Above all, it is a sense for storytelling that pervades the design of Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua. Stories from the New Testament comprise nearly all of the painted scenes within the chapel, and these scenes as they are painted are informed chiefly and most powerfully by Giotto’s understanding of narrative device. This is because his ultimate artistic task in the chapel is not simply to best represent physical objects or human subjects through realistic painting – this is a secondary or perhaps even a tertiary concern, albeit an important one.

Surely Giotto’s faithful rendering of the Biblical characters that he selects is a much more important and subtle problem, for it requires more from the painter. Not only must he produce realistic figures within his representations, but he must also pay special attention to the nuances of their particular expressions. Additionally, these figures do not simply exist at a fixed point in time like most visual subjects, such as still life or portraiture. No: they move, they interact with other figures, and they react to events and possess an individual context that stretches back through the entirety of their personal history. These too the artist must compress and convey visually within a single arranged scene, and such demands are only further augmented by the choice of Biblical subjects, which demand a particularly exacting attention to nuance of detail and integrity of personality due to their religious importance.

Yet, as daunting as all these problems are, even they are not the primary challenges for Giotto in his Arena Chapel. Although many major narratives and minor sub-stories alike fill in the walls of the building, each of these have the additional burden of supporting a still-greater, overarching account: that of Giotto’s patron and the builder of the Chapel, Enrico Scrovengi.

Giotto’s major, primary problem, then, is to carefully select stories and subsequent narrative details that suggest at the mythology of Enrico without overwhelming the biblical accounts themselves. In other words, the stories from the Bible in the chapel must not only stand on their own as individually powerful accounts, but must also combine with the others to tell a single story of one man’s redemption using a multi-layered grammar of psychology, symbolism, and subtext. This he does most effectively in three images: the Raising of Lazarus, the Pact of Judas, and the Arrest of Christ.

Attentions to narrative and to character, then, are Giotto’s most powerful methods for unifying the story of Enrico Scrovengi. If one takes for granted Ursula Schlagel’s convincing argument that the donor’s primary motive in building the chapel was his desire to “atone for his father’s sin of usury,”(1) then certain figures jump out as particularly important to Enrico. Primary among these is the figure of Judas, who Schlegel connects directly to the Scrovengi family: “Enrico’s father Reginaldo betrayed Christ for money just as Judas did,” (2) she argues, since “every sin is a betrayal of Christ,” (3) and the practice of usury was widely recognized as a mortal sin, “the price of which is Hell” (4). For this reason, she observes, the misers and usurers share identical punishment with Judas in Giotto’s Last Judgment, where these sinners and Judas alike hang from adjacent trees – the misers by the rope of their money purses; Judas by a simple rope instead, but with his money purse spilling out of his abdomen alongside his intestines.

This connection between Judas and the Scrovengi family is made still more explicit by Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona in Barren Metal and the Fruitful Womb, where they argue that Reginaldo’s crime of usury is akin to sexual perversion since it distorts “money’s inherently sterile nature” (5) by “imitating sexual procreation in an infernal inversion.” (6) “Usury,” they further argue, “because it forces money to breed, was considered in contradistinction to the procreative processes of the animate world.” (7) For this reason, they suggest that the presence of Judas’ money bag is both deliberate and symbolic, a parody of natural birthing.

Derbes and Sandona also go much further in connecting the Scrovengi family to the figure of Judas, noting that a tract on usury by Remigio of Florence, completed around the time of the Chapel, states that “the usurer is even worse a traitor than Judas, for {he}, unlike Judas, does not attempt to make restitution.” (8) They also observe that the Last Judgment, itself a “confrontation of opposites” (9), reflects “the devoutly kneeling patron, Enrico Scrovengi” against “the hanged and eviscerated traitor Judas” (10) and join Schlegel in interpreting the chapel itself as “a concrete (albeit subtle) admission of guilt – as it simultaneously participates in the expiation of a father’s sin” (11).

Giotto’s most effective explorations of Judas’ guilt (and, by extension, Reginaldo’s) come, however, in the form of two panel frescos, the Pact of Judas and the Arrest of Christ. The painter is not only at pains to include realistic physical details in each of these carefully-selected narratives, but is also especially deliberate in his rendering of psychological subtext.

Perhaps the first thing that viewers notice about the Pact of Judas is its bizarre relationship to surrounding frescoes. As James Stubbelbine notes in his introduction to Giotto and the Arena Chapel Frescoes, this fresco is the first and only time that an episode in the Chapel appears “out of sequence” (12), since it does not appear following the Last Supper, but rather immediately prior to and across from the Visitation. Stubbelbine explains this placement in a number of ways. He first notes that, like Derbes and Sandona suggest of the Last Judgment, the triumphal arch can be seen as an exercise in contrast, and that the demonic meeting of Judas and the temple priests is itself a perverse reflection of the meeting between the Virgin and Elizabeth that it faces (13). He also suggests that this fresco could be seen as a partition between the story of Anna that comprises the upper portion of the Chapel and the stories of Christ that make up its lower section, since “the Passion cycle in the lowest of the three registers hinges on this one act of evil” (14). Regardless of his reasons for doing so, however, Giotto’s decision to place the Pact of Judas where he does has unshakably ironic connotations and, for this reason, enjoys a peculiar psychological depth from its position alone.

This power, however, is further strengthened by the narrative and personal details that Giotto chooses to include in this scene. The decision to physically include the figure of Satan in this panel is a strange one, for out of the two Gospels (Luke and John) that directly connect Judas’ betrayal to satanic influence, both describe the Devil as taking hold of the disciple immediately before he leaves for the temple not at the meeting. Furthermore the shriveled, beastly, black image of Satan that appears in this panel is substantially different from the bloated, red figure that we find in the Last Judgment. Additionally, this strange image of the Devil is notable for the manner in which it echoes the figure of Judas (or vice versa), especially in the positioning of the head, hands and beard, as well as the arches of his shoulder and lower torso, which correspond to the curves of Judas’ robe. All of these details support the idea that this devil is meant to be a purely figurative one, a visual device that works wonderfully as a reflection of Judas’ psychological state, and which would have also held rich sub-textual meaning for Enrico Scrovengi.

Such a meaning could also be found in Giotto’s handling of the temple priests in this panel. Although the figure of Judas was clearly linked to the practice of usury, Giotto goes to some length to connect the other figures in the panel to this crime as well. As Anne Mueller von der Haegen notes in her book on Giotto, the temple scribes who offer Judas money for betrayal are the same who are found whispering in the corner as Jesus drives moneylenders from the temple in the previous panel (15). This detail not only further explains the positioning of the Pact among the other frescoes, but cements the identity of the priests if not with usury itself, then at least with fraudulent commercial activity.

Finally, the general design and positioning of figures in this fresco also work to subtly connect Judas and the priests to one another. One can trace a double arch if one follows a line around the robes of the four human figures; this same shape is repeated in the upper-right background of the painting, in the arches that link the columns of the church. The effect of this is to cleverly connect the subjects of the painting: four conspirators plotting to betray Christ over money.

Similar elements of design are also at work in Giotto’s Arrest of Christ, which is among the most perfect psychological portraits in the entire series. As von der Haegen notes in her caption for the scene, Jesus’ body is quite literally enveloped in Judas’ hostile cloak, and although chaos flails around these two central characters, it is the conflict between their infinitely close profiles that inescapably draws the scene’s attention (16). One notices immediately the contrast in their two expressions: the stately, dignified expression of Christ on the left against the sub-human snarl of Judas on the right. Indeed Judas appears not to be human in this scene, but rather, as Stubbelbine describes, “like some lower order of primate, with short brow, deeply inset and dishonest eyes, curved nose, and small chin” (17). Additionally, Judas appears to have shed the red-golden hair that adorned his head for most of the picture cycle, and here adopted a brown tone that is closer in shade to that color which covers the figure of Satan in the Pact.

Furthermore, although the background of this scene appears to be haphazard and chaotic at first glance, a closer examination reveals a carefully choreographed set of elements. The wildly flailing poleaxes that hover above the two central figures are in actuality carefully designed to point back at the two figures in the center. Likewise, the torches, varied weapons, and shofar that adorn the upper-right quadrant of the painting each point down to the figure in purple in the lower right, who himself points back at Jesus and at Judas. The arm of Peter cutting off the ear of the soldier Malchus has a similar effect; it similarly draws attention back towards the two central figures.

The effect of all this is, again, to draw the viewer back to the central confrontation between Christ and Judas. The emotional power of this scene is overwhelming to a casual patron of the Chapel; it’s message to a usurer's son would be unavoidable.

If the figure of Judas is then crucial to the mythology of Enrico and his family, then the figure of Lazarus is no less important and indeed, can provide a sort of counter-figure to that of Judas. Whereas the one represents sin, corruption, and betrayal, the other represents the life, redemption, and ultimate forgiveness of Christ, since Jesus provides a figurative future for confessed sinners in the same way that he literally returns life to Lazarus. The Raising of Lazarus, therefore is a panel that would hold particular importance in the Scrovengi family mythology, and for this reason, Giotto has enhanced its telling with the use of some very novel devices.

The most startling of these, perhaps, is the manner in which the artist compresses the Biblical narrative for his own purposes. In John, there are several distinct events that occur in sequence: Jesus is stopped by Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha, they fall at his feet, all travel to the tomb of Lazarus, the tomb is opened, and Lazarus emerges at Jesus’ beckoning. All of these events, however, are compacted together in Giotto’s panel depiction, providing the painting with a wealth of context.

Additionally, much like the general arrangement in the Arrest of Christ, items in this panel are designed to lead the eye back to specific parts of the painting, although the foci in Lazarus are double: Christ’s body and that of Lazarus himself. Items such as the curve of the surrounding landscape, the attention of the praying women, the gaze of both Lazarus and the two figures on either side of him, the attention of the crowd behind and the intensity of his garments all draw attention to Jesus’ figure; Christ himself and the crowds on either side of him also divert attention back to the figure of Lazarus. In a way, Christ and Lazarus can be seen as symmetrical subjects in the painting, each taking up the left and right hand side of the paintings, respectively. Tension is therefore created through the balancing of elements in the image, heightening the inherent drama of the scene.

Finally, Giotto’s attention to minor details within the scene helps to breathe a life into his narrative. Realistic details such as the men removing the cover of Lazarus’ tomb, the onlookers plugging their noses at his stench, the careful wrappings that surround the resurrected man’s body, the brilliant half-awakened expression on his face, and the gentle but focused expression of Christ allow the viewer a direct access to the scene that allows Giotto to tell his story in novel ways.

Each of these devices then, builds the emotional power of this scene further and firmly establishes a connection between the once-dead man on the right side of the painting and the force of salvation on the left. The awe-producing redemptive powers that Giotto renders Christ with would have, again, carried a wealth of meaning to any casual viewer; for Enrico Scrovengi these would have symbolized the hope of redemption.

Three levels of narrative therefore operate in Giotto’s series of frescoes at the Arena Chapel: direct and concrete physical details, attention to interactions between and context within individual characters, and finally, control of symbolic associations that tie the whole of the Arena Chapel fresco back into the mythology of the Scrovengi family. Each of these demands a different level of abstract attention from Giotto, but each also combines with the others to achieve one common goal, that of simply telling a story. From the immediate details of Judas’ body language to his context in the story of Christ to his symbolic association with the Chapel’s patron, Giotto manages to weave a wealth of meanings into a single scene using one simple, powerful tool: that of narration.


(1) Schlegel, U. ‘On the Picture Program of the Arena Chapel’ in J.H. Stubblebine, (ed.) Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes, (W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., N.Y. & London, 1969) p.188

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Derbes A. and Sandona, Mark, ‘Barren Metal and the Fruitful Womb: The Program of Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua,’ in Art Bulletin, Volume LXXX, No. 2, June 1998, p. 277

(6) Ibid. p. 278

(7) Ibid. p. 277

(8) Ibid. p. 275

(9) Ibid. p. 274

(10) Ibid.

(11) Ibid. p. 278

(12) Stubblebine, J. ‘Giotto and the Arena Chapel Frescoes’ in J.H. Stubblebine, (ed.) Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes, (W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., N.Y. & London, 1969) p. 85

(13) Ibid.

(14) Ibid.

(15) von der Haegen, A. M. Giotto di Bondone, (Konemann, Germany, 1998), p. 67

(16) Ibid. , p. 68

(17) Op. cit. p. 86



Derbes A. and Sandona, Mark, ‘Barren Metal and the Fruitful Womb: The Program of Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua,’ in Art Bulletin, Volume LXXX, No. 2, June 1998

Schlegel, U. ‘On the Picture Program of the Arena Chapel’ in J.H. Stubblebine, (ed.) Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes, (W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., N.Y. & London, 1969)

Stubblebine, J. ‘Giotto and the Arena Chapel Frescoes’ in J.H. Stubblebine, (ed.) Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes, (W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., N.Y. & London, 1969)


The New English Bible: New Testament, (Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, UK, 1961)

von der Haegen, A. M., Giotto di Bondone, (Konemann, Germany, 1998)

Voragine, J.D., The Golden Legend, trans. Ryan, W.G., (Princeton Univ. Press, U.S.A. 1995)