Art and the Church
The Entry into Jerusalem by Giotto
Word and Image Bible Study based on Matthew 21:1-11 (TNIV) and The Entry into Jerusalem by Giotto di Bondone
Target Group For small groups or personal study.
The importance of the entry into Jerusalem for Jesus' story and ours is indicated by the fact that it appears in all four gospels. The commemoration of the events on Palm Sunday was observed in Jerusalem as early as the 4th century, mentioned in service books of the 7th century, and remembered at the time of Charlemagne in the great hymn of Theodulph of Orleans (c. 750-821) ‘All glory, laud and honour, to Thee, Redeemer, King.’ It has been painted since earliest times. The Entry into Jerusalem by Giotto appears in the Arena Chapel, also known as the Scrovegni Chapel, in Padua, Italy, ca. 1305.
Giotto (c. 1267-1337) is known to have revolutionized the art of Florence by his fidelity to the human and natural world as against the stylized manner imported from the Byzantine tradition. His landscapes and figures are reduced to the essential, evocatively communicating both narrative content and emotion. He is acknowledged to be the first Italian master to have achieved universal importance. This fresco is part of an almost cinematic series of paintings that cover the walls of the chapel telling the story of the life of the Virgin as well as the life of Christ in beautiful glowing colours which are still remarkably well preserved.
Aim The aim of this study is to find a new way into the biblical text by means of Giotto’s fresco. The entry into Jerusalem is the hinge between all that Jesus has been doing and teaching and all that lies ahead for him of violence, betrayal and death. The time for secrecy has past. We will see him in the Matthew text and the Giotto painting ride with great dignity towards his crucifixion for the sake of our salvation.
Scripture reading Read Matthew 21:1-11 together. Discuss the questions below.
1. Context: Prior to this dramatic point in the narrative Jesus has been on an intentional journey, traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem. He has been teaching and healing as he travels, but also he has been preparing his disciples for what lies ahead. What has he been conveying to his disciples regarding the purpose of his journey? (see Matthew 16:21, Matthew 17:22 and Matthew 20:17:19)
2. What is Jesus doing in verses 1-5?
3. What is the implication of the quote from Zechariah 9:9 that appears in verse 5?
4. In what ways do the crowds respond to Jesus? What is the significance of their actions
and their cries?
The Entry into Jerusalem by Giotto If possible, project the painting onto a large screen, a computer or television screen. Or look the painting up in a book. Take a few minutes to look at the painting in silence. Do not discuss it immediately. Throughout the study questions will be posed in black, while answers are rendered in blue. With each question take time to reflect and discuss before you read the explanatory blue passages.
1. Look carefully at the composition of the painting and describe how Giotto has positioned the key elements: Jesus, the disciples, Jerusalem, the crowd. In what ways has he captured the Matthew passage?
The artist has placed Jesus in the centre of the composition with the disciples on the left and the crowd flowing out of the city of Jerusalem on the right. In the brilliant blue sky behind him two eager people from the crowd sway in the trees picking branches to honour him, while one man rolls out his cloak in a gesture suitable only for royalty. The artist has included all the key elements of the Matthew narrative including not only the donkey, but also the colt. The other gospels, Mark 11:1-11 and Luke 19:28-41, mention only a colt, and add ‘which no one has ever ridden.’ John 12:12-19 says merely that Jesus found a young donkey.
2. How would you describe the disciples? How would you describe the crowd? In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different?
The disciples appear to be jammed together on the left hand side of the painting and we can only clearly see the faces of four of them. The rest of the twelve are suggested by the tops of their heads and a swath of rich golden halos. From what we can see and imply they are all men. They stand behind Jesus, stock still, shoulder to shoulder, forming a tight mass. They are alert, sober, and they are watching the crowd carefully and cautiously. And, well they might. They have heard from Jesus three times that he would be arrested and killed in Jerusalem. They are no doubt afraid for him as well as for themselves. What lies ahead is unknown. This outburst of praise and shouting was no doubt both hopeful and unsettling for them.
The welcoming crowd positioned on the right is quite different. It includes both men and women, there is space around them and we can see each person and each face clearly. Luke 19:37 gives us more information about the crowd. It states they ‘began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen.’ The John passage, 12:17-18, further elaborates: ‘Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.’
There is a tremendous sense of movement and action as they surge out of the city gates to greet this coming King. People are climbing trees and ripping off branches, one man with grave solemnity lays down his coat on the road, an improvised ‘red carpet’ marking the arrival of a great dignitary, while two others are pulling off their cloaks and another waves his palm branch. Their mouths are open and we can almost hear them shouting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ For Matthew and for his Jewish readers these terms would be full of historical and theological significance. By these declarations it is clear that the crowd understands that Jesus is the promised King.
3. In what ways does the artist focus our attention on Jesus?
Giotto draws our attention to the main figure in this narrative in a variety of ways. As has been observed, Jesus is placed in the centre of the composition. He is also the largest figure in the whole painting. His head is surrounded by the clear blue sky and positioned between the vertical lines of the slightly swaying trees. There is also a strong line which points to Jesus created by the donkey and the crowd as they pour out of the Jerusalem gates. In addition Jesus is painted with a kind of three dimensional reality so forceful that he seems as solid and as tangible as sculpture in the round.
However, also the donkey plays a special role in this fresco. Relatively large and in the very middle of the painting she steps forward boldly and obediently with her colt at her side, mirroring Jesus as the faithful servant of God. With her eyes full of goodness and intelligence, she is apparently – in contrast to the disciples and the crowd – fully aware of what is going on, like the donkey in Isaiah 1:3 knowing her master while ‘Israel does not understand.’ With one ear pointing backward and one pointing forward, one ear attuned to her master and one to the crowd, she seems to function as a kind of bridge between what is past and what lies ahead.
4. The artist makes us feel close to the action as if we also are participants. How does he do this?
He has the entire scene take place in the foreground. The painted space is somehow continuous with our space as beholders. It seems as if Jesus is passing in front of us and we find ourselves drawn into the swoosh of palm branches and the shouts of praise.
5. How does Giotto’s painting reveal to us the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9?
Matthew 21:5 contains a reference to Zechariah 9:9 which announces the coming of Zion’s King. The first clause comes from Isaiah 62:11, a passage which also promises the coming of a Saviour.
‘Rejoice greatly, Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.’ Zechariah 9:9
The prophet not only speaks into his immediate situation in this verse, but also looks beyond into the more distant future. The Jews are called upon to rejoice greatly and welcome a King who comes for their salvation. His character is described. He is right with God and all others. No stain of unrighteousness rests upon his victories, his administration or his character. He alone has salvation. He comes not as a warrior on a prancing war horse, nor as a political revolutionary for the overthrow of Rome, but he enters Jerusalem riding on a humble donkey with the commitment to break the bondage of sin and death, to bring healing and hope and peace!
As we watch Jesus enter the city with great composure and dignity we realize that these verses from Zechariah have come alive before our eyes. All of this has been planned in advance by Jesus. It is clear from Matthew 21:1-5 that Jesus has arranged for the donkey to be available. He requests that the disciples go and find the donkey and the colt, untie them and bring them to him. He fully understands all the symbolism and embraces it. He will enter Jerusalem as its true and promised King.
It is clear that the crowds understand. They appropriately cry out ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ These verses come from Psalm 118:25, 26. Hosanna is a Hebrew expression meaning ‘save’ or ‘save now, Lord’ which was used more as an exclamation of praise than as a prayer. The crowds identify Jesus as the Son of David, the One who brings salvation. It is, however, interesting to observe that the man in the tree to the right holds his arms in a crucified position, by which Giotto quietlysuggests what will be the ultimate outcome of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
There is one more thing to note. Luke 19:39, 40 informs us that the crowd included some Pharisees who also make the connections with Zechariah’s prophet text and with the cries of Hosanna and are deeply shaken by the implications. ‘Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”’ Jesus’ reply indicates that he accepts the crowd’s declarations as true. ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the very stones will cry out!’
6. What does Jesus’ composure and gesture convey? How does it contrast with what lies before him in Jerusalem?
While the crowds surge and shout in the streets, Giotto captures the one still point: Jesus with messianic dignity sitting in the midst of it all, offering a gesture of peace and blessing. As he does so we see again what the nature of his kingdom will be: ‘The Son of Man comes not to be served but to serve.’ On the cusp of all that will be revealed in Jerusalem of lies and hostility, abandonment, brutality, ridicule, senseless violence and gruesome death, Jesus’ focus is not on himself. He reflects peace and extends blessing to others. The two fingers pointed upwards traditionally also suggest his divinity and humanity (one person, two natures).
Aware of the crucifixion that lies ahead we might be tempted to try to stop Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. We might want to cry out ‘Go back!’ and try to block the rider’s way. Until we remember that this King comes bringing salvation, salvation that we deeply need. So instead, we add our voices to the crowd:
Ride on, ride on in majesty;
In lowly pomp ride on to die:
O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin
O’er captive death and conquered sin.
Ride on ride on in majesty;
In lowly pomp ride on to die:
Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain;
Then take O God, Thy power and reign.
(Verses 2 and 5 from the hymn ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’ by H.H. Milman, 1827)
1. In what ways has engaging this painting by Giotto enriched your understanding of the text?
2. What is it about this story that strikes you the most?
3. Where would you place yourself in the picture?
4. How does this painting enhance your understanding of Jesus’ journey to the cross for our salvation?
5. What in today’s culture would be an equivalent of the crowds gestures of reverence
and honour given to Jesus the King?
This study is prepared by Thena Ayres, Faculty Emerita, Regent College, Vancouver B.C. Canada.