scale restoration of Giotto’s frescoes began in June 2001 under the direction of Giuseppe Basile. The chapel reopened to the public in its original splendour in March 2002. Earlier this year (2021), the chapel was declared part of the Unesco World Heritage Site of the 14th-century fresco cycles that includes eight buildings in the city centre of Padua.

30 seconds inside Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (Patrick Comerford, 2021)

For more images of the Scrovegni Chapel, visit HERE

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
175, Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff

Llandaff Cathedral is the cathedral of the Church in Wales (Anglican) diocese that includes Cardiff and most of Glamorgan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme on this prayer diary this week has been cathedrals, churches and chapels in Wales. As part of my reflections and this prayer diary this morning, this theme concludes today (20 November 2021) with photographs from Llandaff Cathedral.

Inside Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Llandaff Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and three Welsh saints: Dubricius, Teilo and Oudoceus. It is one of two cathedrals in Cardiff, the other being the Roman Catholic Cardiff Metropolitan Cathedral in the city centre.

The present cathedral was built in the 12th century on the site of an earlier Celtic church. Welsh tradition says the first church here was founded during the time of Lucius, the legendary King of the Britons and the first Christian convert in Britain. This tradition attributes the foundation of the church to Saint Dyfan and Saint Fagan.

Other legends include the re-establishment of a Christian community at Llandaff by Saint Dyfrig (Dubricius) , who is regarded as the first Bishop of Llandaff, and his successor Saint Teilo. The legends say Saint Dyfrig was made Archbishop by Saint Germanus of Auxerre while he travelled through Britain to oppose the Pelagian heresy, and links both saints with King Arthur.

The Normans occupied Glamorgan early in the Norman conquest, and appointed Urban as their first bishop in 1107. He began building the cathedral in 1120 and moved the remains of Saint Dyfrig from Bardsey. After the death of Bishop Urban, it is believed the work was completed in the last years of Bishop Nicholas ap Gwrgant, who died in 1183. The cathedral was dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, Dubricius, Teilo and Oudoceus.

Bishop Henry de Abergavenny organised the chapter of Llandaff Cathedral ca 1214. He appointed 14 prebends, eight priests, four deacons and two sub-deacons.

The west front of the cathedral dates from 1220 and includes a statue of St Teilo. The cathedral was dedicated again in 1266.

The Lady Chapel was built by Bishop William de Braose (1266-1287), and the two bays of the north choir aisle were rebuilt.

The cathedral was damaged severely in 1400 during the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr, and in 1575 Bishop Blethyn said he believed the cathedral was possibly damaged beyond repair. Most of the other damage was repaired, most notably by Bishop Marshall, whose reredos partly survives.

The north-west tower was added by Jasper Tudor and is named after him. He became the Lord of Cardiff after his nephew became King Henry VII of England.

Late medieval tombs include that of Sir David Mathew of Llandaff (1400-1484), who saved the life of King Edward IV at the Battle of Towton in 1461 during the War of the Roses.

Other notable tombs in the cathedral include Saint Dubricius, a 6th-century saint who evangelised Ergyng (now Archenfield) and much of south-east Wales; Meurig ap Tewdrig, King of Gwent, Teilo, a 6th-century Welsh priest, church founder and saint; and many Bishops of Llandaff, from the 7th century Oudoceus to the 19th century Alfred Ollivant, who was bishop in 1849-1882.

During the English Civil War, the cathedral was overrun by Parliamentarian troops, who seized and burned the books in the cathedral library. A Puritan named Milles set up a tavern in the cathedral, used part of it as a stable, turned the choir area into a pen for calves and used the font as a trough for pigs.

The south-west tower suffered major storm damage in 1703 and by 1720, was in a state of collapse. The damage to the cathedral was so extensive that the church considered moving f the see to Cardiff in 1717. Further storm damage from 1720 to 1723 brought down parts of the roof and by 1723 worship services confined to the Lady Chapel.

Thirty years after the cathedral roof collapsed, the chapter asked the architect John Wood the Elder, to prepare estimates and plans to restore the cathedral. However, no changes were made to the west front until Wyatt and Prichard began working in 1841.

The Bishop of Lichfield began to live in Llandaff in the 19th century the for the first time in centuries – no bishops had lived in Llandaff for almost 300 years. In 1836, another unsuccessful attempt was made to transfer the see – to Bristol. Instead, the office of Dean of Llandaff was restored in 1843 after 700 years, and the new Dean, William Bruce Knight, was instrumental in much-needed restorations.

The cathedral reopened on 16 April 1857, and the restoration work continued. The tower was rebuilt, a spire was added in 1843-1869. A triptych by Dante Gabriel Rossetti was designed for a reredos, Ford Madox Brown designed a new stained glass window, ‘The Shipwreck of Saint Paul,’ and Edward Burne-Jones designed the porcelain panels, ‘Six Days of Creation,’ in Saint Dyfrig’s Chapel.

The cathedral was severely damaged in January 1941 during the Cardiff Blitz of World War II. A parachute mine blew the roof off the nave, south aisle and chapter house. Of British cathedrals, only Coventry Cathedral was damaged more, during the Coventry Blitz on 14 November 1941.

The stonework that remains from the mediaeval period is primarily Somerset Dundry stone, though local blue lias constitutes most of the stonework carried out in the post-Reformation period.

The work done on the church since World War II is primarily concrete and Pennant sandstone, and the roofs, of Welsh slate and lead, were added during the post-war rebuilding.

The cathedral received Grade I building status in 1952. Major restoration work was carried out under the architect George Pace of York, and was completed in 1958. Sir Jacob Epstein created the figure of Christ in Majesty, which is raised above the nave on a concrete arch designed by George Pace.

The organ was damaged in a severe lightning strike in February 2007, and a fundraising campaign raised £1.5 million for a new organ.

For many years, the cathedral had the traditional Anglican choir of boys and men, and more recently a girls’ choir, with the only dedicated choir school in the Church in Wales.

A memorial to one of the many pretenders to the Mathew and Landaff titles in Llandaff Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are three 15th and 16th century Mathew family effigies in Llandaff Cathedral, and the Mathew family of Thomastown, Co Tipperary, claimed descent from a branch of the Matthew family of Radyr in Glamorgan.

George Mathew sold his estate at Radyr in the mid-17th and moved to Co Tipperary. He became the owner of Thomastown Castle, near Thurles, when he married Elizabeth Poyntz (1587-1673), Lady Thurles, widow of Thomas Butler, Viscount Thurles. It was a marriage that brought George Mathew into a powerful and influential family circle, and he was the stepfather of James Butler (1610-1688), 1st Duke of Ormond.

Francis Mathew (1738-1806) of Annefield, Thomastown and Thurles, Co Tipperary, became a peer in 1783 with the title of Baron Landaff, of Thomastown, in Co Tipperary. In 1793, he received the higher title of Viscount Landaff, and in 1797 he was made Earl Landaff. He had been MP for Tipperary in the Irish House of Commons (1768-1783) and High Sheriff of Tipperary.

The Earls Landaff used the invented courtesy title Viscount Mathew for the heir apparent. Despite their territorial designations, the misspelling of Llandaff as Landaff, and the fact that the titles were in the Irish Peerage, the titles all referred to Llandaff in Glamorgan now spelt Llandaff. After the Act of Union, Lord Landaff was elected as one of the 28 Irish peers to the British House of Lords.

His eldest son, Francis James Mathew (1768-1833), became 2nd Earl Landaff. He had been known by the courtesy title of Viscount Mathew and was MP for Tipperary in the Irish House of Commons (1790-1792), Callan (1796) and again for Tipperary (1796-1801). He opposed the Act of Union, supported Catholic Emancipation, and was seen as ‘a personal enemy of George IV’ when he gave evidence in favour of Queen Charlotte regarding her conduct at the Court of Naples during her famous trial.

Lord Landaff had no children, and when he died in Dublin on 12 March 1833, aged 65. His next brother, Lieut-Gen Montague James Mathew (1773-1819), had died 14 years earlier, and their youngest brother, George Toby Skeffington Mathew, died in 1832. So, when the second earl died, the family titles became extinct.

In time, however, a number of pretenders came forward, claiming they were the rightful holders of the title Earl Landaff. The most outrageous of these pretenders was Arnold Harris Mathew (1852-1919), self-styled de jure 4th Earl Landaff, also self-styled Count Povoleri di Vicenza.

Mathew was also the founder and first bishop of the self-styled Old Roman Catholic Western Orthodox Church in Great Britain, an Old Catholic Church. His episcopal consecration was declared null and void by the Union of Utrecht’s International Old Catholic Bishops’ Conference. In addition, he was excommunicated by Pope Pius X for illicitly consecrating two priests as bishops which led a London jury to find that ‘the words were true in substance and in fact’ that he was a ‘pseudo-bishop.’

He claimed his father, Major Arnold Henry Ochterlony Mathew, who died in 1894, was the third Earl Landaff, and the son of Major Arnold Nesbit Mathew, of the Indian Army. According to these claims, this Major Arnold Mathew was, in turn, the eldest son of the 1st Earl Landaff, born in Paris five months after his parents married.

This claim was later shown to be based on invented and fictitious information. Arnold Nesbit Mathew originally used the name Matthews, as did his son. He was, in fact, the son of William Richard Matthews and his wife Anne, of Down Ampney in Gloucestershire. Incidentally, Down Ampney was also the home village of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), who composed the tune ‘Down Ampney’ for the hymn ‘Come down, O love divine’

Arnold Harris Mathew put forward his claim to the Garter Principal King of Arms for the title of 4th Earl Landaff of Thomastown, Co Tipperary, in 1890, and placed his creative pedigree on the official record at the College of Arms.

John H Matthews, Cardiff archivist, said in 1898 that the number of claimants to the dormant or extinct earldom was ‘legion.’ In his opinion, Arnold Henry Mathew’s pedigree was ‘too extra-ordinary to commend itself to an impartial mind.’

Mathew’s aristocratic pretensions, like his life as a ‘wandering bishop,’ were fantasies that continue to resurface in the claims of fantasists and pretenders in many walks of life.

When he died on 19 December 1919, the claims to the Mathew title did not come to an end. As recently as 1987, a mural memorial was erected in Llandaff Cathedral, claiming it was: ‘In memory of Thomas James Mathew son and heir of Francis James Mathew second Earl of Landaff born in London 1798 died in Cape Town 1862.’ The memorial includes a full display of the coat of arms of the Mathew family of Co Tipperary as Earls Landaff, and the misspelling of Llandaff as Landaff.

Sir Jacob Epstein’s figure, ‘Christ in Majesty,’ is raised above the nave on a concrete arch designed by George Pace (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 20: 27-40 (NRSVA):

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ 39 Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ 40 For they no longer dared to ask him another question.

In the Lady Chapel in Llandaff Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (20 November 2021, World Children’s Day) invites us to pray:

We pray for children around the world, growing up in a world defined by pandemics, climate change and injustice. May we listen to their needs and heed their advice.

Edward Burne-Jones designed the porcelain panels, ‘Six Days of Creation,’ in Saint Dyfrig’s Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The City Cross at Llandaff Cathedral may date from the 13th century; it was restored and the cross-head was turned through 90 degrees in 1897 as a part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

An ancient Celtic Cross in Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)