It’s 1303, and the Renaissance had not yet emerged. Artists had not ventured into the scope of human emotion. Genuine humanity remained hidden in the canon of sacred art. And Giotto di Bondone couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate subject to introduce ground-breaking gestural elements. Let’s take a look at the sacred art of Giotto di Bondone’s work capturing the essence of natural sorrow—Lamentation of the Death of Christ.
Fresco Painting Gets A Refresh
Painted in the Frescan style, an ancient practice used as early as 2000 BCE during the bronze age, Giotto would graduate the form from crude images such as The Toreador to something as groundbreaking as utilizing colour pigments with water on lime-plaster to reveal the anguish of Jesus followers. Italian for “fresh,” Fresco Painting takes the daring new step of honesty that perhaps some of us hesitate to take in the light of our Lord. Brush in hand, Giotto gives us permission to offer our Lord an exquisite lament.
Lamenting: A Way To Jesus
Giotto’s commissioned work was painted for a wealthy family’s private chapel, to which we don’t have accounts of how the subject was chosen. Why a painting of the dead Christ? The Scrovegni family and their private chapel in Padua leave us to wonder. How must this painting have affected this family’s prayer life: spending time gazing at such a low point in the God-man story? Later the Scrovegni family chapel would be called the Arena Chapel. The legacy of their painting of the dead Messiah has left arenas of wonderers asking the same question: “Why this way, Jesus?”
The way of Jesus, the way of the Cross, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, squares up to death and surrenders to its blow. How does lamenting before God, even in our disappointment in God, inform our practice in the presence? Those surrounding Christ’s body in the image are portrayed with holy glows, historically symbolizing anointing, sacredness, and saintly stature. Those lamenting do not lose their presence with God as they mourn in anguish, but rather are like the heavenly beings painted in the sky above them, joining in the agony of humanity. Or is it the other way around? Are we joining the agony of Heaven’s Glory?
A Human Response, A Sacred Blessing
In the faces of Mary, Mother of Jesus and mourners we see wrenched faces, hands cast in despair, and the angels wrought with sadness. Jesus told his followers he would die; shouldn’t they have seen it coming? Shouldn’t they have celebrated his death knowing that he would rise again like he said he would? Perhaps.
And perhaps the God who knows all things still makes space for our faith in his future victory and our present loss. Peter Scazzero expands our capacity for grief: “Good grieving is not just letting go, but also letting the loss bless us.” Embracing the fullness of death, we are blessed.
For the first time in history, Giotto presents a natural human response to disappointment and pain. Amidst historically stoic, collected figures portrayed in the faith, Giotto presents the vulnerability of sorrow in loss. Our shared human history can now recollect the first moment of lamenting self-awareness on huge display at 72 3/4 x 78 3/4 in (6 x 6.5 ft). The Message translator of the Bible, Eugene Peterson encourages us:
“Learn to lament. Learn this lamentation. We’re mortals, after all. We and everyone around are scheduled for death (mortis). Get used to it. Take up your cross. It prepares us and those around us for resurrection.”
Giotto teaches us to lament with holy sacred art, and history shows us the Renaissance of rebirth will surely follow.
Giotto di Bondone (c.1304-13) Lamentation of the Death of Christ [Fresco]. Available from: http://www.ArtMuseums.com [Accessed 21 March 2019].
(1500-1100 BCE) The Toreador [Fresco]. Available from: http://www.ArtHistoryResources.net [Access 21 March 2019].
Fresco Painting. Encyclopedia of Fine Art. Available from: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/painting/fresco.htm [Access 21 March 2019].
Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Day by Day, 114.
Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians, 120-21.