One of the great joys of teaching for Art History Abroad is the possibility to see some of the great masterpieces of world art on a regular basis. Given this ‘regularity’, students – both young and old – regularly ask which is my favourite city, and even which is my favourite artist. Finally, I can give you a definitive answer: I really don’t know. But in a balloon debate between the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo and others), the Brancacci Chapel (Massacio, Masolino and Filippino Lippi) and the Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto) I would definitely save the last. Not that you could get a whole chapel into a balloon.
It has an astonishing cycle of paintings, entirely by Giotto, with the early, apocryphal life of Mary at the top, the Nativity and Mission of Jesus in the centre and on the lowest level, closer to us because it is the most important, the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. It is an astonishing sequence of images, superb storytelling, and scans perfectly across the walls. Throughout there are links between adjacent images, from side to side and, perhaps more remarkable, from top to bottom. And there are resonances crossing the chapel, making the whole space ring with beauty and meaning. You need to be there to appreciate it fully, it takes time to see each image, let alone the whole, and it has been a real privilege to share this wonder with many of our gap year students, and to learn from their fresh insights and vital enthusiasm. The Passion Cycle, leading towards the altar on the ‘north’ (left) wall, is particularly moving.
Of course the subject is one of the great staples of Roman Catholic art, and can be just as beautiful and moving even when not as well known or, for that matter, as well preserved. Approaching Easter, I was reminded of a small, incomplete cycle I saw in Switzerland when on a failed ‘pilgrimage’ to see a curious relic of St John, not far from the German lakeside city of Constance. Located in the village of Landschlacht (population a mere 850, apparently), it was painted in the first quarter of the 14th century. Stepping off the train, it is not immediately apparent that this tiny place could house a church, let alone a fresco cycle. The 11th/12th-century chapel of St Leonhard is unprepossessing: without the little steeple it could easily be mistaken for a barn. Like many churches, the frescoes were whitewashed either during the Reformation (which, around Constance, didn’t last very long), or later – the 17th century probably – for reasons of taste, which we now find hard to comprehend, or changing fashion, which often had an impact on pre-existing art. Whatever the reason, it explains why the surfaces are worn and why not all of the cycle survives.
This very fragility of the material itself is one of the things that makes the paintings so moving, something which is all but impossible to reproduce photographically, the delicacy of the painted surface somehow contributing to the delicacy of Christ’s damaged body. The first complete image is the Flagellation, conceived more pragmatically than later examples. Caravaggio’s painting, for example, glorious as it is, is designed to display a beautiful, physical form, but, despite its emotional depth, it is one of the few paintings in which he fails to communicate the physical reality of the act. Christ’s back is next to the column, how could they whip him? Here, Christ’s arms are tied around the support, he all but hugs it, his back exposed to the lashes. The extreme tilt of the neck allows us to see his face whilst also communicating an overbearing agony, which continues through the extreme, but elegant, sagging of the hips, bend of the knees and splaying of the feet. By contrast, in the Crowning with Thorns, Jesus sits upright, regal, fully in control, blessing us, the onlookers, while the torturers use a metal bar to press the unmanageable thorns onto his head. Their calm concentration on the imposition of pain contrasts with his serene forbearance and emphasises their calculated cruelty.
The Virgin Mary assists on the Way to Calvary, her hands covered by her cloak just as a priest would hold the consecrated host: the cross is seen as a holy relic, even before it has performed its sacred function. She takes the same position – at the right hand of Christ – in three successive images. In the Crucifixion her heart is pierced with a sword – an illustration of the prophecy of the priest Simeon in St Luke’s Gospel: ‘Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’. In the Deposition she takes her son’s right arm in the same way she supported the right arm of the cross, hands covered, wary of defiling the body (Christ and the Cross are one). John the Evangelist, looking even more than usually effeminate, stands across from Mary in the Crucifixion at Christ’s left, as is traditional, and in the Deposition supports his left arm. The two images are further united by the continuation of the cross as a bold horizontal from one painting to the next, and despite the lowering of the body the knees remain equally bent – Christ buckles up in front of our eyes.
Other characters appear and disappear. In both scenes one of the other Maries stands just behind the Virgin, to the left. In the Crucifixion we see the Centurion, whose realization that, ‘Truly, this was the Son of God,’ would originally have been written on the scroll that curls behind John’s head. He is replaced in the Deposition by the figure of Mary Magdalene, who takes the foreground and kneels at the feet of Christ, and by Nicodemus, who gently, affectionately lowers the body, the yellow of his sleeve cutting a swathe across the lifeless torso.
Sadly, this is where the cycle breaks up – of the next scene we can just make out the edge of the tomb, and appearing above a bubble of paint loss, the top of one of the witnesses to the Entombment. We know the story, but it would be wonderful to see how this unknown, uncelebrated artist depicted the ending. And I suppose that is just one of the reasons I would save Giotto over Masaccio or Michelangelo: his story telling in the Scrovegni Chapel is so brilliant, so carefully timed, so beautifully and movingly depicted and so complete. However, if you can make your way to Landschlacht you will not be disappointed. And unlike Padua, you won’t have to book in advance, pay, or wait. It’s just there, in an unassuming chapel in a small, country village, near a beautiful lake. And you’ll probably have it all to yourself.
This blog post originally appeared in 2014.