Jane C. Long
Scholars have long posited a link between the naturalistically observed gestures, expressions, and actions of the figures in Giotto’s frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel and the character of liturgical dramas performed in late medieval Italy. No attempt has been made, however, to analyze how different types of sacre rappresentazione might have influenced the artist’s conception of the narratives. This essay proposes that comedic performance lies at the root of the Joachim and Anna story in the fresco cycle.
The six scenes that comprise the story of Mary’s conception are occasionally represented in Byzantine and Western European art before Giotto, but his version of the narrative clearly diverges from both traditions. His composition of the whole conspicuously “opens” and “closes” the story; he emphasizes human experience and emotion in every scene; he gives an unprecedented weight to a comical dog in a third of the frescoes; and he represents abbreviated settings that serve as a kind of synecdoche for the real world. These distinguishing characteristics of Giotto’s approach to the story of Joachim and Anna may also be found in comedic dramas of the late Middle Ages.
Literary scholars have devoted considerable attention to the humorous aspects of medieval mystery plays (e.g., the Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play), and their work offers a thought-provoking model for considering whether Giotto’s innovations bring something to the viewers’ experience beyond a mere admiration for an artist’s clever observations. Like play cycles that begin with comedy and continue through serious religious drama, the Scrovegni Chapel frescoes are designed to give viewers access to the emotional implications of sacred stories and thus a deeper understanding of and a more profound engagement with the Christian scheme of salvation.
Hunting and dogs are inextricably linked. In fact, humans have encouraged breeds of canines for the various skills of speed, smell, or strength they bring to the chase. Assorted medieval tapestries and manuscript illuminations record dogs exhibiting these traits accompanied by men who follow their lead or move in for the kill. More surprising is when the stalking hounds are assigned allegorical meanings. Yet in late medieval scenes of the mystical hunt for the unicorn, the dogs are clearly labeled as representing specific concepts, such as “charity,” “peace,” or “faith.” They rush toward the unicorn and the harried beast finds refuge in the Virgin’s lap. In such scenes, the hunting dogs have used their intrinsic properties of justice or mercy to drive this symbol of purity to its natural home, the woman chosen to receive God’s child. Thus the viewer is asked to read the dogs as both allegory and hunting tool. The dogs in the hortus conclusus Annunciation type, which incorporates the mystical hunt for the unicorn, argue the theological justification of Mary and give her role a preordained inevitability.
Two small tapestries found in the Burrell Collection of Glasgow and in a private collection include cousins of the stylized hortus conclusus Annunciations canines. Like the unicorn-chasing dogs, these hounds follow medieval hunting treatises by representing two methods used in the chase—the sharp-snouted varieties who hunt by sight, and the blunt-snouted breeds who follow their prey by scent. Their chosen quarry is a stag, a traditional symbol of faithfulness. Close behind him, riding a white horse, is a young couple with a banderole floating above them proclaiming their hunt for Treue (fidelity, loyalty, faithfulness). The young man blows a horn and drives the stag into a net strung between two trees, making the goal of the hunt seem within their grasp.
Like the dogs in the scene, many of the elements found in the Glasgow tapestry are present in other art works. They are a part of the common visual vocabulary used at the end of the fifteenth century. Yet their particular combination is almost unique and requires some explication. This scene does not explore the search for love; love has been found. Rather the tapestry expounds upon the elements necessary for love to sustain itself. By exploring the clothing, props, flora, hunting techniques, and especially the role of the dogs, this essay examines the lessons about relationships embedded in this pleasant pastoral scene.