Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Washing of the Feet

Cappella Scrovegni - The Washing of the Feet
Giotto di Bondone
A Presentation By: Michael Draheim

Throughout the message of the New Testament, we consistently see an image of Jesus that turns the traditional religious structure on its head. The message of the gospel is routinely brought to those who are least in the society contemporary to Jesus, and Jesus himself engages in a number of acts which set the relationship between deity and human creation on its head. The content of this particular fresco by Giotto keeps with this theme, portraying Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. This story, which appears in John 13:1-30, is an integral portion of the Last Supper, in which Jesus shares a final meal with his disciples prior to his betrayal and the passion narrative.

A quick scan of the artwork reveals some telling information about the artist's intention, and the mindset of those who have been maintaining the piece since its creation in 1304. The most obvious observation is that only the halo behind Jesus himself has been maintained in full gold press; with the passing of time, the halos around the twelve disciples have degraded to the point where they simply appear to be blackened blobs. While similar degradation has also occurred to the halo behind Jesus' head, the curator responsible for maintaining the artwork has seen fit to have the piece restored so that there is not a black halo behind the head of Christ as well. It is understandable that leaving the artwork so degraded could be seen as disrespectful towards deity, as the color of black is usually reserved to represent some form of sin or debauchery, yet it does not explain why a similar priority has not been placed on the twelve disciples who are central figures in the early Christian church.

In order to understand the priority that has been placed by the curator, we must understand Giotto's rationale in the creation of his frescoes. Whereas the trends for religious art for the time generally featured frescoes completed in pairs, focussing on a prophesy and its fulfillment through Christ, Giotto took a much more spiritual approach to his work; while still producing his frescoes in pairs, they focussed instead on the human aspect of Jesus and how his work impacted religious thought at the time. Rather than focussing on the fulfillment of textual references, Giotto chose to focus on the spiritual implications of the stories in the New Testament. In this context, it is clear why the curators chose to restore the halo behind Jesus even if no attention was paid to the twelve apostles; with a clear focus on the works of Jesus, he must be highlighted as the central figure in Giotto's work.

While there is plenty of other material for analysis in Giotto's fresco, this serves as the most telling when looking at the context in which the piece was created. What will we take from Giotto's artwork, knowing that he was attempting to emphasize the actions of Christ in his ministry to the apostles? Hopefully a feeling of humility, knowing that we are not above Christ himself, and ought to strive to serve others in our presence as well.

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