Colour Symbolism in Giotto’s Arena Chapel

Final assignment essay for the Undergraduate Art History Course Mystery and Medieval Imagery, at Birkbeck University, London, submitted March 2015 by Glennis McGregor.

Introduction The year 1300 was a Jubilee year of celebration for the Western Church, in which Pope Boniface VIII offered ‘remission of guilt and punishment’ to all confessors of sin throughout Christendom. (ref 1) In this year, Enrico Scrovegni purchased the site on which the Arena Chapel now stands.

Enrico enjoyed wealth and position in Padua, gained through usury, his family’s business. Although usury was legal at the time, in Christian terms it was sinful, leading to eternal damnation if Enrico did not take steps to save his soul. He had temporarily given up usury by 1300 and built the chapel in the following years as a glorious bid for divine forgiveness. He employed Giotto di Bondone and his workshop to decorate the epic blank canvas of the interior.

The Virgin Mary is central to the chapel’s history and fresco programme. The site of the chapel was formerly a Roman arena, which had become a locale for Christian Annunciation enactments in the town. (ref 2)  The Annunciation scene is prominently placed in the overall narrative sequence in which the lives of Mary, her parents Joachim and Anna, and Christ are depicted wrapping around three registers of the chapel walls. It is Mary’s intercessory power to forgive sin which opens a place in paradise for Enrico, depicted in the Last Judgment. This interplay of mercy and sin is a major symbolic theme enriching the narrative.

One of the devices Giotto uses to convey this thematic interplay is through symbolic use of colour. He uses colour to create not only aesthetic beauty, but also to create moral and thematic connections between characters and scenes. In this way, colour helps viewers understand the chapel as an interconnected whole – a moral story flowing through each scene, culminating in the Last Judgment.

Structural Colour Colour is firstly important as compositional tool for the overall artistic plan of the chapel. The realistically painted architectural details create Trompe-l’œil effects of surface materials and three-dimensional projections. This creates what we might call a ‘comfort zone of the familiar’, where the mind accepts a virtual reality of illusory yet ordinary surfaces. One is prepared for more incredible imaginings – the supernatural lives of Christ, Mary, and her parents. Giotto painted these figures expressively in three-dimensional settings, creating a sense of believable realism, yet ordinary life is transcended through brightly saturated colour. Medieval aesthetes such as Abbot Sugar believed that ‘sensory impressions derived from bright colours drew the onlooker from the material to the immaterial, bringing the divine into human life’. (Gage, 1995, p. 64)

1. Giotto, compositional elements of the Arena Chapel, Padua.

The same ‘heavenly’ deep blue of the vaulted ceiling is used as sky in the narrative scenes, which creates an eerie light, somewhere between night and day. This also helps create a sense of an alternate reality. The azurite blue expanses must have been overwhelmingly deep and dominant in the 1300s. Even now the deep blue creates a striking effect, despite its deterioration. The blue areas had to be painted a secco because azurite turns green on contact with water.(ref 3)  As a result, areas of blue have suffered more severe deterioration than other areas, leaving contemporary visitors with an altered overall colour balance from the original.

Biblical figures can be glimpsed through quatrefoils in the decorative borders as well as through roundels in the starry blue sky of the ceiling. These Old Testament types and New Testament holy figures are brightly coloured, connecting them to the narrative. However, framed like pictures on a wall, they are separated from the narrative cycle’s time and space.

2. Giotto, Despair, (left), and Crucifixion, detail, (right). Arena Chapel, Padua.

Meanwhile, the vices and virtues are deliberately unrealistic grisaille figures in faux sculptural niches. They remain abstract concepts that do not depict living beings, but are rather embodied by characters of the Christian story. Mary, for example, is an embodiment of Charity in the Last Judgment, accepting Enrico’s dedication of the chapel in his bid for divine forgiveness. However, in the Crucifixion, she slumps in a pose perilously close to the vice Despair. Despair is a sure path to damnation, but Mary is propped up, prevented from total collapse. (ref 4)  Visiting the chapel in person it was striking to note that the vice Despair is situated in close proximity to the lamenting Mary, just below her on the same wall (fig. 2).

Characters in Colour Within the narrative, colour was used to identify people or their attributes. Convention at the time influenced the dress of some of the key players. Saint Peter, for example, can be recognised wearing an ochre robe over a bluish tunic. This combination was widespread in Western art for almost a millennium.(ref 5)

3. Giotto, Peter (left) in Washing of the Feet, detail, and Joseph (right) in Flight into Egypt, detail, wearing ochre robes over blue tunics. Arena Chapel, Padua.

However, colour alone is not enough to identify Peter, as these colours may be used for others as well. For example Joseph wears similar colours throughout Giotto’s narrative (see fig. 3). In the early 1300s, Giotto was painting with a limited colour palette of pure pigments, meaning there were not enough colours to uniquely assign to individuals.

The aesthetic preference…was for a brilliance of colour like that of stained glass or illuminated manuscript, and the medieval tradition out of which all these had come condemned ‘corrupted’ colour (mixed, or broken) precisely because it was less brilliant. (Hall, 1992, p. 15)

Giotto furthermore used colour isochromatically: in decorative repeating patterns similar to a stained glass effect.(ref 6) More than a hundred years later, Leon Battista Alberti described this aesthetic in Della Pittura (1435).

If you are painting Diana and her band of Nymphs, let one nymph have green drapery and another white, another rose, another yellow – different colours for each…If you have contrast, [of hues and of tones] the beauty of the colours will be clearer and more graceful. (cited in Baxandall, 1988, p. 85)

An example of striking isochromatic symmetry can be found in Giotto’s flock of angels at the Crucifixion and Lamentation, which appear side by side in the cycle. In the Crucifixion, five angels dressed in gold, red, violet, green and pink are in exact mirror formation on either side of the cross. In the subsequent Lamentation, they scatter in sorrow, but even in disarray, green and yellow angels weave a balanced zigzag through reds, pinks, and violets (fig. 4).

4. Giotto, isochromatic symmetry in the Crucifixion (left) and the Lamentation (right). Arena Chapel, Padua.

5. Giotto, Visitation, detail of Mary’s dalmatic red robe. Arena Chapel, Padua.

The isochromatic aesthetic contributed to overall compositional balance, so individual colours could not be strictly limited by storyline, nevertheless within Giotto’s cycle, colour plays a strong role in characterisation and meaning. Mary’s red garment signifies her embodiment of the virtue Charity.

Medieval writers frequently referred to red as the colour of charity, including Pope Innocent III, who described the red of martyrs’ blood as ‘the sign of the most perfect charity’.(ref 7) At the time, the virtue Karitas (charity) was understood to encompass love of God, love of neighbour, as well as God’s love of humanity and divine forgiveness.(ref 8)

The style of Mary’s red garment is also significant, and has been identified as a dalmatic robe worn by deacons, who administered charity to the needy in medieval Italy.(ref 9)

Ultramarine, derived from lapis lazuli, traditionally colours Mary’s robe, which is associated with her piety. It is also reminiscent of imperial purple, befitting her role as queen of heaven. Ultramarine’s preciousness was partly due to the pigment’s cost, and partly due to its beauty as expressed by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini in The Craftsman’s Handbook (c. 1390): ‘Ultramarine blue is a colour illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colours’.

Giotto represents her with an azurite blue robe from the Nativity onwards, indicating her transformed status as mother of God. She also continues to wear the red garment, her charitable humanity undiminished alongside her piety. (fig. 6)

6. Giotto, Nativity, detail of Mary’s blue robe over dalmatic red robe. Arena Chapel, Padua.

Christ receives red and blue garments at his Baptism, which he wears until his Crucifixion (fig. 7).

Angels ‘proffer the red tunic and blue robe of Christ’s humanity and divinity, clothing that he will wear until his death directly below, where the seamless garment falls prey to human wrong.’

(Ladis, 2008, p. 113)

7. Giotto, Baptism, detail. Christ receiving blue and red robes, and John in a reddish robe (right). Arena Chapel, Padua.

8. Giotto, Crucifixion, detail. Arena Chapel, Padua.

In Christ’s Crucifixion, his seamless red garment is very prominent (fig. 8). This alludes to a thirteenth century understanding that the garment represented Christian charity, especially to one’s neighbour.(ref 10)

Christ, who for Enrico is a most merciful judge, notably wears the seamless garment in the Last Judgment. Saint John is also found in a shade of red throughout the cycle, his charity linked to the Virgin at the crucifixion, when Christ implores John to care for Mary as his own mother (John 19:27).

Colour Linking Characters Mary returns to her red robe in the Last Judgment, as she accepts Enrico’s dedication of the chapel, in his plea through her for divine forgiveness. Here Enrico is dressed in violet, a colour liturgically associated with penitence by the thirteenth century(ref 11) (fig. 9).

We also find Mary Magdalene in a penitent violet robe kneeling at Christ’s feet in both the Crucifixion and the Lamentation (fig. 10). Enrico’s kneeling pose before the Virgin also links him to humility.

9. Giotto, Last Judgment, detail. 10. Crucifixion detail. Arena Chapel, Padua.

In light of this, how do we interpret the red robe Mary Magdalene wears in Noli me tangere? Mary Magdalene was traditionally associated with a scarlet robe and red hair, alluding to passions of the body and her past. Here is evidence of a flexibility of colour interpretation, where colour meaning is contextual rather than absolute, even within a single artwork. It is significant that she sheds this red robe of sin in other scenes with Christ, revealing her repentance. Longinus, partially obscured in the Crucifixion, also wears a violet robe of penitence(ref 12) (fig. 10).

The portrayal of unredeemed sin may be found in the character of Judas who appears in a yellow robe over a yellow tunic. In Judas’ Betrayal, he encircles Jesus in his yellow robe (fig. 12). ‘Although at this time there was no absolute rule as to how Judas should be depicted, yellow was the colour often associated with Judas and the Jews.’ (Ladis, 2008, p. 47) This anti-Semitic use of ‘insistent yellow’ may have served to displace local resentments towards the Scrovegni family’s usury to local Jewish usurers, whose higher interest rates were forbidden to Christians.(ref 13)

A man seen from the back in the Massacre is wearing a short yellow tunic: yellow associating him with Judas’ depraved morality, the short length associating him with inferior social status.(ref 14) In the same scene a lamenting woman who is about to lose her son to the massacre is unusually dressed in the blue of Mary, foretelling the Virgin’s loss in the Crucifixion (fig. 13).

12. Giotto, Judas’ Betrayal, detail. 13. Massacre of the Innocents, detail. Arena Chapel, Padua.

The character of Matthias, the apostle who replaced Judas, can be also be identified by his yellow robe in the Pentecost (fig. 14), ‘although his heir does not inherit sin, but can rather expiate it through good deeds’. (Ladis,

14 Giotto, Pentecost, detail of Matthias in yellow. Arena Chapel, Padua.

2008, p. 48) The characters of Matthias and Judas can be seen as connected opposites, which is another significant artistic theme of the chapel.

‘Repeatedly the images of the chapel juxtapose separation and reunion, barrenness and fertility, birth and death, damnation and salvation.’ (Derbes and Sandona, The Usurer’s Heart, 2008, p. 11)

In opposition to the brightly robed characters of the narrative cycle is a mysterious woman in black. She lurks in the shadows behind Anna in the Meeting at the Golden Gate and again behind the Virgin in her Bridal Procession. This black creates a gravitational opposition to the joy of these events. It operates as an omen of death, pointing to the eternity of the Passion story, beyond narrative time.(ref 15) A sole black goat in the Nativity, and a sweet-faced boy in the Flight into Egypt, may also operate as dark omens (ref 16) (see fig 15).

15. Giotto, (clockwise from top left) Meeting at the Golden Gate, detail Bridal Procession, detail Nativity, detail Flight into Egypt, detail, Arena Chapel, Padua.

The chancel arch juxtaposes two key scenes from the narrative, the Pact of Judas and the Visitation. In these scenes Judas personifies greed while Mary personifies charitable kindness towards Elizabeth.

(ref 17)

Giotto uses colour to mirror these morally opposing scenes. The central characters are shown in the red of Mary’s charity and the yellow of Judas’ depravity. However the colours link them as opposites rather than equivalents. The scheming priest’s red robe is stylistically not a dalmatic, and Elizabeth’s dress may be interpreted to be a neutral ochre while her counterpart appears to be more ‘stridently’ yellow. The woman standing apart to the far right of the Visitation is robed in the deep blue of piety, while her counterpart to the far left of the Pact of Judas is a black demon of hell. The ‘extras’ in both scenes, mirroring each other in green and mauve, are distinguished by the ostentatious gold hems in the Pact and more humble attire in the Visitation (see fig. 16).

16. Giotto, Pact of Judas (left), and Visitation (right). Arena Chapel, Padua.

Barrenness and fertility are also juxtaposed in these scenes with the full bellies of the women versus the drooping robes of the men. Derbes and Santona propose that usury was equated to the unnatural reproduction of money in medieval times, thus ‘the chancel opposes unnatural reproduction and supernatural reproduction’. (The Usurer’s Heart, 2008, p. 59)

Giotto also used the colour green to represent fertility and life. Anna’s house glows green as her miraculous impregnation is announced, and again at the Birth of Mary (fig. 17).

17. Giotto, Annunciation to Anna (left), and Birth of the Virgin (right). Arena Chapel, Padua.

There is a sole strip of green faux architecture beneath Noli me tangere, perhaps underlining Christ’s triumph of life over death.(ref 18)

18. Giotto, partial interior, Arena Chapel, Padua.

In Joachim’s wilderness green shrubs are set amongst dry twigs in a brown landscape: life taking root in barren soil.(ref 19)

19. Giotto, Vision of Joachim, detail. Arena Chapel, Padua.

Fig. 20 Giotto, Last Judgment, detail of Judas. Arena Chapel, Padua.

Vivid Salvation

The culminating interplay of colour and morality can be found in the Last Judgment. The red flames of damnation spew forth from the blazing aureole of Christ – the merciful, red-robed redeemer. The azure sky of heaven drains into the black inkiness of hell.

The just are enrobed in a rainbow of colour and crowned in gold. In hell, the damned are leeched of their colour, falling naked and blue through icy torture chambers.

Even Judas’ yellow robe is now a pale grey, matching his entrails. In hell, the frozen damned may no longer seek the red warmth of Mary’s mercy – received with humility by the penitent in violet, Enrico Scrovegni.

Fig. 21 Giotto, Last Judgment, detail. Arena Chapel, Padua


  1. Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, The Usurer’s Heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), pp. 40-41.

  2. Laura Jacobus, ‘Giotto’s Annunciation in the Arena Chapel, Padua’, The Art Bulletin, 81, no. 1 (1999), 93-107 (p. 93).

  3. Marcia B. Hall, Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 38.

  4. Andrew Ladis, Giotto’s O: Narrative, Figuration and Pictorial Ingenuity in the Arena Chapel (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), p. 39.

  5. John Gage, Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995), p. 60.

  6. Hall, Colour and Meaning, p. 20.

  7. Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, ‘Reading the Arena Chapel’ in Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Giotto (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 213.

  8. Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, ‘Ave charitate plena: Variations on the Theme of Charity in the Arena Chapel’, Speculum, 76, no. 3 ( 2001), p. 605.Derbes and Sandona, The Usurer’s Heart, p. 73.

  9. Ibid, p. 76.

  10. Derbes and Sandona, Reading the Arena Chapel, p. 201.

  11. Ladis, Giotto’s O, p. 39.

  12. Derbes and Sandona, The Usurer’s Heart, p. 99.

  13. Ibid, p. 102.

  14. Ladis, Giotto’s O, p. 84.

  15. Ibid, p. 81.

  16. Derbes and Sandona, Ave charitate plena, p. 611.

  17. Ladis, Giotto’s O, p. 141.

  18. Ibid, p. 67.


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© 2020 by Glennis McGregor