The Scrovegni Chapel, located in Padua, Italy, built by Enrico Scrovegni in 1303-05, contains masterpieces of fresco painting and serves as but one link between the ancient world and the art of the Renaissance.
The chapel's name, Scrovegni, is taken from the moneylending Scrovegni family and their reputation as usurers - the charging of interest on money lent. The name serves as a reminder of the role that money, commerce, and redemption would play in the creation of art during the Renaissance. The chapel served as a way for Scrovegni to gain redemption for usury, a practice that was a sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church.
The entirety of the walls and ceiling inside the chapel is covered in artworks depicting Christian religious icons painted by Giotto and his assistants. These icons are painted directly onto the surface of the walls. The paintings are created by applying pigmented water-based paint to wet plaster. As the wet plaster dries, it absorbs the pigment into the plaster instead of sitting on its surface, thus preserving the pigments for centuries. This technique creates artworks called frescos.
The Scrovegni Chapel served as a model for future Renaissance artists and architects. The frescoes in the chapel were highly regarded for their realism. Serving as inspiration for future generations who would adopt Giotto's techniques to add realism to their artworks. Most famously, fresco techniques like these would later be used by Michelangelo two centuries later in the Sistine Chapel.
Each panel utilizes numerous compositional techniques to visually add three-dimensional depth to the surface of the flat walls. We see unique individuals expressing a wide range of emotions as the story unfolds in front of us. The characters depicted on each figure's face individually humanize the subjects within each picture plane. We so too see shapes begin to take on rounded three-dimensional mass through the use of shading and a repetition of curving lines.
The frescoes in the Scrovegni chapel depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and the life of Christ. The frescoes are arranged so that each scene builds upon the previous panel's scene. This develops a visual narrative that guides the viewer through the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The sum of the frescoes functions as a cycle of individual paintings intended to be read as if it were an image-based novel, a particularly important concept as most people were illiterate.
The frescoes begin with the Annunciation and end with the Final Judgment, located on the back wall. This fresco depicts the final judgment of humanity, with Christ presiding over the judgment of the souls who are being led to their eternal fate.
These artworks are primarily backdropped by expensive azurite blue pigment. The ceiling of the Chapel displays the greatest use of this color as it is covered almost entirely in azurite blue. The ceiling also displays gold stars. While the numerous panels are unified with the aforementioned azurite blue, the panels on the walls are additionally pulled together through hand-painted Trompe l'oeil, or a fooling of the eye, creating the appearance of inlaid stone. In totality, the painted interior covers just over 3500 square feet of the chapels' interior walls.
The frescoes inside the Scrovegni Chapel envelop the viewer with a floor-to-ceiling 360-degree visual narration of the life of Christ. Upon entering the viewer is engaged through a stylistic display of techniques individualizing each figure offering the viewer a visually sequential didactic story, willing the viewer to physically move throughout the chapel.
The influence of antiquity is evident in the architectural design of the chapel. The pointed arches and vaults of the chapel are characteristic of Gothic architecture, which was heavily influenced by the architecture of ancient Rome. The use of arches and vaults allowed for the creation of taller more ornate buildings, and it was a way for the chapel builders to demonstrate their knowledge of the architectural techniques of classical Greek and Roman architecture. Beyond this the chapel is constructed atop the foundational ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheater lending its common name, the Arena Chapel. Roman amphitheaters served as the basic design of modern arenas. Rome's Flavian amphitheater is the most famous of these ancient structures; today, it is commonly called the Colosseum.
In conclusion, the Scrovegni Chapel is a masterpiece of proto-Renaissance art and architecture that demonstrates the influence of an ancient past on the Renaissance. The frescoes in the chapel are some of the finest examples of figurative painting that would influence artists for centuries. The Chapel and its frescoes act as a window into the culture and society of the time. Scrovegni's motivations of redemption fueling the Chapel's creation demonstrate the role that religion and finance played in the creation of European art in the 14th century and beyond.