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.)


Chris Duffy said...

Great article/posting/rumination/analysis.

But you neglected to show Giotto's rendition of the "Sensational Saga of the Silver Surfer."

Anne Sherwood Pundyk said...

I'm reminded that pictorial innovation isn't merely slapping on a new technology (Imax, 3-D, i-phone) but finding a new way to tell a good story.

Karen said...

What a great, great piece, Paul! I think I'll print out the URL on little cards, and hand them to every person who asks me "How does a medievalist end up interested in comics?"

biri said...


Claudio Nader said...

Hi, Paul, i'm italian.
I liked a lot this post. It's interesting.
In fact, i think that between contemporary and classic graphic-narrative are many, many similitudes, much over that we think today.
Over the attitude to the panel-composition. Soon, i'd like to explain better that i think about. Maybe i will send you a link, when i will pubblish it in some place on the web.

For now, again, compliments!
...and Sorry for my bad english :) bye!

Claudio Nader

Paul Karasik said...

Thanks for all the response.
Chris: No, but you gotta admit that Giotto's weeping mom does hold a passing resemblance to Big Barda.
Anne: Absolutely. In fact modern cartoonist face many of the same challenges as the cave-painters except that the coffee's better.
Karen: If they mistakenly give you a handout, I want a cut.
Biri: Grazie, amico!
Claudio: If you do write about this subject, please pass along a link. Ciao!

Anne Sherwood Pundyk said...

Paul: Aand modern painters look for modern caves to paint ( near multiple sources of good coffee (Grand Central Station.)

Steven said...

Thanks for the post.

Not only do the compositions follow the same principles as a comic in a lively way, but the feeling of discovery and invention, esp as the series of frescos continue and the "adventures" of St. Francis include his intervention in human affairs feels like a cartoonist finding his legs, similar to the confidence of Ditko later in his run on Spider-Man.

Here's my own, similar reaction:

Paul Karasik said...

Curious, Stephen. What exactly about this work makes you think of Ditko?

Noryuken said...

Ciao, Paul!
I'm glad you and your family liked your Italian trip, and I hope you'll be back soon :)
I miss your lessons so much, but maybe in future we could all have a trip along Venitian lagoon analyzing some mysterious churchs or places... sounds nice!
There's a lot of thing to discover..
Bacioni, evviva il gelato! ^^

Paul Karasik said...

Thanks, Nory.

Next time we will give your Mama plenty of time to prepare for a "surprise" visit! I understand that she is a great cook!


Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Hey, Paul! Thanks for dropping a note at my blog, I hope you see this note as I do not have an email.

Paul Karasik said...

Wow, Amberly, you can say that again...but please don't,

lizzy said...

hoo hoo hee hee hahaha church fresco paintings as medieval comic book love it and see you soon for dinner