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Arena Chapel: Lamentation, Giotto, 1305

Starting this year with Renaissance painting had me skeptical. How could I compare my love for modern masters like Monet and Chagall to the likes of Duccio and the Limbourg Brothers, literally hundreds of years of skill and progress behind my favorites? However, after a year of art history, I've learned to trust the process. After all, if I can learn to love and appreciate Malevich's White on White then I can figure out these guys, too. 

In studying the Arena Chapel works, I see the creation of something, like art is a child at play learning that if she moves her legs a bit faster, she can run. Here, perspective is being born. It's still a bit crude and unrefined, as you can see in the folds of the fabric. Outlines are still utilized to define figures, but unlike its predecessors, shading and shadow is coming into being in the faces of Mary and Jesus. The blue of the background is stunning, making the golden halos pop all the more. Giotto begins to play with the idea of staging here, as the back rock wall frames the scene, and the man to the far right grounds us with his (slightly misshapen) feet. The rocks form a line, leading wandering eyes back to Jesus at every turn. In fact the eyes of every person or angel in the painting are directed at Jesus. No matter where you look, Giotto has a tool to refocus you. Directly above his body is a hole in the crowd, a passageway to the heavens, leaving him in full view of God. I can see Giotto working the audience into the spectacle with the two men in front. Backs to us, their faces are hidden, a long time artist's tool for including the onlooker. It may as well be you or I hunched over mourning Christ.  

Jesus, maybe for the first time, looks truly human. He lays limp and mortal in the arms of his mother, distinguishable as holy only by his halo. Staring at his mother's face, I see the other revolutionary piece of Giotto's work, the appearance of emotion. This lamentation is actually that. Angels and people alike, divine and imperfect, rich and impoverished, brought together in despair that shows. The pleading in Mary's face, just inches from her son's, is heart-wrenching. Yes, he's still Jesus, but forget the crowd, forget the angels, forget who these people are. Looking at this scene, it's a mother and a child, a perversion of the natural order strong enough to break so many. Yes, I still see Jesus, but he's presented in an a way that any onlooker can relate to. When I see Jesus and Mary, I also see my aunt crying over her brother's casket. I see my mother's clients in the hospital, holding their hurt children for their last times. I see myself kneeling next to my grandfather's bed in his last hours.

We all have tragedy in our lives. We all understand the pain of loss whether or not you've experienced the death of a loved one. Giotto creates this painting on the wall of a chapel, so in many ways it's functional. It tells the story of Jesus and glorifies the church itself, but it goes so much deeper than that. By showing a lamentation that we can all understand and creating a composition that draws us in, he brings Jesus and religion to the life of the onlooker. He has the power to change the worshipers' relationship to the story. No longer is Jesus some unattainable, distant, holy figure, in this painting he is your experience of loss and as a result Giotto gives the audience to own the story of Christ for themselves, too. That's where art is always the same, whether we're talking Proto-Renaissance or Suprematism. You don't have to know the story or the artist or the time period to see this Lamentation and feel the connection to Jesus and Mary. Giotto doesn't need to play off of anything other than our humanity. And no matter who you are, reader, that's the one thing we'll alway's have in common.

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