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Palm Sunday - Entry into Jerusalem by Giotto
Giotto: The Entry into Jerusalem
Behold your King
by Thena Ayres
As the liturgical calendar relentlessly brings us to focus again on Passion Week, I am moved by the profound aloneness and vulnerability of Jesus. As he enters the city he is poised between the years of teaching and healing he is leaving behind him and the days of violence, betrayal and death that lie ahead. The entry into Jerusalem is told in detail in all four gospels indicating its importance for Jesus’ story and ours.
Giotto di Bondone (c1267-1337) 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 their essential minimum, evocatively communicating both narrative content and emotion. This fresco by Giotto was commissioned and executed for the Arena Chapel in Padua in 1305-1306. It is part of an almost cinematic series of paintings that cover the walls of the chapel telling the story of the life of Christ.
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. We can only see the faces of four of the disciples. The rest of the twelve are suggested by a swath of golden halos. From what we can see they are all men. As they stand behind Jesus, stock still, shoulder to shoulder, they form a tight mass. They are alert, sober, as they watch the crowd carefully, even cautiously. And well they might. Three times they have heard from Jesus that he would be arrested and killed in Jerusalem. They are probably afraid for him as well as for themselves. What lies ahead is unknown to them and this outburst of praise and shouting was no doubt both hopeful as well as unsettling.
The welcoming crowd positioned on the right is quite different. It includes both men and women and we can see each person and each face clearly. There is a tremendous sense of movement and action as they surge out of the city gates. People are climbing trees and tearing 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 pull off their cloaks and another waves his palm branch.
Giotto draws our attention to Jesus by making him the largest figure in the fresco and by painting him with a kind of three-dimensional reality so forceful, that he seems as solid and as tangible as sculpture in the round. By placing the entire scene in the foreground the artist makes us feel as if we too are participants. It seems as if Jesus is passing in front of us and we find ourselves unexpectedly caught up in the palm branches and praises.
Matthew 21:5 contains a reference to Zechariah 9:9 which announces the coming of Zion’s King. ‘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.’ The prophet not only speaks into his immediate situation, he also looks beyond into the more distant future. The Jews are called to welcome a King who comes for their salvation, not as a warrior or as a political revolutionary for the overthrow of Rome, but riding on a humble donkey with the commitment to break the bondage of sin and death, to bring healing and hope and peace.
While the crowds surge and shout in the streets, Giotto captures the one still point: Jesus, who sits with Messianic dignity in the midst of it all, offering a gesture of peace and blessing. On the cusp of all that will be revealed in Jerusalem of lies and hostility, senseless violence and gruesome death, Jesus’ focus is not on himself.
As we stand on the edge of Giotto’s painting, we might be tempted to try to stop him. We might cry out ‘Go back!’ and try to block the rider’s way. Until we remember that this King comes bringing salvation, salvation that we so deeply need.
Giotto di Bondone: Entry into Jerusalem, Arena Chapel, also known as the Scrovegni Chapel, in Padua, Italy, ca. 1305.
Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267-1337), better known simply as Giotto, was an Italian painter and architect from Florence. He is generally considered the first in a line of great artists who contributed to the Italian Renaissance. Giotto's contemporary Giovanni Villani wrote that Giotto was ‘the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature.’ Giotto's masterwork is the decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, commonly called the Arena Chapel, completed around 1305-06. This fresco cycle depicts the life of the Virgin and the life of Christ. That Giotto painted the Arena Chapel and that he was chosen by the commune of Florence in 1334 to design the new campanile (bell tower) of the Florence Cathedral are among the few certainties of his biography. Almost every other aspect of it is subject to controversy: his birth date, his birthplace, his appearance, his apprenticeship, the order in which he created his works, whether or not he painted the famous frescoes at Assisi, and where he was eventually buried after his death.
Thena Ayres worked for 21 years for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of Canada (IVCF Canada) in university ministry and staff training and for16 years at Regent College as Associate Professor in Education, Dean of Students and Summer School Dean. She loves reading, sailing, gardening and travelling.
To read an in-depth Word and image Bible study based on Giotto's Entry into Jerusalem and Matthew 21:1-11, click here