5th Sunday Easter (C) John 13:31-35

Giotto, The Washing of the Feet, 1304-6, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

The Gospel reading for the 5th Sunday is taken from the account of the Last Supper in John, which extends over 5 chapters, but in which most of the action occurs in chapter 13- the supper itself briefly mentioned, the washing of the feet, the announcement of betrayal and the departure of Judas, as well as the beginning of the extended discourse to his closest disciples which extends through the next 4 chapters. Two themes, the glory of the Lord and the commandment to love in imitation of Jesus open the discourse in the passage selected for the 5th Sunday. They follow on from the washing of the feet, which first shows in concrete action how that glory and love are expressed. God comes down to love us, and to save us, not at a distance, but personally: ‘ (knowing) he had come from God and was returning to God, he got up from table, removed his outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet…’

There are some earlier representations of the Washing of the Feet such as the illumination in the Gospel book of Otto III probably produced in Trier, from 1000, and  a frieze sculpted on the West facade of the Abbey church of St Gilles in St Gilles du Gard from c 1125, but the subject begins to be more commonly represented in the 1300s with the growth in narrative cycles of the Passion, on walls and in altarpieces such as on the rear of the Maesta in Siena from 1308 and Pietro Lorenzetti’s fresco from the south transept vault Lower church of San Francesco, Assisi from c.1320.

Giotto’s version from 1304 in the Scrovegni chapel is a masterpiece of formal design and human drama, which draws from the context of the scenes nearby on the south wall. The mood follows on from the contemplative Last Supper scene before, and in the quiet communication between Peter and Jesus there is a contrast with the intensity of the next scene in the sequence where Jesus faces Judas at his arrest.  However, Michel Alpatoff, in his essay ‘The parallelism of Giotto’s Paduan frescoes’ (Art Bulletin XXIX 1947 ppp149-154) singles out the juxtaposition of the Washing of the Feet and the Adoration of the Magi above it in the series of the cycle on the south wall and how Giotto developed new juxtapositions to intensify the Gospel message beyond accepted parallel scenes in the Old Testament and New, found in manuscript illuminations. The settings of these two scenes, the stable and the upper room are arranged in the same way in the compositions. Where Mary sits holding the Christ child to be adored, Peter sits in the painting below. These are two paintings of unique passages from two different gospels, (John and Matthew) which express their writers’ different theological themes, but here they are juxtaposed to emphasise more fully the glory of the Lord in his incarnation and in the gesture of humble service and the Passion. Kings kneel before him and yet he kneels before us.

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