This is the second in a three-part series on a unique Halley Pilgrimage made by Editor Joseph M. Laufer. The trip, made in September, 1984, took him to London, Greenwich and Lee, England to see first-hand the major “shrines” of Edmond Halley. From London he journeyed to Padua, Italy, to visit the famous “Adoration of the Magi” fresco painted by Giotto, commemorating the 1301 return of Halley’s Comet. The final stop on the Halley journey was the town of Bayeux, France, to view the famous tapestry which represents the 1066 return of Comet Halley on this pictorial record of the Battle of Hastings. This second installment deals with the visit to the historic locations in Padua, Italy.
The transition from the British Isles to the Continent was more than just a trip across the English Channel. While my next Halley destination was to be Padua, Italy, there was to be a 14-day interval between the viewing of Edmond Halley’s tomb in Lee, England, and the beholding of Giotto’s “Adoration of the Magi” in Padua. That interlude was replete with moments of awe and rewarding research activities not directly related to Halley’s Comet. It included visits to Brussels, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Cologne, Koblenz, Frankfurt and a delightful two days in the Black Forest village of Weilersbach, from which my Great Grandfather had emigrated in 1883. After discovering many treasures related to my family genealogy, I went on to Munich, Zurich, Milan, Florence, Assisi and Rome.
A brief stopover in Florence on September 24 was the first stage of my orientation to Giotto di Bondone. It was my interest in Halley’s Comet that re-introduced me to Giotto, the Florentine naturalistic painter whom I had first discovered while in my first year of college. A Conventual Franciscan priest, Father Hugh DeCicco, had sung the praises of Giotto upon his return from Assisi in 1953. He shared his slides and stories with his students with great enthusiasm. Thus began a fascination with Giotto that, at that time, had no connection with Halley’s Comet for me. Now, thirty-one years later, I was in the city of Florence, the place with which Giotto di Bondone is identified – where he once lived and where he left his artistic mark in the Peruzzi and Bardi Chapels. However, there was only one work which preoccupied me, and that was the “Adoration” in Padua. On the same day, on my way to Rome, I made my second “Giotto stop”: Assisi, the city of St. Francis. Here was the early Giotto: frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis; frescoes which I had seen reproduced on small laminated plaques in the Franciscan Chapel on Staten Island many years before. The visit to Assisi was very special and viewing these early works of Giotto did much to orient me to his genius. Nevertheless, the Halley quest was not to end here. After taking in the history and simple majesty of the medieval city of Assisi, I traveled to Rome to revel in its glory.
On the morning of September 26, I boarded the 6:25 A.M. train from Rome to Padua. My compartment companions were two couples from Houston, Texas who were headed for Venice. The seven-hour trip north went by swiftly. The train arrived at the Padua station at 1:30 P. M. The town was in the middle of its two-hour mid-day shutdown. This was the first time that I had experienced the inconvenience (to an American) of the long lunch period. Just about every store, bank and public building was closed from 12:30 until 2:30. The short walk from the train station to the Arena Chapel gave me my first glimpse of this lovely medieval city. Upon arriving at my destination, I was greeted by a sign indicating that the chapel-museum was closed until 2:30 P.M.
I decided to take my lunch in a nearby restaurant while waiting for the 2:30 re-opening. I used the opportunity to review a pamphlet about Padua. It is a University town, the University of Padua having been founded in 1222 by Frederick II. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was a professor of mathematics here, making it doubly important historically for a Halley’s Comet buff. I learned that the Venetian Senate made Galileo a professor for life at Padua at a high salary (in contrast to his early years when he had to sell telescopes and rent rooms in his home to students in order to survive). I noted on the town map the existence of an Astronomical Observatory at the western wall of the town. While walking through the town I took note of a plaque on a home where Dante had once resided. Perhaps on of the most imposing buildings (after the Basilica of St. Anthony) is the Palace of Justice in the center of the town.
The time had arrived for the re-opening of the doors of the Arena Chapel.
The Scrovegni Chapel at Padua is also known as the Arena Chapel on account of the adjacent Roman Amphitheatre. It is also called the Chapel of the Annunciation. It is located in an open area in a nicely landscaped park close to the center of the current town (but at the northern end of the ancient walled town). On the outside, the building is of very simple architecture. Externally, one would hardly judge that it housed some of the greatest art treasures in the world. It is no longer used as a church, but is operated as a museum by the town of Padua.
As I entered the chapel there were about a dozen or so visitors milling around. After paying an admission charge of 2000 lira ($1.00 U.S.), I was treated to a magnificent overview of the chapel. Large spotlights were situated throughout the chapel pointed towards the ceiling. Just as in the cemetery at Lee, where I did not at first discover the object of my visit, I had to orient myself to the scene in order to discover the location of the “Adoration of the Magi” fresco.
There are three tiers of frescoes that are laid out in sequence. The upper tier represents scenes in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the middle and bottom tiers depict scenes in the life of Christ. Once I recognized the layout, I followed the sequence on the second tier on the right-hand side of the chapel until I came upon “The Adoration”, situated between two windows, with the “Birth of Christ” to its left and “The Presentation in the Temple” to its right.
It was another moment of awe-inspiring discovery! The fresco was smaller than I had imagined, yet, having only seen it in photographs before, it was certainly not small. In actual dimensions it is about 200 by 185 centimeters, with figures about half life size. Because of its position on the second tier, the “Adoration” can be dated to 1303 or 1304, a year or two after the documented appearance of Halley’s Comet.
According to one commentary I read, the addition of the camel in this scene was an attractive innovation. But more innovative than the camel, and often overlooked by commentators, is the star of Bethlehem. According to Roberta Olson (Scientific American, May, 1979), “When Giotto came to paint the star of Bethlehem, he rejected the strictures of both astrological symbolism and medieval convention and rendered the comet as he had actually seen it a few years before, theatrically illuminating the Italian night sky. The large, fiery comet dominates the sky of his fresco. The coma pulses with energy; in its center is a hard-edged star shape representing the bright ‘center of condensation’ that is often seen within the more diffuse coma. The striated tail imparts a dynamic impression of the arc traced by the comet’s passage across the sky.”
It is felt that Giotto had been impressed by a comet he had seen in 1301 (indeed, Halley’s Comet) and had perhaps sketched it for later use. The star of Giotto’s “Adoration” demonstrates the use of tempera and gold pigments applied to the plastered wall in textured strokes approximating the luminescent appearance of the coma and tail of Halley’s Comet. Giotto depicted the intensely bright center of the coma, or head, with what appears to be an eight-pointed star, building up layers of pigment over the star to diffuse the image. Some pigment is lost, revealing the red adhesive by which it was applied to the plaster.
While I had come here primarily to see this one fresco, my presence in this historic museum demanded that I use the opportunity to learn all that I could about the treasures it contained. I learned that the fesco cycle in the chapel was commissioned by the Paduan businessman, Enrico Scrovegni, perhaps to expiate the sin of his father, who was identified by Dante in the “Inferno” as the arch-userer (he is depicted in Giotto’s “Last Judgment” on the entrance wall of the chapel). Scrovegni obtained permission to erect the building in 1302; the site was dedicated in 1303 and the frescoes were begun that year. This background explains why the chapel is most commonly known as the Chapel of Scrovegni.
As mentioned earlier, there are actually three tiers of frescoes and at eye level there is a tier of 14 panels depicting the virtues and vices in marble-like personification. There are 38 individual frescoes, the “Adoration” being number 17 in the sequence. In addition to these frescoes, at the entrance wall there is a giant painting of “The Last Judgment”. The influence of Dante, who resided in Padua for a time, is obvious. There are an additional 7 frescoes attributed to the School of Giotto in the tribune (sanctuary). The ceiling is painted to resemble the starry sky.
The Arena frescoes are universally regarded as marking the peak of Giotto’s maturity. The Assisi frescoes represent a less developed stage. In Padua, the three-dimensional, realistic aspect of Giotto’s art, which sets him aside from the artists of his period, achieves its most majestic expression. Incidentally, Giotto was the first painter to have his name identified with his works.
While examining all aspects of the art and architecture, I kept returning to frame 17 and Halley’s Comet. As in Lee, the magnetism of the event delayed my departing, even though I had completed my mission. It was, however, time to leave, and with one or two backward glances, I exited. There was more of Padua to see, and my time was running out.
I now proceeded a short distance on foot to the other major tourist attraction in Padua, the Basilica of St. Anthony. There were many tourists and pilgrims in and around the magnificent Basilica dedicated to the popular Franciscan preacher, Saint Anthony of Padua (a native of Portugal, by the way). It is said that Giotto had painted some frescoes in this edifice at the request of the Franciscans, but they are now lost. During my visit to the Basilica, I witnessed the extraordinary faith and devotion of scores of individual pilgrims.
The day was coming to a close and I had to return to the train station for the final leg of my Halley-quest. I was to take an overnight train from Padua to Paris. From Paris I would journey to Bayeux to relive the comet’s appearance in 1066 as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. That will be the subject of the final installment in this series
NEXT ISSUE: Bayeux, William the Conqueror and Halley’s Comet
Note: It is often asked whether the Star of Bethlehem could have been Halley’s Comet. According to the records, Halley’s Comet appeared in 11 B.C. and in A.D. 66. Neither of these dates is close enough to the actual date of Christ’s birth to designate Halley’s Comet as the Star of Bethlehem. There is no indication that Giotto intended to convey through his painting that the Star of Bethlehem was indeed a comet.
Halley’s Comet Watch Newsletter. Volume 4, Number 1 – February, 1985