On Giotto’s Lazarus Fresco

Some long-time friends came up from New York City to visit my wife and myself in Chappaqua this past weekend. We had a nice lunch of a soup made from fresh vegatables that we had purchased at the Farmer’s Market in the nearby town of Pleasantville before their arrival.

After lunch we went apple picking at the Wilkens Orchard just west of Route 202 and the Taconic Parkway in Yorktown. We then had a nice meal together before they returned to the city by train.

Both our friends our professional musicians. The husband grew up in Padua, Italy, where he graduated from a special high school for musicians. He received a rigorous musical education and I think he was playing in the La Scala orchestra before he turned twenty. He has lived for many years in New York City and is now a member of a major orchestra in the City.

He told us a story that we enjoyed so much I want to share it with you.

He mentioned that there is a famous series of Frescoes in the Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel) in Padua by Giotti. They were done in the early 1300’s and I found one reference that said they were the first work of modern art. [1]

He said that once during a visit he was describing the frescoes to his son, David, and that, as people heard him talk, many left their tour groups and came over to hear what he had to say.

He told us how he had described the Raising of Lazarurus, as depicted by Giotto. [2]

After he related the story, he said he had told his son, “This proves that Christ was Italian, for he arrived three days late.”

He then said, “We also know that Lazarus was a German, as he stood up as soon as he was given an order.”

Notes:

1. A similar “first” can be found in the Palazza Publico (Town Hall) in Sienna. We have for many years had a print in our dining room that was given to us by a friend, but I only appreciated its importance when I visited Sienna a few years back, and learned it was the famous fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government, completed not long after Giotto’s frescoes in Padua. It is considered the first landscape in Western Art, for if you look closely you will see that the men on horseback have left the city and gone out into the countryside, in much the same way that Italian artists left the Middle Ages behind a century later.

I read once that about sixty percent of the world’s great art can be found in Italy.

If you have to go to just one city in Italy then go to Florence, for it was there — in just a few decades in the 1400’s — that the Renaissance began and flourished. To see Michelangelo’s David is to understand the origins of the Renaissance in the same way that to see the view looking up at the splendor that was Versailles is to understand the cause of the French Revolution.

Much of the art created in Florence from that period can still be found there, for the last member of the Medici family that ruled Florence left his collection to the city. The term “art gallery” comes from the “galleria” in the Uffizi Palace where the Medici’s displayed their magnificent collection.

2. For well into the nineteenth century it was assumed that any educated person was familiar with all the stories of the Bible, though only Christians were expected to be familiar with the New Testament. That is no longer the case, the round-the-clock preachings of tele-evangelists notwithstanding.

The stained glass windows found in the Cathedrals built in the Middle Ages, of which Chartres is perhaps the finest example, told stories through pictures, as it was assumed that only the clergy and nobility were educated.

The central themes of Western Art for many centuries were based on Christianity, notably in The Crucifixion, as is described so well in one of Chaim Potok’s finest novels, My Name Is Asher Lev.

Don Knuth noted that the principal goal of mathematics during the Middle Ages was the calculation of the date of Easter.

The principal goal of current culture seems to be the compete explication of Britney Spears, but that is best left to a future — and hopefully never to be written — post.

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