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Giotto, The Entombment of Mary

Giotto, The Entombment of Mary, 1310, tempera on poplar, 75 x 179 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Kaiser Friedrich-Museums-Verein, Berlin). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin looking at a really spectacular panel painting by Giotto. This is "The Entombment of Mary." And it shows the Virgin Mary tenderly being lowered into her tomb, but it also, simultaneously, shows her spirit rendered as an infant being cradled by Christ in Heaven. DR. BETH HARRIS: It was made for the church of the Ognissanti or All-Saints Church in Florence. And it's certainly one of the jewels of their collection. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's a wonderful representation of the qualities that made Giotto such an important artist in the early 14th century. DR. BETH HARRIS: In the late 1200s, the tradition that Giotto was coming out of is a Byzantine tradition where the figures are elongated, where there's an emphasis on gold and patterning, where the figures seem really distant from us. And there's no real interest in their bodies as existing three-dimensionally in space. But that's exactly what Giotto gives us. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Figures that have a sense a volume, of mass, of solidity, of gravity. But more than that, you've got a kind of psychological intensity and interaction that makes these figures seem as if they are autonomous in the world. DR. BETH HARRIS: So let's take, for example, Saint Peter, who's engrossed in reading. And if we look at the robe that he wears, we can see that Giotto has moved from light to dark to indicate the folds of the drapery and a sense of the figure being round and three-dimensional. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: You can see the way in which the figure's elbow is pressing into his waist, gathering that cloth, creating those folds. And there is really a sense, then, of the reality of that moment, something that we recognize as our own elbows have pressed into our sides. DR. BETH HARRIS: Look at how gently she's being lowered into the tomb. And the look on the face of the apostle who lowers her body, looking into her eyes so lovingly. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: The intimacy between them can be seen again between the spirit of Mary in the body of the child and Christ. Their faces are close. They look at each other. DR. BETH HARRIS: And it's also a kind of inversion of the image of Mary and Christ that we usually see where Mary is shown holding Christ as a child. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And look at the way that the representation of Mary's soul, the infant, has its light drapery swirl around it. It's just a beautiful kind of tender rendering by the artist. Just to the right of Christ, you see a figure bending over slightly. That's Saint Andrew, who is sprinkling holy water on the dead body of Christ's mother. But perhaps my favorite figure is just to the right of that. You can see in back of the angels who are holding tall candles, there's a figure in a kind of yellow white gold. His cheeks are puffed out. And if you look closely, in his right hand, he's holding high a censer. That is he's distributing incense, and it seems as if he's trying to blow it towards Mary. DR. BETH HARRIS: Just to the right, another angel has its mouth open, as though she's speaking. And two angels just to the right of that seem to be engaged in conversation. So while this image is very formal and hierarchical, with Christ in the center larger than all the figures, it's at the same time informal and natural. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That sense of the natural comes across so well in the conversation between those angels. The angel who stands in front, look at the way in which the thumbs of that angel are hooked into its belt, into its pockets. There is this sort of wonderful sense of total informality there. DR. BETH HARRIS: In fact, that angel also looks like she's about to speak. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This is a painting about Mary leaving the physical realm and becoming spiritual. But it's this kind of intimacy, this kind of detail of individual actions through which Giotto creates this fabulous sense of reality.