On Wednesday our class took an excursion to Padova to visit the Scrovegni chapel. The chapel is noted for its famous frescoes depicting the life of Christ, starting with Joachim and Anna, Mary’s parents. Giotto (1267-1337) painted these frescoes from 1303 to 1305. You can do a web image search if you want to look at them — I didn’t bring my camera inside — and if you do you’ll notice something. The figures are very life like and expressive. Emotions show; the story is told realistically.
In the seminar today Sarah explained that this represented a dramatic shift away from traditional medieval painting towards humanism, with Giotto influencing painters for generations.
For centuries the proper way to paint had been to use God’s perspective, rather than the human perspective. Practically this meant that spiritual things were large and imposing, while humans were small and insignificant. Humans who were spiritually important (the apostles, church leaders, other biblical figures, etc.) would be larger than average humans, with size depicting the spiritual importance of the subject.
With Giotto we moved towards what would be called humanism, or shifting the perspective from that of God and the spiritual to the human and the material. This meant human emotions mattered in art, literature, and eventually music.
The 1300s have emerged as important in this course so far. We often talk about later figures such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Galileo, and Machiavelli. And the action was intense in the 1400s and beyond, especially as the reformation and the rise of the “age of reason” emerged after 1500. However, this was set up by a vibrant century starting with Giotto’s work.
The turn towards humanism was a first step towards science, capitalism, and enlightenment philosophy. It was to recapture an essence of ancient Greek and Roman thought lost after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Picking up on the theme of the last post, I found it powerful to go from a world of Ipads, smart phones and social networking into a chapel symbolizing the first steps towards our modern way of thinking.
Giotto himself doesn’t get credit for the change. He was part of a new way of thinking spreading across Europe, inspired by the fact that Aquinas had brought Aristotle into western thought. Aristotle’s realism watered down Plato’s idealism, and even the church would find itself becoming more and more seduced by the material. The 1300s were the time when the papacy split and at one point there were three Popes at once. But it also represented a shift towards more corruption and materialism in the Church that would grow over the next three centuries.
This also started the process of individuation in the West. We are the most individualistic culture in history. While some like to posit individualism as “natural” and “how it should be,” the reality is that in nature human cultures have tended to be collectivist and often very hierarchical. Giotto’s emphasis on the emotions of individual humans shifted the story from one of God controlling the fortunes of pitiful humans to one of humans starting to take control of their own destiny.
In that little chapel in Padova, looking at often damaged yet restored frescoes, I realized I was seeing both the past and the present, the symbolic rebirth of humanism in western thought and a reflection of how we got to be who we are now. It was a powerful sensation, realizing that the past is indeed alive in the present, even as we race into the future. And that’s what this class is about too — to help students connect not only with Italy and its past, but with how we in the West became who we are, thinking the way we think.
And if we eat well along the way, all the better!