Happy Holidays and all the best for a wonderful New Year. And now for something totally obscure. Do know what the first side-long glance in the history of Western Art was? Well, I do.
When I taught History of Art, this was something I always shared with my students, much to their confusion. This is one of the quirky facts that helps you understand what the big to do is about Renaissance Art. One of the most important aspects of this movement was that the artists began to portray the emotional and psychological aspects of the human experience.
So, the first side-long glance takes place in one of Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel (also known as Scrovegni Chapel) in Padua, Italy. The particular fresco is Joachim among the Shepherds.
Here’s the back story. This chapel contains one of the most important painting cycles at the beginning of the Renaissance. The Chapel was commissioned at the opening of the 14th century for a Scrovegni banking family who was looking to curry divine favor because charging interest on loans was still considered a sin by the Church. The Chapel was originally connected to the family’s palace which was eventually destroyed.
And just in case anyone missed the point of why the family built the Chapel, they had Giotto insert a portrait of the head of the family, Enrico, offering the Chapel to a group of Angels in the lower left corner of the fresco of the Last Judgment behind the altar.
Giotto was commisioned to paint this vast painting program on the interior of the chapel which literally covers every square inch of the chapel. It begins with telling the story of the Virgin Mary’s parents, moves through her life and the life of Christ and ends with the Last Judgement. Giotto is considered the Father of the Italian Renaissance. His work is considered to be the turning point in the history of painting.
Joachim among the Shepherds takes place prior to Mary’s birth, miraculous in it’s own right because her parents, Joachim and Anna, were so very old. Joachim is a shepherd (major occupation of the period). He’s out guarding his flock and one night the Angel of the Lord visits him in a dream telling him to return home because Anna is with child. He wakes up the next morning and the scene Giotto depicted is Joachim telling two young fellow shepherds about the dream and why he has to go home.
Now here is what Giotto adds new to what was a very familiar story to Christians of the time. He gives the scene an entirely new dimension by showing the very human disbelief of the two young shepherds who share a glance that is still familiar today when someone tells you something that seems so far beyond the realm of reality. The shepherd’s response is heightened by the very serious, traditional appearance of Joachim.
It seems such a small thing now, but it was a HUGE break through in the Renaissance that forever changes the art world.
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CMA Executive Director