Giotto's 'Annunciation' in the Arena Chapel, Padua.

Author:Jacobus, Laura

Giotto's Annunciation fresco in the Arena Chapel, Padua, occupies a focal position above the chancel arch of the church and is central to the iconographic program of the entire fresco cycle of The Life of the Virgin and The Life of Christ [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1-3 OMITTED].(1) Despite its centrality the fresco fits poorly with the others in the cycle, departing from the conventions of pictorial narrative established by Giotto elsewhere on the chapel's walls. This paper will explore the reasons why the fresco is so different from those around it. It suggests that the Annunciation is distinctive because it was designed to relate in wholly original ways to devotional practices that occurred inside the chapel on March 25, the feast day of the Annunciation.

Although the Arena Chapel was ostensibly a family oratory and parish church dedicated to Santa Maria della Carita, it also had citywide functions associated with the Feast of the Annunciation which were deliberately fostered by its founder and patron, Enrico Scrovegni.(2) It was probably as the result of Enrico's lobbying that Benedict XI issued a papal bull in 1304 granting indulgences to all who "solemnly visit[ed]" the chapel on the feasts of the Nativity, Annunciation, Purification, and Assumption.(3) The chapel's dedication ceremony in 1303 was performed on the Feast of the Annunciation, underlining the association with the Annunciate Virgin.(4) The consecration ceremony of the chapel probably also took place on the Feast of the Annunciation two years later.(5) The success of the founder in attracting visitors to the chapel on the Feast of the Annunciation is confirmed by his confident expectation, expressed in his testament of 1336, of "alms which will come to the said church on the Feast of the Annunciation and other [Marian feasts]."(6)

Enrico Scrovegni was in fact harnessing a preexisting cult of the Annunciation at the site, for the old Roman arena that extended in front of the chapel had been the scene of a sacra rappresentazione of the Annunciation since well before 1278. An ordinance of that year specified that there was to be a procession "according to custom" to the "usual place" in the arena, where an enactment of the Annunciation ("representatio salutationis angelicae") would be performed.(7) The procession began at the chapel of the Palazzo della Ragione, where two boys were dressed to represent the Virgin and the Angel Gabriel, the latter with wings and a lily. Meanwhile, the bishop, captain, and clergy of Padua, including the religious orders, gathered at the cathedral and processed with crosses to the Palazzo della Ragione, where they were joined by the podesta, judges, knights, doctors, and other notable citizens of Padua. The boys acting as the Virgin and the Angel Gabriel were then carried in procession to the arena on heavily ornamented chairs. Preceded by the trumpeters of the commune and the clergy and followed by the podesta, stewards of the goldsmiths' and merchants' guilds, and the rest of the procession, they arrived at the prepared place in the arena. Here, the Angel gave Mary the angelic salutation. These regulations were repeated in an ordinance of podesta (governor) Ongaro degli Oddi in 1298, demonstrating that by the time that Enrico Scrovegni purchased the site in 1300, a tradition of civic and religious importance had been already strongly established.(8) It is likely that the ancient representatio salutationis angelicae underwent some changes in consequence of Enrico Scrovegni's building a Marian church on the rim of the arena, and indirect support for this proposition is found in two Paduan chronicles. These credit the podesta Pontino de Picinardi with having "initiated" the festa in 1306, the year following the chapel's probable consecration.(9) Since it is known that the festa had been taking place for some considerable time prior to this, Pontino de Picinardi can only have "initiated" superficial changes, perhaps to the route or timing of the event, which might have led to the open-air representatio's being dovetailed more closely with services inside the newly erected chapel. This was open for the public to attend Mass, as Benedict XI's bull of 1304 and Enrico Scrovegni's testament of 1336 both show.

The importance of the divine office on the Feast of the Annunciation, an office that came to be known throughout Europe as the Missa Aurea, or Golden Mass, has been overlooked in most discussions of the Arena Chapel.(10) Yet, thanks to the patron's efforts, the frescoes achieved maximum exposure during this Mass. The scenes above the chancel arch were experienced in conjunction with the ceremony performed immediately beneath it, and this relationship was in fact the major determinant of Giotto's designs. It was a complex and unique relationship, which this essay attempts to reconstruct.

Throughout Europe, the Golden Mass had a special nature, often expressed through the employment of musical arrangements and dramatic embellishments that were not strictly part of the Annunciation Mass as it would have been celebrated from the service books of a particular church. At major churches the Golden Mass was often elaborated by a small musical play in which members of the clergy enacted the roles of the Angel and the Virgin Mary.(11) This happened at the cathedral of Padua itself during this period. Here, the play took the form of a gospel reading of the stories of the Annunciation and Visitation (Luke 1:26-56) in which the passages of direct speech were chanted as a sequence of antiphons and responses by costumed actors.(12) However, such a play is unlikely to have been performed inside the Arena Chapel in Giotto's time, for it would have largely duplicated the ancient representatio salutationis angelicae performed immediately outside. Instead, the frescoed figures of Giotto's Annunciation provided a visual accompaniment to the sung Mass. One might even put this a different way, for in effect the frescoes "performed" to musical accompaniment, their famous dialogue being chanted by the choristers below.

This may seem a bizarre notion to modern viewers of the frescoes, but was in itself quite unexceptional to contemporary churchgoers, who would have been used to seeing performing works of art. Effigies frequently took part in sacre rappresentazione or paraliturgical performances in combination with live actors or singers, though their "acting skills" might vary from the literally and metaphorically wooden manner of a Romanesque maesta to the more animated style of a Gothic Annunciation group.(13) Two-dimensional works of art may have performed in church more rarely, but a noted precedent exists in Padua itself, where a painted Madonna and Child performed in the officium pastorum, the Adoration of the Shepherds, in the cathedral during the thirteenth century.(14)

There is nevertheless a difference between Giotto's Annunciation and analogous works of art that might occasionally take part in paraliturgical performances. Under certain conditions, the Arena Chapel fresco could appear to depict a paraliturgical performance of the Annunciation, showing actors performing the roles of Gabriel and Mary. To suggest how this might be so, it is first necessary to demonstrate that the mise-en-scene, body language, and costumes seen in the fresco are all unusual in the context of the narrative cycle, and that they all correspond with known staging practices of the liturgical dramas during the Middle Ages. Such correspondences, it will be suggested, cannot entirely be explained as the generic resemblances that predictably exist between artifacts and performance works arising from a common visual culture. As will be shown, such generic resemblances do play their part in Giotto's visualizations of several scenes in the fresco cycle, but in the Annunciation, certain of the correspondences between the fresco and paraliturgical stagings are highly particular. A comparison of the right side of the Annunciation, showing the Virgin Annunciate with a similar scene, the Apparition to Saint Anne, will make plain how distinctly the Annunciation differs from other scenes in its references to contemporary paraliturgical drama [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 3, 4 OMITTED].

The mise-en-scenes provided by Giotto for the two events contrast sharply. In both, the structures provided are architectural confections arising partly from pictorial necessity, but here the similarity ends. In the Apparition to Saint Anne, the angel descends into a well-illuminated, recognizably domestic interior, furnished and equipped for comfortable everyday life. The fresco amply illustrates Giotto's interest in expanding his narratives through the inclusion of socially realistic details, and in this respect it is entirely in keeping with the pictorial conventions seen elsewhere in the narrative cycle. It may be admitted that Giotto's visualization of the scene, in showing the angel arriving through a high window, also bears a generic similarity to the staging of the Annunciation in some church dramas, such as the fourteenth-century performance at Parma, in which an angel descended from a clerestory window.(15) This may be an instance of the drama's influencing pictorial representation, or of common solutions arising within a common visual culture. However, the fresco's correspondence with the drama's staging is insufficiently particular, and the countervailing inclusion of socially realistic details in the fresco is too particular to give rise to any suggestion that the Apparition to Saint Anne depicts a dramatic performance per se. By comparison, the Virgin Annunciate occupies a very dark interior evoked by the Virgin's prie-dieu but otherwise devoid of spatial or social indicators. Its minimal realization follows the mise-en-scenes of early medieval church dramas, which were usually schematic and contained only such stage properties as were necessary to the action.(16)...

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