Getting to Padua
Padua is about 45km west of Venice, so it took us around 1-1.5 hours to get there by bus. The view from the bus window was probably lovely but I wouldn’t know because I fell asleep. Probably due to the previous day’s early wake up call.
Piazza del Signori (Signori Square)
After arriving in Padua, our class had a little time to kill before our appointment at the Arena chapel, so we hit up the main square, Piazza del Signori.
We only intended to have a look around and maybe grab a standing cappuccino, but luckily for us, there was a small craft fair going on in the square. We spent half an hour at this little market walking around the different booths, admiring the art pieces, and observing the craftsmen at work.
Although it was nearly raining, the square itself was warm-looking and lively with a few cafes, some monuments, and in the distance, you can see Padua’s famed astrian clock in the Torre dell’Orologio (clocktower).
Like the rest of Padua, I would have loved a little more time in this area to go exploring.
Touring the Arena Chapel
After leaving Signori Square, we patiently waited with the crowds outside the Arena Chapel to go on our brief tour.
So what makes the Arena Chapel so special? Well I’ll tell you! The painting of the Arena, or Scrovegni Chapel was commissioned to the Florentine painter Giotto in 1305. Giotto and his team painted the entirety of the Arena Chapel walls and ceiling with frescoes that show the sacred stories of biblical protagonists. The bright colors and dramatic facial expressions that Giotto chose to give his frescoes immerses visitors into these biblical tales. The effort put into preserving the frescoes’ color and quality has left the frescoes similar to the way they’ve always been.
When it was finally our turn to go inside, we made our way into a climate-controlled room, where they played a short video about the content and preservation of the frescoes while some very dramatic music played behind the footage. This is actually very clever, as the video provides time for the pressure and humidity controlled room to adjust so that the frescoes aren’t damaged once you are allowed inside. I also liked the video because it told us about the stories that the frescoes portray, so that I could actually tell what was going on instead of wondering, “Why are they killing that guy?”, or “Why is that lady crying so much?” This is especially helpful as you are only allowed a few minutes in the chapel itself.
Once inside, I was immediately transfixed. The chapel is shaped like a jewelry box, with a square base and a rounded top, and this makes the frescoes inside appear all the more precious. On the long walls, biblical stories and allegories are portrayed in layers. The far wall contains the most iconic fresco- Giotto’s Last Judgement.
If you don’t know what the Last Judgement is, it’s the Bible’s version of the apocalypse, where Jesus comes down and brings the good people to Heaven, and a bunch of gruesome demons drag the bad people to hell.
Throughout Europe, I have seen lots of Last Judgements, but this is something special. I would hesitate to bring your kid’s here if they’re easily traumatized, because it is simply crazy.
Artistic Analysis of the Arena Chapel Frescoes
This is something new I’ve been wanting to try on my study abroad posts: I’m going to include the artistic analysis that we are required to write for class. It gives extra historical and religious background, but it’s also a little dry, so if you don’t want to read it, you can skip to the next subheading 🙂
The jewelry box shape of the Arena chapel, called a barrel vault in technical terms, reminds me of the Maria Miracoli chapel we visited in Venice. The shape was most likely intentional, as a symbolic representation of the chapel’s function as a treasure chest containing beautiful works in the name of faith.
The background of Giotto’s frescoes are a deep blue with gold stars. Symbolic of the heavens, such a background is typical of both Giotto’s work as a whole, and of frescoes in the Venetian region of Italy.
The key component of the frescoes, however, are the emotional characters featured within them. While biblical figures are usually portrayed as cool and collected, Giotto’s characters are full of raw emotion, and have captured visitors with their intensity. For example, Mary crying over Jesus’s dead body in pure anguish makes it difficult to look away, while Judas’s scheming face gives you chills once you realize what he is about to do.
Speaking of Judas, his bright yellow cloak may seem a bit out of place in the ‘Betrayal in the Garden’ fresco, but it is completely intentional, as Giotto loved to use color symbolism in the Arena chapel. Yellow is often symbolic of evil in the Bible, while by contrast, Jesus’s red and pink robes throughout the frescoes symbolize power and love, respectively. One final example of this lies in the ‘Three Mary’s’ fresco, where Giotto has painted himself and the patron gifting three Marys with a miniature version of the Arena chapel. The Mary’s dresses are green, white, and pink, which denote them as faith, hope, and love.
Perhaps my favorite symbolic feature of the Arena chapel, though, are the allegorical figures representing the 7 virtues and vices. Located below the rest of the frescoes on either side of the chapel, you can tell which traits Giotto wanted us to emulate, and which ones he didn’t. Take ‘Envy’, for example:
Scrovegni Chapel is quite small, so you are required to book your visit ahead of time- at least 1 day in advance according to their website.
Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua
If you happen to be Catholic, you may have heard this childhood rhyme:
“Dear Saint Anthony, come around. Something’s lost that can’t be found.”
Saint Anthony kind of sounds like a ghost or spirit when you put it that way, but to Catholics, he’s the patron saint of lost things. Oftentimes, Catholics (and sometimes other christian denominations) will dedicate a church to a patron saint. In Padua’s case, their major basilica’s patron saint is Saint Anthony, and as a result, Padua’s Basilica attracts many pilgrims who visit hoping that Saint Anthony will help them find something that’s gone missing.
All things considered, I should have been prepared for what was inside. Like all of the other Italian basilicas I’ve visited, Padua’s was huge and full of centuries old art and hundreds of years’ worth of offerings. As I usually do, I explored the basilica slowly by following the wall, ducking into side-chapels, marveling at frescoes, and reading around tombs as I passed them by. Eventually, I got to a line that wound around a large tomb off the side of the apse. Figuring that Saint Anthony was probably buried there, I stood in line waiting to see the tomb.
What I wasn’t prepared for though, were the hundreds of children’s photos resting on the tomb. I was confused for a minute, and then my stomach turned cold when I realized that these were photos of children who had gone missing. Many of the people in the line were waiting their turn to pray above Saint Anthony’s tomb, in hopes that he may guide their children home. Some people wept silently and many kissed the tomb in worship. I wish I had realized what was going on before so that I could have stepped out of line to give the pilgrims more space.
There’s no other way to describe it: Saint Anthony’s basilica was heartbreaking. And yet it was so full of hope.
Padua was a wonderful place. I may not have stopped here if it hadn’t been for my school group, but I feel so lucky to have visited a city with so much spiritual importance. I would recommenced a stop at all 3 places we visited plus some. There was a park we passed on our way to the bus that was full of people and looked like a wonderful place to sit and enjoy the day.
Between the Arena/Scrovegni chapel and Saint Anthony’s basilica, I was emotionally exhausted by the end of our visit. I fell asleep on the bus again, which is rare for me, but that was fine because we had a long way to go from Padua to reach our next destination- the Dolomite Mountains!
Where did she come from?: Venice, Italy
Where is she going?: The Dolomite Mountains, Italy