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  • Concerning the Origin of the Meditations on the Life of Christ and its early influence on art
  • Joseph Polzer (bio)

The impact of the Meditations on the Life of Christ, a treatise originally written for the spiritual instruction of Clares in the Tuscan town of S. Gimignano, on the course of later medieval Western Christianity can hardly be overestimated. Originally written either in Latin or Italian, as I prefer to believe, once it had appeared the treatise spread like wildfire through Europe, translated into many languages and evolving into different versions of varying length and content. In surveying how the search regarding its origin has fared in recent years it is evident that there exists a sharp difference in opinion on the part of art historians on the one hand and contemporary scholars who deal with medieval Meditations’ texts on the other, that is, between “lookers” and “readers”, as Millard Meiss might have stated.1 For a long time art historians have assumed that Giotto was aware of the treatise when he painted the Arena Chapel that were in place by 1307, meaning that it would have originated sometime in the later dugento. However recent scholars of the Meditations’ various versions have placed the treatise’s origin later.2 Although they agree that the Meditations appeared well after 1300, they differ regarding the closer dating of the treatise’s origin, as well as the identification of the author of the original text and whether it first appeared in Latin or the common language. The purpose of this paper is to throw some further light on the issue of the Meditations’ origin with reference to certain visual evidence, [End Page 307] some of it not yet considered, that historians of the treatise’s texts have underestimated, overlooked or dismissed.

We shall first consider whether the planners of Giotto’s Arena Chapel murals, whoever they may have been, were aware of the treatise. The murals hardly need an introduction. Of outstanding quality they are also among the best preserved late medieval murals in existence. The wealthy Paduan patrician Enrico Scrovegni saw to the chapel’s construction and decoration in the very first years of the trecento. It was completed by 1307. Giuseppe Basile’s most recent restoration of the chapel’s murals that ended in 1991 has improved the murals’ legibility.3 This applies in particular to the scene of Paradise located above the triumphal arch that separates the nave from the choir, which was considerably worn.4 I believe that its composition was largely based on the treatise. Before dealing with this specific issue it behooves that the mural’s unusual early history is reviewed. It depicts angels gathered at both sides of God the Father enthroned (Fig. 1). Painted on a hinged wooden panel made to fit a centrally located rectangular opening, this God the Father is not by Giotto but by a later trecento master. The opening connects the space of the nave with the loft that is located above the vault of the adjoining Gothic choir. Giotto’s angels at the sides of God the Father vary in their attitudes. Some assume devotional poses, whereas a number of them converse among themselves, some turning their heads away from their divine master. The two angels closest to the throne are particularly prominent. The one at the right side stands firmly before God, hands crossed before his chest, seeming to discuss some matter with his divine master. Differently the angel at the left side moves deferentially forward toward God. This angel has been usually identified as Gabriel whom God the Father is about to send on his salutary earthbound mission to announce to Mary that she will conceive his mortal son. This interpretation makes good sense considering that this angel is located directly above the scene of the Annunciation, which appears below on the triumphal arch where, both kneeling, the Virgin Annunciate faces the Angel Gabriel across the arch’s upper central open space (Fig. 2). Similarly spatially separated Annunciations often appear in early medieval sanctuaries, as in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, as well as later. Giotto’s Paradise mural initiates the master’s narrative account of Christ’s...


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pp. 307-351
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