Advent through Art

Jason Micheli —  December 4, 2013 — 5 Comments
In many ways, the mystery of the incarnation- God taking flesh in Jesus Christ- is best conveyed not through language but through the medium of oils and brushes. 
A good deal of the world’s most significant art is Christian in theme and a sizable chunk therein depicts the scenes of the Nativity stories. 
For this reason, I asked a good friend of mine, Janet Laisch (church member/confirmation teacher by hobby, art historian by training), to reflect on Advent through an art lens. 
Despite her irrational love of the National Cathedral over the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, she knows her stuff: 
One winter, I spent Advent in Rome researching at the American Academy.

Advent from the Latin word adventus, means “coming” and Christians anticipate Christ’s Second Coming starting the fourth Sunday before Christmas.

The first weekend of Advent, instead of hanging out at my favorite café, where locals were always ready to chat, I boarded a train to Padua to visit Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel. It was the last tour of the day and lucky for me, I was Giotto’s only audience.
Unlike at a museum, these scenes comprise a cycle in the very chapel Giotto painted the art to be enjoyed, seven hundred years ago.

Camouflaged as a plain red brick building of unimposing size and structure, the interior is drenched in color. Pure color from nature: blue lapis lazuli, red, orange and brown ochre, purple snail dye. Too, the gold leaf is beautiful; light bounces between gold leaf stars on the ceiling and gold leaf halos surrounding each holy figure on the walls.

Nearby Venice long considered a trade crossroads between east and west, meant Giotto had access to materials from Jerusalem and beyond to make his paints. It took nearly five years to fresco the chapel walls and ceiling. Giotto laid wet paints on wet plaster surfaces, and as plaster and paint dried, the two bound together.

A lasting technique from ancient cultures produces enduring art.


The chapel reminded me of a life size Advent calendar–the thick card stock paper with tiny doors, one to
open each day of Advent.

My godparents had given me one as a preschooler and out of sentimentality or habit; I reused it every year, even in Rome.

In this chapel, each door had already been carefully peeled back to reveal a Biblical drama.

I stopped at the threshold and looked up.

Like a voyeur, I peered into the past to experience firsthand:



the Expulsion of Joachim, the Annunciation of Anna.


And the Meeting at the Golden Gate, stories as described in the apocryphal St. James. In the foreground, the Virgin’s parents, Joachim and Anna, embrace each other most intensely with their eyes. Eyes wide open communicate shared anticipation for their role in the birth of Jesus.

They share identical news delivered in separate visions:

God’s promise that they would have a daughter–the Virgin Mary– who would one day deliver Christ to save us.

Giotto stages the figures and background to heighten the drama. Brick imitates brick. Deliberate details identify the background as The Golden Gate of Jerusalem still standing today– the very gate Christ the King rode through triumphantly on Palm Sunday.

Joachim and Anna are painted convincingly 3-D. Their figures curve inward and mirror the arch behind them.

The arch, since ancient times, is a stable building element. They are the stable foundation of Christ’s lineage.

The women in the background, with happy expressions, stand in as us, the observers, who celebrate with Joachim and Anna.


Walking to the east end of the chapel, I admire three rows of art from ceiling to floor. Each row represented a story within the larger narrative of Christ’s life.

The story begins on the upper level to the right of the chancel arch, with events of the lives of the Virgin’s parents on the right hand wall and the Life of the Virgin on the left. The middle level portrays Christ’s infancy on the right and his adult mission on the left.

The lowest row depicts the Passion of Christ on the right followed by the Crucifixion and Resurrection on left, ending with God the Father enthroned on the back wall, above the arch. I find Advent stories: the Annunciation of the Virgin, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, and Flight into Egypt.

Coincidentally, the 40 scenes numbers the same as the 40 days of fasting the Eastern Church practiced during Advent.

Then a guard who lost track of the time as badly as I had informed me the chapel had been closed.

Using a familiar Italian expression, he reminded me to return, “Domani. Non ti preoccupare.”

I replied, “Si. Domani. I am not worried.”

Quite certain that we were not both talking about the same thing.

Jason Micheli


5 responses to Advent through Art

  1. I don’t know how you do it.. Surely you must sleep sometime. I appreciate you thinking.

  2. Reading about Giotto’s Chapel in Padua with such vivid descriptions from the scenes on its walls brought stories of Advent to life in a new way for me. The chapel does present a definite similarity to an Advent Calendar. This year when I bring out my own calendars to display, I will experience new significance when opening their numbered windows! This was a most interesting and meaningful post!

  3. I love the contrast between the outside of the chapel and the inside. Thank you for sharing these gorgeous pictures and insightful commentary.

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