Sunday, June 21, 2009

Reading the Picture Writing on the Wall II

O.K. so your kids are smarter than you, and your dog runs the household. In short: your life is a comic strip. But have you ever actually walked into a comic strip?

Although I risk the chance that the Padua Chamber of Commerce may sic a fatwa on my ass, walking into the revered Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is just like walking into a comic strip. Actually it’s like walking into three comic strips with each story cycle wrapping around the interior wall in three ascending tiers with the columns of the architecture separating the panels. As I have said before, I am suspicious of the whole idea of comics on the walls but in this case, if the comic strip was painted over 600 years ago by a guy named Giotto, it turns out to be a pretty good idea.

When in Italy I spend most of my time in Florence where dead artists are revered for their aesthetic contributions to the history of Western Art as well as their hypnotic power to attract tourists and their billfolds to town. Giotto is on the A-List of Dead Maestro Magnets. In Florence you will find the following things named after Giotto: hotels, gellaterias, coffee bars, and I swear that I heard a woman call her precious chow dog, “Giotto” (or maybe she called to her Giotto dog, “Ciao”).

I even rode in a Giotto Bus as part of a marathon hellish travel day configured by that busy, busy travel agent, Satan.

Giotto himself represents a turning point in Western Art (and no I don’t mean the kind of Western Art where broncos are being bucked by grisly guys who look like Gabby Hayes). Before Giotto, human figures were painted stiff and stilted. After Giotto they appear more relaxed and human. Think about the two final candidates in our last Presidential election and you’ll get the general idea.

But the real genius of Giotto is his staging. Take the famous heartwarming story from the Bible so dear to the hearts of many: The Slaughter of the Innocents, a tale that contains both no miracle and no apparent moral. A tale that appears to have been invented whole cloth by “Matthew” for the sole purpose of scaring the wits out of mothers and small children.

Yet many artists have been compelled to paint this story telling of a massacre of babies by the Romans for probably many of the same reasons that “Friday the 13th” keeps getting remade. It touches an archetypal chord somewhere deep in the collective unconscious of humankind and, as we all know, Splatter sells.

Choosing the right moment and staging it clearly is one of the most important tasks of the graphic narrator from Giotto, to Hogarth, to Kirby, to Crumb.

The classic depiction of this chestnut generally comes staged in two different versions: Before (The mothers weep as the Romans enter with swords.), and After (The mothers weep as the Romans leave with bloody swords.). Giotto chooses neither the Before or the After.

So what does Giotto show? His version in the Scrovegni Chapel shows the obligatory and ghastly pile of dead babies but the Romans are not yet leaving because there are two babies left. One is about to get it and the other is being wrest from the arms of his mother. It is not hair-raising (Before). It is not mournful (After). It is the moment just before the end when the last flicker of hope is about to be extinguished. It is chilling.

One could even go further (and believe me I will) to say that the very composition amplifies this chill. Squint your eyes at this painting and you will see an enormous “X” smack dab in the middle of the picture. Constructed from the Roman sword and the wrested baby. “X” for Exterminate.

The common line of rubbish about old fescoes is that they taught Bible stories through pictures to people who could not read. Pardon me, but back then you would not be in that church if you did not already know those stories. My personal theory is that the paintings were there to tell you what to think and how to feel about those stories. Believe it or not, pardner, that is a significant distinction and Giotto makes you feel.

(For more on this point of view I refer you to, “Storytelling in Christian Art from Giotto to Donatello” by Jules Lubbock. It's a wonderful book and I give him full credit here for many of the ideas discussed in this post.)