Masaccio, Holy Trinity, 1424, fresco
In the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is one of the best examples of the early Renaissance scientific approach to creating the convincing illusion of space within a painting. It is here, on one of the walls inside the church, that Masaccio painted his fresco of the Holy Trinity in 1424. The title of the painting comes from the three key figures: Christ on the cross, God the Father standing on a ledge behind Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, God the Father is shown standing on a platform in the back, which is not an “otherworldly” place (where he would be traditionally depicted), but instead a realistic space which follows the laws of physics. Mary and St. John are also present at the Crucifixion at the foot of the cross, and one step down from them are Masaccio’s donors to either side. Unlike the biblical and divine figures, the donors are meant to appear to be in our space (the space of the viewer), and not in the recessed space in which the cross is located.
If we look at the composition of the figures, we see that they are in a kind of pyramidal shape. This is similar to composition of many other Renaissance works, such as Brunelleschi’s competition panel for the bronze doors of the Florence baptistery.
The architecture in which the Crucifixion takes place is also significant. We see what looks like a Roman triumphal arch, with a coffered ceiling, barrel vault, pilasters, and columns. This type of structure hearkens back to Roman architecture, and indicates the type of interest that Masaccio (and others at this time) had in antique buildings.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this fresco is the way Masaccio makes use of one-point linear perspective to convey the sense that the images recedes back in space. The coffers on the ceiling create the orthogonal lines, and the vanishing point is at base of cross, which happens to be at the eye level of the viewer. This creates the sense that the space we are looking at in the fresco is actually a continuation of the chapel space in which the fresco is painted. Masaccio paid extremely close attention to the dimensions of the objects and spaces that he painted, so much so that you can actually determine the dimensions of the room we are looking at in the fresco.
Moving our eyes down the fresco, we see a skeleton in a tomb at the bottom. This part of the fresco had been covered over for many years, and it was not until recently that it was uncovered. The tomb is meant to appear as an outward projection, but it also has its own recess near the area where the skeleton lay. Above the skeleton is an inscription, which states (translated), “What you are I once was; what I am, you will be”. This message tells us of our own (the viewer’s) mortality and future death. In the end, we will end up like the skeleton as well. This morbid message projects out into the viewer’s space, but when we look above we see a message of hope in the Crucifixion, which means freedom from death for believers. Note how the vanishing point, at a level between the tomb below and the cross above, unites the two different spaces. Masaccio approached this fresco in a very rational way to masterfully create a convincing illusion of space, and he has done so in a way which elevates the important Christian meaning at the core of the scene.
In the changing political climate of the early 1430s, Felice Brancacci fell from grace and in 1435 was exiled from Florence. As a further penalty, at least one of the Brancacci frescoes (The Crucifixion of St Peter) was destroyed, while another (The Raising of the Son of Theophilus) had all pictorial references to the Brancacci family removed. (These were reinstated during the completion of the decorations in 1485.) The chapel was then reconsecrated to the Madonna del Popolo. Following the reconsecration, a set of commemorative lamps were installed. Unfortunately, residue from the lampblack they emitted found its way onto the surface of the frescoes, causing such deterioration that by 1560 they required extensive cleaning. Around 1670 Cosimo III de' Medici (1642-1723) responded to changing public taste by adding fig leaves to conceal the nudity of the male nudes like Adam and female nudes like Eve, that were portrayed in the paintings. In 1771, the church and its mural painting were damaged by fire. Fortunately, during the period 1981-1990, a detailed program of scientific analysis coupled with a full-scale restoration has restored the frescoes to something approaching their original state.
The Brancacci Frescoes
Most of the surviving paintings (6) in the chapel were painted by Masaccio. They include:
- The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
- The Tribute Money
- The Baptism of the Neophytes
- St Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow
- The Distribution of Alms and Death of Ananias
- The Raising of the Son of Theophilus and St Peter Enthroned
Three have been attributed to Masolino:
- The Temptation of Adam and Eve
- The Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha
- St Peter Preaching
Three were painted or wholly restored by Filippino Lippi.
- St Paul Visiting St Peter in Prison
- Peter Being Freed from Prison
- The Disputation with Simon Magus and Crucifixion of St Peter
Analysis of Iconography
The theme of all but two of the Brancacci frescoes is the Life of St. Peter. The other two depict scenes from Genesis, The Temptation and The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Even so, the unifying narrative is human sin, and its ensuing redemption through the intercession and actions of Saint Peter, the first Bishop of Rome. For details of Masaccio's two acknowledged masterpieces from the fresco cycle, see: The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1424-6) and The Tribute Money (1425-7).
Like most of his Florentine contemporaries, Masaccio was strongly influenced by the humanism and three-dimensionality of the great 14th century Florentine painter Giotto. Thus his figures are imbued by a strong sense of naturalism and solidity (see The Expulsion). However, Masaccio went considerably further than his 14th century predecessor. First, under the influence of Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), he demonstrated a complete mastery of single-point linear perspective, augmented by a deep understanding of atmospheric perspective (see The Tribute Money). Second, he was the first of the early Renaissance artists to employ a single light source, whose chiaroscuro effects gave his figures far greater three-dimensionality. Third, instead of outlines he used light to define his bodies and draperies. It was this combination of individual characters, mathematical perspective, single-source lighting, chiaroscuro and three-dimensionality in his paintings that led Masaccio to forge a new style of painting during the early Renaissance in Florence.
Regarded - despite his incredibly young age of 27 - as the foremost figure in Early Renaissance painting, Masaccio is ranked alongside the architect Brunelleschi, and the sculptors Donatello (1386-1466) and Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), in his contribution to the flowering of the Florentine Renaissance during the 1420s. Most Florentine painters came to study and copy his paintings in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, including the young Michelangelo who would produce two immortal fresco cycles of his own: the Genesis Fresco on the ceiling and the Last Judgment Fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
Other Works By Masaccio
In addition to the Brancacci frescoes, only three paintings - all religious art - have been attributed to Masaccio. The Madonna with St. Anne (c.1423, Uffizi, Florence), in which the influence of the sculptor Donatello is clearly visible; The Holy Trinity (c.1425, Santa Maria Novella, Florence) noted for its complete perspective; and the Pisa Altarpiece Polyptych (c.1426) for Santa Maria del Carmine, Pisa - now in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, and the National Gallery, London.