The stories about John the Evangelist
The right wall shows John the Evangelist in the lunette, at the top. He’s on the island of Patmos where he received a vision of the world’s end. Only if you stand outside the chapel itself does the spatial effect of the island in the sea make sense. John is deeply immersed in thought. This posture of John is strongly reminiscent of Joachim’s dream or the Annunciation, a work that Giotto had painted in Padua in the Scrovegni chapel.
The vision seems to take place around John’s ear. This is a central composition in which John is depicted in the lower centre of the picture plane. The other figures such as God, the dragon and the angels are around him. This is quite different from the lunette on the opposite wall, where the buildings divide the scene into two parts. The middle fresco shows the resurrection of Drusiana. John brought her to life outside the walls of Ephesus. John, with his followers, extended his arm and Drusiana came to life, their eyes intersect. John’s outstretched right arm is answered by Drusiana by stretching both her arms. She seems to be folding her hands for a prayer of thanks. Unfortunately this is no longer visible as the original paint has disappeared here.
What we are now seeing is the plaster of the hole left by the scaffolding pole. These were the only places (fourteen) that did work with wet in wet. The intonaco was only applied after the painting and the removal of the scaffolding. Three figures kneel before John, impressed by the miracle that he had just performed with God’s help. In this part, Giotto also uses architecture to underline the story even more.The eye of the viewer goes from the outstretched hand of John the Evangelist to Drusiana and back again. This is put against the background of a bare wall between the two main figures that is not interrupted by verticals such as towers and buildings. Like the towers and buildings behind them, the groups that are watching seem to be densely packed together.
The world that Giotto paints here has become so large that it can no longer contain all the figures and the top of two of the buildings. This can be seen, for example, in the figures that are partly behind the painted frames. The Assumption of John is painted at the bottom John the Evangelist (right wall). The Assumption of John the Evangelist is only credible if you stand just outside the chapel.
The building is a church with an open grave in the floor. Bystanders shy away, frightened or surprised. In the middle of the churchgoers, the ascension takes place. Christ on a cloud, together with angels, takes John into heaven. John and Christ look each other in the eye. John is lifted by a bundle of golden rays that embrace him.
Michelangelo stood in this chapel as a young boy and made a study drawing of this fresco. So perhaps he came up with the idea of Adam’s creation in the Sistine Chapel. The drawing of the young Michelangelo shows that he was mainly interested in the man who leans forward with a surprised look at the empty grave that John left behind.
Methodology, execution and quality
As previously mentioned, work proceeded extremely quickly. Giornati, half-days, were redundant, because painting was done on the dry intonaco. In the Peruzzi chapel, paint spatters from the vaults have ended up at the lunettes. Usually work was done from top to bottom so that no spatters could get on the underlying parts. Probably because of the time pressure, both the lunettes and the vaults were worked on at the same time. Scaffolding has been placed at five different heights. A large layer of intonaco was first applied in the lunette at the top. After the painting, the scaffolding poles were removed and lowered so much that the upper part could be painted standing on the scaffolding planks. Each side wall is painted in six parts. As usual, perpendiculars were drawn in the plaster mainly horizontally and vertically, but also diagonals for architectural shortening. This can still be seen with the naked eye in some frescoes, such as in the Revival of Drusiana.
On the first layer of plaster, the arriccio, no sketches were found during the restoration. This would not make sense for the method used. However, sketches have been found on the arriccio, possibly by Giotto himself. In these sketches, details can only be seen in a few architectural elements.
Giotto probably made use of small drawings, which were converted to scale by the executive assistants. Giotto left the execution of the painting itself to his assistants, and was carried out by five or six of his collaborators. This also explains the strange differences in size of the figures in several scenes. Especially when comparing the two lower paintings, ‘The Ascension of John the Baptist’ and ‘Herod’s Banquet’, it is striking how much the figures differ. In the Ascension all figures are larger than in the Feast of Herod.
Furthermore, the woman behind the bed in the birth of John the Baptist is very large. The three right-handed figures in the Revival of Drusiana seem much closer than the figures in the Naming of John the Baptist on the opposite wall. The reason for this is that the various assistants have interpreted the scale transfer of the drawings on the wall differently.
Not only does the execution leave much to be desired, but according to the art historian, Magginus Hayden, so does the dramatic power that is significantly less than we would come to expect of Giotto (Maginnis Hayden in: Maginnis, Hayden, B.J., ‘In search of an Artis’ in: Derbes, A., Sandona, M. (edited), ‘The Cambridge Companion to Giotto,’ University Press, Cambridge 2004 p.23). Giotto was in need of time because of the many commissions, despite his many assistants, pupils and his two studios: one in Florence and the other in Naples. Attention is not always focused on the crucial event, but is diverted to peripheral events or eye-catching details. For example, in John the Baptist’s naming, the two alcoves with vases divert the attention of the figures. There is no child in Elisabeth’s bed.
The viewer is the one who has to link the two stories. In the Herod’s Banquet, the man with the violin attracts a lot of attention. On the opposite wall there are two frescoes, ‘The Assumption of John the Baptist’ and ‘The Revival of Drusiana’, which more resemble a true Giotto: a focus on the central event.
Nevertheless, the figures on the right soon demand attention, especially because of the buildings behind the city wall. The crippled man on the far left quickly stands out. In the Annunciation to Zechariah, the man with the harp and the figure with the flute on the far left quickly catch the eye. This makes the story a little confusing. The building to the right of the ciborium is also unclear. What is the purpose of this structure, anyway? The wall behind the ciborium lacks any architectural logic. It seems to have been used exclusively to connect and isolate the two main figures, the angel and Zechariah, as the columns do. The violinist, the cripple and the flutist get a lot of attention and this is at the expense of the core of the story. In the Bardi chapel, painted immediately after, there is more unity in the execution of the paintwork. Moreover, in this chapel there is a strong focus on one dramatic event within each narrative scene.
In the vaults the four evangelists are depicted with their symbols: Mark with the lion, John with the eagle, Matthew with the angel and Luke with the ox.