Sitting at a clergy conference a decade ago, I became lost when conversation turned to the arts. Concepts and artists of whom I had never heard were discussed intensely and there was a growing sense of disconnection from the proceedings. At one point, an Italian called Giotto was discussed – I was almost tempted to ask if he played for Juventus, but suspected the attempt at a joke would fall flat; the retort would probably have been, “what’s Juventus?”.
The conversation in which Giotto had appeared had been about painting. A Google search later on the day of the conference revealed that Giotto was from the late-Thirteenth and early-Fourteenth Centuries. The name came up in discussion that evening and I admitted having checked him out on the Net. “He’s the guy who did the nice Christmas cards”, I smiled. The comment was thought very funny, there seemed no sense that I was being plainly earnest.
Giotto is a better communicator than the church that tells the story he depicts in his paintings. Pictures tell stories without need for a vocabulary, particularly one used by strangely-attired people with odd titles. Giotto’s art speaks the language of ordinary people, a skill the church has lost, if it ever possessed it. Faith in times past owed far more to fear than to acceptance of the words of the church. Understanding came in the imaginings evoked by pictures rather than in the doctrines enunciated by the bishops.
Soon after the conference at which Giotto was not a Juventus footballer, I attended the funeral of a working-class young man who had died by suicide. I had known him in his primary school days and had enjoyed the laughter he would bring to a classroom. I had no place there, other than to support his family members whom I had come to know well. I sat at the back of the vast Dublin church and watched his many friends. They took no part whatsoever in the service, they stood and looked impassive, no words and no expressions; what was happening simply did not engage with them. It might just as well have been a lecture on art for all the meaning it had. The only time they looked interested was when members of the young man’s family spoke, here was something they could understand. The contrast between the words of the church and the words of the family was as marked as the difference between discussion of a painting and the painting itself.
Perhaps, this year, Giotto is still inspiring some nice Christmas cards. He would probably have had more credibility among some people if he had been a Juventus player, but at least he can be understood.