Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Elijah on the Fire-Cart (within a decorative band), Fresco, c.1304-06, Giotto di Bondone, c.1266-1337
When image makers created icons and illuminated manuscripts for Byzantine Churches, their efforts were toward projecting a spiritual realm; they were not trying to depict the familiar world of our daily experiences. In Italy during the late thirteenth century, however, changes were taking place; interest in earthly matters and the physical world was leading the way to the Renaissance. Art gave visual form to this changing world and Giotto (JOT toe) played a key role in the advancement of painting. Early in his career, he worked with Cimabue who was shifting away from Byzantine art but Giotto broke from it even further. He depicted biblical subjects with gestures and expressions of real people in a natural world.
Very early in the fourteenth century, Giotto received a commission to paint frescos in the Scrovegni (The Arena) Chapel in Padua. The cycle of paintings depicts events in the life of Mary’s parents, the life of Christ, and the Last Judgment. These paintings fill the entire walls of the Chapel and are divided by wide borders that simulate marble mosaic patterns. Within the borders are images of saints, prophets, and Old Testament figures that are related in subject to the paintings adjacent to them. The image of “Elijah on the Fire-Cart” – painted in a quatrefoil within the border – is not a dramatic presentation; the chariot and horses are not engulfed totally in flames but the plumes of fire and overall red coloration of both the horse and cart indicates it is definitely afire. A whirlwind is not indicated but drama was not Giotto’s intent. The placement of Elijah is in accordance with a custom of showing parallels between Old and New Testament events. As a person progresses forward in the Chapel the small painting of Elijah’s ascension inside the border will be seen just before seeing, “Ascension of Christ” to its immediate right. “Elijah and the Fire-Cart” serves only as a small tie-in within the border.
The Scrovegni Chapel: The wealthy Enrico Scrovegni purchased land for a palace and private chapel at the site of a former Roman amphitheatre known as the “Arena.” Hence, the chapel is known as “The Arena Chapel.”
Quatrefoil: In the fourteenth and fifteen century, circles and squares were regarded to be perfect shapes. A “quatrefoil” (meaning four leaves) is a framework made of four circles of equal diameter arranged so they all overlap equally in the center. When the overlapping lines of the circles are removed, the space it creates serves as a frame for decorative additions to architecture. Giotto’s “Elijah in the Fire-Cart” is painted in a quatrefoil.
Space Probe: Haley’s Comet passed by the earth in the year 1301. Three years later when Giotto painted the “Adoration of the Magi” in the Arena Chapel, he used an image of the comet as the star of Bethlehem. In 1986, when the European Space Agency launched sensors to examine the nucleus of Haley’s Comet, they saw it fitting to name the probe, “Giotto.”
Hovak Najarian © 2013