An in-depth look at the Frescoes at the Arena Chapel and the Convent of San Marco
The convent of San Marco (FIG-2) and the Arena Chapel (FIG-1) are both interesting sites of discussion and have become pivotal locations for examples of early renaissance painting. Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena chapel provide a basis for a new standard for fresco painting introducing a more naturalistic tone to the imagery. Fra Angelico extends this idea in the frescoes of San Marco in Florence. These two sites make for an interesting comparison due to their respective location significance, function and purpose. Through discussing issues of setting focusing on locale, light, access, and style, this investigation will comparatively explore the debates presented and problems arisen in the creation of the two sites.
Enrico Scrovegni’s chapel was commissioned to serve as a private oratory for his family but also as a means of atonement, upon his father’s usury sins. Creating spaces of worship and decorating them with works of art was a common way of ‘doing good’ presenting a way into heaven – a means of redemption for the Scrovegni family name. The young Florentine artist Giotto was commissioned to decorate the interior worshipping space with frescoes however there is much debate on whether Giotto had any influence on the architectural design of the chapel as for the case of this site the rather unusual design lends itself to the presentation of the frescoes. The interior of the chapel is bare, flat and barren of any significant decorative architectural elements often seen in the 13-14th century creating surfaces suited for painters to work on liberally. Furthermore, the illumination of the room is dictated by the positioning of a row of 6 windows on the Southside wall that emphasises the paintings greatly ensuring a sense of visual clarity to anyone entering the room. On the contrary to this statement, it can also be argued that Giotto was brought in after the consecration of the chapel and after the rejection of a more grandiose design by the Eremitanti monks.
The convent of San Marco (15th Century) is renowned for the frescoes cycles by Fra Angelico but can also be said to be one of the most important sites for early Renaissance painting. Most works from the period today are so far removed from their historical and physical context that the understanding and appreciation of works can be difficult. This is not the case with Fra Angelico’s frescoes as they have remained in their original location in the Dominican Convent. Though modifications to the architecture in later years led to the destruction of some frescoes, most of them are still intact, unaltered in conservation and restoration. It is evident that Fra Angelico did not dwell on narrative or decorative elements which were the norm for public biblical art. This was deliberate as the Friars living there were already familiar to the narrative. Therefore, it can be said that his work in comparison to Giotto’s is directed solely to a select and learned public. An analysis of frescoes in San Marco, it is important to keep in mind the apparent user and purpose in order to understand the value contained within the visual narrative. These frescoes are not meant to broaden knowledge but are a means of meditation.
Both Giotto and Fra Angelico shared the intension to display religious narrative sequences to inform the respective viewer, however, did so in very different ways to suit not only the architecture presented but with the audience in mind. For Giotto, the principle intension was to decorate a chapel by simply telling a story, but keeping in mind the layout of the room. Therefore, it was paramount that the narrative he displayed flowed naturally around the room to maintain stylistic continuity but also present a narrative with extraordinary ease for the beholder. Regardless of whether Giotto was commissioned before or after the consecration of the chapel, his artistic intentions remain constant and created a narrative starting from the top of the south wall, reading from left to right. The top tier occupies the story of the Virgin’s parents and the early life of the Virgin. The middle and lower tiers represent the life and passion of Christ. (FIG-1)
In contrast to Giotto’s artistic freedom with the chapel, Fra Angelico was both an artist and a member of the religious order, therefore he was constrained by the visual traditions of the Dominican order unlike secular artists. The artist’s team understood the discrimination, the divisions of society and the contrasts of the private and public spaces in and around the convent. They also understood the need for highly conscious decoration of San Marco. The public spaces, the church and the chapter room received grand, and magnificent decoration whilst the private parts and the Friar’s cells received modest decoration. Public paintings were supported with messages to appeal to practically everyone, not just the informed viewer, however, paintings in the cells spoke intimately and directly to the Dominican friars. Though too, they are not difficult to understand as they can be obscure enough so that they can also be articulated by the adequately informed.
As previously mentioned, there is still an inconclusive debate as to whether or not Giotto was heavily involved in the design of the architecture of the Arena Chapel. A similar debate appears in the creation of the Convent of San Marco. Before Cosimo de Medici funded the renovation, the building was in a state of ruin. The architectural commission was given to a favoured architect, Michelozzo and the decorative commission to Fra Angelico. Construction work began in 1437 even though the Dominican monks took residence a year earlier. The most accredited hypothesis today dates the frescoes between 1438 and 1445 and makes an interesting statement on the relationship between the architecture and the artwork. Observation begs the question of whether the artist waited until the complex was completely constructed or whether the architect Michelozzo and Fra Angelico worked in consultation. William Hood believes that there was a close relationship between them as construction and painting were being completed in parallel. This supports the argument proposed by Hood and Bellosi that cycles completed at later dates display certain stylistic changes as more of the building became available to work in.
Stylistic inconsistencies could also be explained by the presence of collaborators. A major problem for Fra Angelico was the sheer size of the convent. Though Fra Angelico is credited with the frescoes, there is much debate as to how much input he had to the completion of many of them. According to Giorgio Vasari, Benozzo Gozzoli was a pupil and assistant of Fra Angelico and some of the works in the convent of San Marco of Florence were executed by Gozzoli from Angelico’s design. The first ten cells are identifiably Fra Angelico’s, however, the attempt to isolate other Angelico’s work from his collaborators is still a running historical debate. On the one hand, authorities such as Pope-Hennesy and William Hood argue that his collaborators did much of the work whilst Historians like Miklos Boskovits believe in the exclusivity of Fra Angelico. A more intermediate argument suggests that Fra Angelico definitely conceived the ideas for the frescoes and drew them out onto the plaster. Most of the works were started by him, finished by pupils, others painted by his collaborators, keeping Angelico’s principle and concepts at mind without resulting in works mutually exclusive.
One of the major points of Giotto’s style is his definition of the human figure in detail and painterly weight in relation to its position in the space. At first glance figures can come across bulky but this is a result of the artists attempt of three-dimensionality. Furthermore, the drapery reminds the viewer of the detail seen in 13th century gothic sculptures.
It can also be said that Giotto pays attention to the context of his time by looking at classical antiquity. John Ruskin compared his depiction of ‘The Virgin’s Return Home’ (FIG-3) to the Parthenon Frieze (FIG-4) which certainly shows his knowledge of the classical past. In Giotto’s paintings, the settings are actually an extension of the narrative to enhance the actions in the scenes. For example, in the Resurrection scene (FIG-5) focuses on Jesus and Mary but the scenery and the supporting figures are there as a narrative aid. In comparison to Fra Angelico, due to his presented audience, he has eliminated the supporting setting to solely focus on the message and the two characters. It is evident that Giotto’s version laid the basis for Fra Angelico, but he has adapted it to suit the requirements of the convent.
The interesting aspect about the style of the works in discussion is that there are elements of Giotto seen in Fra Angelico’s work. The images come across clear, simple emotional and rationally laid out. It can be argued that a more direct comparison would be from Macciatto when he painted the Brancacci chapel ten years prior. Even though Angelico was inspired through his works, the apparent style is clearly reminiscent of Giotto. A Giottoesque naturalistic tradition which lives in Macciatto’s works has been translated in Angelico’s frescoes resulting in a deeper expressive force creating a greater rational analysis of reality, and man’s relation to his surroundings. (FIG-6)
Light is an important factor in discussion with location and it plays an important role in the artists’ decision making. In the case of the convent of San Marco most of the interior is not well lit will natural light and candlelight was probably mostly used to illuminate the space. Most of the natural light came from small windows inside the cells looking into the cloister. Upon visitation of the site, it became apparent that strategic cut-outs were made high up in the ceiling to allow light to pass into the outer cells to illuminate them for the works to be appreciated. Contrastingly in the Arena Chapel, the only source of light is on one side of the chapel. Though this is the case, the high positioning of the windows allows for light to come in and bounce around the room illuminating it in a consistent fashion. (FIG-7)
Narrative curation is also an important aspect of the artists’ decision making. In the Arena Chapel, the narrative commences in the top left-hand corner with respect to the main entrance. This allows the viewer to see every narrative sequence from one spot to give the space a sense of continuity. The last thing they would see in the last judgement located on the back wall above the entrance. The deliberate placement of the narrative with respect to the illumination of the room begs the question again, how involved was Giotto in the architectural aspects of the chapel?
A comparison between these two religious sites is not the most apparent one but does show how the different functions of the spaces result in architectural and artistic decisions suited for the specific audiences. In conclusion, it can be said that there is a relationship between the two artists in that Giotto’s influence is more than apparent in Fra Angelico’s frescoes. This investigation has shown how art and the setting are linked and how they need to work in unison in order to have an effective response with the viewer. Both artists have succeeded in creating some of the most pivotal sites with examples of early renaissance painting and have shown historians how the display of them can change due to the setting and audience.
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