Obeying God rather than Men*: The Development of St. Peter in the Brancacci Chapel Frescoes of Masaccio [Ankit Prasad, UG-III, 43]

The paper seeks to look at three frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. The frescoes are attributed to Masaccio. Each fresco deals with an episode from the life of St. Peter. My analysis follows directly from and is indebted to Charles Carman’s 1988 essay, “Masaccio’s ‘Tribute Money’: An Early Reflection of the Dignity of Man”, where he suggests that in the fresco cycle, we see a definite development in St. Peter, and that the arrangement of the frescoes serves to highlight this development. He sees Peter as representing the “Augustinian/Renaissance theme of dignity”, which he defines thus:

“For Augustine, to acquire dignity, or one’s Godlike perfection, it was essential to restore man’s original image likeness to God, which had been disfigured by the Fall. To become like God again, man had to act like God, improving secular and religious existence.”

Carman focuses primarily on the Tribute Money, as the title of his essay suggests. He says of Expulsion of Adam and Eve, the fresco immediately preceding Tribute Money, that “[b]ereft of dignity, Adam and Eve stumble forward into a space that is as compressed and finite as their pain and guilt is infinite. The Tribute Money, in contrast, reveals a new and spacious world.” In effect, “[f]rom the Old Testament domain of anxiety and guilt, the viewer steps into the New Testament world of hope and atonement”. He links Peter to Adam: “His fragile physical appearance suggests the weight of their original sin upon him”. However, since in “[m]oving directly from Adam and Eve, Peter […] introduces the era of grace”, Peter’s “humility in obedience to Christ carries with it the seeds of his redemption”. He further talks of the frescoes by Masaccio that follow in the cycle as showing Peter’s development into a more dignified and deified person. Peter is shown to be performing miracles, like Christ does in Tribute Money. Thus, “[a]fter the successive stages of commitment to follow Christ, Peter has finally achieved the quiet, miraculous dignity of his master, which Christ had promised”. He goes on to quote Matthew 17:20, where Christ, after himself having performed a miracle, says to his disciples that they too could perform these miracles, if they had faith. Carman, thus, suggests that Peter, by overcoming his doubt and having faith in Christ, is shown to be developing from a descendant of Adam to a saint, from a fallen man to a Christ-figure.

Carman uses the word “dignity” in relation to Peter. The word derives from the Latin word dignus, which means the characteristic of being worthy. In Peter’s case, dignity works on two levels: firstly, in Tribute Money, Christ deems Peter worthy to carry out his command; secondly, Peter’s faith in Christ and his decision to follow not only Christ’s command but also his life’s example increases his worth enough to enable him to overcome the burden of his original sin.

Carman goes for analysis on a general level to establish his argument. Even though his thesis is validated by his analysis, it seems to me that there is much in the paintings that would, on closer introspection, further substantiate his point. My aim in the course of this paper is to point these out. Since my aim is to chart Peter’s development, I have had to focus attention primarily on Peter, due to which I have had to leave out valuable interpretations of the paintings that do not focus on Peter. The basis for my choice of the particular paintings is the fact that they seem to speak to and reference one another, thus facilitating one to note the development of Peter. I start with an extended analysis of Tribute Money, and move on to Raising of the Son of Theophilus and St. Peter Enthroned, concluding with St. Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow.

The Tribute Money
Tribute Money (1425)

Masaccio takes the story from Matthew 17:24-27:

“After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

“Yes, he does,” he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

“From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.””

Irene Earls notes that this particular episode was not a popular subject for representation in “Christian art”. She goes on:

“Although the date of Tribute Money is not known conclusively, historians consider 1425 most likely. This date is historically one of the most dangerous in the Florentine Republic’s history. The Republic had just been defeated by the duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti. In order to pay for the war in a fair manner, Florentines decided on a new tax, the Catasto, which provided deductions and exemptions. The Catasto also based its collection on an ability to pay. Although Masaccio painted Christ’s blessing of a tax, the subject may not have been chosen for strictly religious purposes. In fact, it may have been painted to bolster a tax needed in Florence. And for this reason he depicted the scene on the banks of the Arno River in Tuscany, Italy. He also painted into his scene the needed solemnity, the needed seriousness for raising taxes on citizens, many of whom had very little.” (Earls, 145)

In a similar vein, Hartt comments:

“The year in which the fresco must have been painted was one of the most dangerous in the history of the Florentine Republic, which had just suffered crushing defeats at the hands of Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan. In order to distribute equitably the financial burden of the war, the Florentines were debating the new tax called the Catasto, based on ability to pay, and provided with a system of exemptions and deductions, a welcome substitute for previous taxation procedures. In the late 1440s St. Antonine of Florence, archbishop of the city until his death in 1459, interpreted the incident of the Tribute Money as Christ’s instruction that all men must pay taxes to earthly rulers for the support of defense measures. Apparently the Lord’s blessing of taxation in Florence is what Masaccio was called upon to represent in 1425, and that is why he placed the scene on the banks of the Arno and endowed it with such solemnity” (Hartt, 159).

The social context is always an important determinant and must not be overlooked. In fact, the socio-political reading seems to make more sense when we note that another painting in the fresco cycle, Distribution of Goods of the Church and Death of Ananias, deals with the issue of taxation. I do not intend to discredit these readings. Instead, my intent is to read the painting keeping in mind the primary context – the seemingly obvious fact that the subject of these paintings is the life of St. Peter. I call this context primary because St. Peter was the patron saint of Pietro Brancacci, who had commissioned the construction of the chapel, and whose successor, Felice Brancacci, commissioned the pictorial decoration of the chapel. For this reason, the fresco cycle, except the first two frescoes, deals with the life of St. Peter. Thus, the original context for the choice of this episode is the fact that the episode had to be first and foremost from the life of St. Peter. Moreover, Felice Brancacci had commissioned Masaccio to work in the chapel sometime after 1423 and before 1425 (Shulman, 6). Thus, the social context, at least in this case, takes on secondary importance.

In analyzing this painting, critics have primarily focused on the miracle performed by Christ. In the passages quoted above, Earls remarks that “Masaccio painted Christ’s blessing of a tax”, and according to Hartt, “the Lord’s blessing of taxation in Florence is what Masaccio was called upon to represent”. Elsewhere, Anthony Molho suggests that Masaccio subordinates the scenes of Peter to the left and right of Christ in order to emphasize the fact of Christ’s command (Molho, 66). He also says that by de-emphasizing the miraculous finding of the coins, and shifting the center of attention to Christ, Masaccio reflects the historical and contemporary issue of the power of the church to govern (Molho, 67-68). Instead, I would argue that the painting shifts the focus from Christ’s miracle to the role of Peter in facilitating the fulfillment of the miraculous deed, that while Christ and his command grasp our attention first, by the time the narrative ends, our focus has shifted completely to Peter.

The choice of this particular episode and the way it is represented by Masaccio becomes significant in that it highlights an important episode in Peter’s life. If we note that this is the only fresco in the cycle that depicts Christ and Peter together, as lord and disciple, and that this is the first fresco dealing with Peter’s life, it becomes apparent that the focus is on portraying Peter as a disciple of Christ; in effect, Peter’s life begins when Christ commands him. As I will argue, the fresco shows the development of Peter as a disciple and foreshadows the miracles he himself would go on to perform. In this respect, this work becomes a reference point for Masaccio’s other paintings in the chapel dealing with Peter; in a way, it prepares us for, and leads us to, them.

The narrative in Tribute Money starts at the centre, moves to the far left, and concludes at the far right. The only figure who is represented in all three sections of the narrative is Peter’s. The vanishing point is located at the head of Christ. The viewer’s attention is drawn to the figure of Christ and his command. This is what Molho suggests, and it is indisputable, but I do not agree that Peter’s subordination works to emphasize Christ’s command, or even that Peter’s scenes are necessarily subordinated to Christ’s scene in the centre. Instead, it seems to me that the centrality of Christ and the initial focus on his command serve to portray Christ as the overlord who sees the development of Peter through. However, even this centrality is not absolute: Peter, instead of being a part of the semicircle of disciples surrounding Christ, stands somewhat in a more central position and Masaccio takes care to compare the figures of Christ and Peter at the one point where they stand beside each other.

The calm and composed command of Christ is contrasted with the features and gestures of Peter. This is seen in the contrasting body language of the two figures. The feet of Christ point in the same direction, towards the viewer. His belief in his own command is absolute. Peter’s feet, however, point in opposite directions – significantly, towards the left and right. This marks his indecision; the right foot, pointed towards the Arno river, inclined to believe, the left inclined to doubt. In a similar vein, Christ’s right forearm, which becomes the vehicle of his command, is parallel to the ground, signifying his unwavering sense of decision. Peter’s forearm, though pointing in the same direction as Christ’s, is not parallel to the ground, but in the act of becoming parallel. Moreover, his left hand gestures a signal of restraint, a gesture significantly shadowed (both by chiaroscuro and by position) by Christ’s commanding hand. Christ’s face has an aura of self-composition about it and looks in the direction of the river, whereas Peter’s face looks bewilderedly at Christ, betraying his sense of distress, a result of the lingering feelings of doubt prior to comprehension. Masaccio captures a moment when the percolation of the command from Christ to Peter is not yet complete. Peter’s entire body, by being in an intermediate stage of a side-ward rotation, shows his indecision. The fresco cycle does not deal with Peter’s Denial, an important episode in his life, perhaps because it would be inconsistent with the development narrative; even so, in this agitated state, Peter does remind one of his reaction when he thrice disavowed any connection with Christ. Though this point must not be pushed too far, I must draw attention to two paintings dealing with Peter’s Denial, one by Gerard Seghers and the other by an unidentified follower of Seghers. The similarities in the expression of Peter can be seen quite easily.

What matters, however, is that eventually Peter is able to overcome this indecision. One imagines that his agitation would remain with him as he walks towards the shore, and is, as it were, drained out of him as he finds the coins in the mouth of the fish. Masaccio again portrays this through body language: Peter’s head is bowed, showing his humbled self. His toga, earlier draped around him, is kept by his side, and consequently he is semi-naked; we can see the lower part of his legs as he performs God’s task. In contrast to the earlier representation, his entire body is now involved in the action. There is no lingering doubt in him. His left leg points in the direction of the central narrative. Having collected the coins, Peter approaches the tax collector and hands over the money. In this part of the fresco, Peter seems to have undergone a transformation. He stands erect. His toga-like drapery is back on. He looks the tax collector in the eye. Peter in this scene may not look as self-composed as Christ, but the performing of God’s work has given him a definite sense of dignity, not only in our eyes, but also in his own.

Masaccio’s use of chiaroscuro is essential to the way Peter is portrayed. Honour and Fleming compare Masaccio’s use of light with that of Giotto’s: while the weight and bulk of Giotto’s figures are conveyed by generalized modeling and a flat, neutral light from an unspecified source, Masaccio’s figures are strongly lit from a source outside the picture as if, in fact, from the chapel window located to the right of the fresco. The light strikes them at an angle, which causes the shadows on the ground and plays over their forms so as to reveal some sharply and conceal others (Honour and Fleming, 433). In Christ’s case, shadow is used only as a negligible contrasting element. Whatever we can see of Christ’s face is illuminated. Even his drapery is illuminated, with shadow used only to create the realism of the drapes. There is no substantial shaded region on Christ’s profile. Chiaroscuro is used more effectively on Peter and the tax collector. When he stands beside Christ, Peter is for the most part in shadow. The major part of his face visible to us is in shadow, as are his clothes. In fact, Peter stands on the shadow that Christ casts on the ground. This may be interpreted as Christ overshadowing Peter, but instead I would suggest that Peter emerges out of Christ’s shadow.

Christ’s shadow prefigures Peter’s magical shadow in St. Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow. Peter, being the descendant of Adam, is the fallen man whose soul is in need of redemption. He receives the command while Christ’s shadow falls on him, and him alone. In commanding him, and not any other disciple, to perform the task, Christ gives Peter the opportunity to at once fulfill God’s work and emerge out of the refuge of His shadow, and opens the way for his own individual development. Christ’s outstretched hand tells Peter to go near the shore, and in the next scene, we see Peter all by himself. Here, while performing the task, we see an equal distribution of light and shadow on Peter’s face, and it is only in completing the task in the last scene with the tax collector that Peter’s face is directly in light. Even though we can see only the right side of his face, we can easily imagine the other side similarly illuminated as he stands in direct exposure to the imagined source of light. Thus, the amount of light on his face gradually increases as he moves from indecision to performing to completing the task.

The tax collector’s face may be taken as a contrast. Both the times it is represented, the tax collector’s face remains in shadow. Even the parts of his face hidden from view are actually in shadow. Of the three figures that take a central position in the painting (within the semicircular ring of the disciples), Christ’s face is perpetually in light, the tax collector’s face is perpetually in shadow, while we see a definite development in the amount of light allowed to fall on Peter’s face.

Tribute Money is hailed as one of the earliest examples of a painting that uses the technique of perspective to create the illusion of space. In Masaccio’s oeuvre, it is second perhaps only to his Holy Trinity in this respect. Masaccio uses both linear and aerial perspective in the painting, and both of these can be seen through Peter’s representation. Peter is a part of the perspectival space created by the work. Each of his three representations contributes to creating the illusion of space. The middle section is the most populated and serves to create the reference point. On the right, Peter takes up the space in front of the group in the middle, while on the left, he takes up the space behind the group. On the left, Peter is seen as a smaller figure than the one in the middle. While Masaccio might have done this to portray the smallness and humility of man in the act of doing God’s work, it also works to create and focus on the space behind the disciples.

Chastel remarks that Masaccio uses a “bare rocky landscape” as background to bring out the “slow dignity” of the Apostles (Chastel, 166). This is true for Peter too, of course. However, while collecting the money, Peter seems to have become a part of the “bare rocky landscape” along with the progressively shorter trees. This is accentuated by Masaccio’s use of aerial perspective to diminish the features of the Peter on the left. The parts of his body are not as distinctly marked as in the middle or the right, and the toga, beautifully draped around his body in the middle and right sections, is an almost indistinguishable mass on the floor.

Thus, Tribute Money is a reflection on Christ recognizing Peter’s dignus and giving him an opportunity to increase it. Peter takes the opportunity, and the resulting development in his character is seen in the frescoes that follow, two of which are analyzed below.

Raising of the Son of Teophilus and St Peter Enthroned
Raising of the Son of Theophilus and St. Peter Enthroned (1426-27)

This scene illustrates the miracle that Peter performed after he was released from prison, thanks to Paul’s intercession (the last fresco in the cycle deals with the release of Peter from prison). According to the account in the Golden Legend, once out of prison, Peter was taken to the tomb of the son of Theophilus, Prefect of Antioch. Here, Peter immediately resurrected the young man who had been dead for fourteen years. As a result, the entire population of Antioch, including Theophilus, and many others were converted to the faith; they built a magnificent church and in the centre of the church a chair for Peter, so that he could sit during his sermons and be heard and seen by all. Peter sat in the chair for seven years; then he went to Rome and for twenty-five years sat on the papal throne, the cathedra, in Rome. This fresco is one of the two important frescoes in the lower tier of the chapel. It is located exactly below Tribute Money, thus providing the viewer with an opportunity to easily compare the two.

The most distinctive feature about this painting is the way Masaccio arranges the figures in an S-shape around the two Peters. While in Tribute Money, gestures are used to link the three episodes to form one narrative, here the two separate episodes are connected by means of this continuous S-shaped arrangement. The arrangement is different from the semicircular arrangement of the disciples in Tribute Money: it may be seen as two such semicircles placed together – the one on the left, skirting the performance of the miracle, is roughly identical to the arrangement of the disciples around Christ, while the one on the right is inverted, so that the kneeling figures are placed between us and Peter. One of the curves of the S moves towards the viewer, the other away. The arrangement works to guide the viewer’s eyes effortlessly from the left to the right of the fresco. In focusing on the individual figures, one becomes them, as it were, and looks at the miracle from their distinctive points of view. Hartt remarks how the frescoes in the lower tier show more closely packed figures. In addition, “the space [is] less open and free; the forms, when approached closely, are less consistent in structure, the surfaces more loosely sketched, the expressions more tense and even worldweary. One gains the impression that either something in Masaccio’s own life, or perhaps the painting of the Pisa altarpiece itself, had considerably affected him.” (Hartt, 163)

Critics seem united in their view that only Peter is capable of movement in the painting (Earls, 151; Hartt, 164). I find this to be partially true. It must be conceded that the closely packed figures have hardly any room to move about. Moreover, the miracle on the left and the grace of the enthroned Peter on the right seem to forbid their eyes as well as their feet from moving. However, the figure of Theophilus’s son hasn’t received due attention, perhaps because it was not painted by Masaccio, but by Filippino Lippi. On closer introspection, he seems to be the most animated figure in the painting. While Peter’s outstretched hand seems fixed in space, the boy’s hands are in the act of being raised to hail the saint, while he himself is in a pose of half-kneeling. The boy is represented in the intermediate stage of raising his hands. Thus, Peter here resembles the calm, composed, miracle-performing Christ in Tribute Money. Interestingly, the figure of the boy recalls two separate facets of Peter’s representation in Tribute Money: on the one hand, the capturing of his self in the middle of a gesture recalls the half-turned figure of Peter beside Christ; on the other, his pose of half-kneeling mirrors the figure of Peter by the shore, collecting the coins from the mouth of the fish – both figures have their left knee close to or touching the ground, and the right foot planted firmly for balance. Apart from the way they are represented, Peter and the boy in this painting resemble Christ and Peter respectively in Tribute Money in another way. Both paintings deal with the performing of a miracle. In Tribute Money, Peter is the agent through whom Christ performs the miracle. In Raising, the boy becomes both the agent and the object of Peter’s miracle – he is the combination of Peter (agent) and the fish (object) from Tribute Money in as far as the miracles in both paintings are concerned.

Coming back specifically to Peter, however, we must note how Peter forms the centre around which both curves of the S are arranged. One centre revolves around the miracle on the left; the other centre revolves around Peter adored by the Carmelites on the right. I have argued to place Peter instead of Christ as the most important figure in my analysis of Tribute Money on the basis of his multiple representation. It is easier to see Peter as the central figure in this painting. Peter is the only figure who is represented multiple times. Moreover, he is at the centre of the formal arrangement not once, but twice.

In Tribute Money, we saw how in the section on the right, Peter and the tax collector look each other in the eyes. The dignity of Peter’s deportment rested on his encountering the tax collector on equal terms. In Raising, Peter seems to have developed even further: his demeanor suggests something beyond human dignity. In this painting, no figure looks Peter directly in the eyes. On the left, the ones who are in a position to do so are the ones standing behind Theophilus’s resurrected son. The figures seem awestruck by the miracle, or are glancing at each other, no doubt again about the miracle. On the right, Peter himself looks heavenward, so that any contact with human eyes is left out of the question. Another thing to note is how the gaze of the figures on the left is focused on the fact of the miracle itself, and how this gaze shifts to the enthroned figure of Peter on the right. By performing the miracle, Peter’s status is enhanced, shown by his literally elevated position. The adoring glances of the kneeling figures, focused not even on Peter’s face but at his feet, are in direct contrast to the almost challenging glance of the tax collector. In addition, the kneeling figures, three in number, recall the magi at Christ’s nativity (frequently represented as kneeling before the baby Christ), further strengthening the link between Christ and Peter.

A final point may be made about the source of light which seems to come in from the top right corner of the fresco. We know this by noting the shadow cast on the wall by the standing figure on the right of the enthroned Peter. This figure’s gaze looks out at us, the viewers, and it has been speculated to be a self-portrait by Masaccio. However, the shadows in this painting are nowhere as distinct as the shadows in Tribute Money. This may be because the scene is set in the morning. Tribute Money seems to have been set in an evening setting (of the two possibilities of dawn and dusk, dusk looks more likely), indicated by the long shadows of the figures. We also know that this painting was not completed by Masaccio, but by Fra Filippo Lippi and his son, Filippino Lippi (Earls, 175). It might be possible that the shadows were painted by them, and hence differ significantly from Tribute Money. Be that as it may, what is noteworthy is that if we identify the source of light as coming from the top right corner of the fresco, the enthroned Peter’s shadow would seem to fall on the kneeling figure and the congregation on his left, recalling Christ’s shadow falling on Peter in Tribute Money. The shadow of Peter is treated more definitely and deliberately in St. Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow.

St Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow
St. Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow (1426-27)

The subject of this painting is taken from a passage in Acts 5:12-16:

Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.”

The representation of this episode in art is as rare as that of Tribute Money. Hartt remarks that the subject was “difficult to represent in the era before cast shadows entered the artist’s repertory” (Hartt, 162). Thus, the choice of subject is revolutionary in that it lends itself easily to Masaccio’s intended chiaroscuro effect.

Peter walks towards us as his shadow heals the sick who crowd on his right. Peter does not look at them. They, however, gaze at him (or try to, based on their position relative to him). Drawing directly from his enthroned self in Raising, and again in contrast to his challenging glance to the tax collector, Peter’s eyes look at no one. He is metaphorically garbed in his divinity; the earthly realm has nothing that can offer a challenge to him, or he is not interested in the challenges of the mortal world anymore. The arrangement around Peter is again semicircular in shape. We have already seen how Masaccio uses the semicircular pattern to highlight the centre where the action takes place, and he employs it here as well. Interestingly, Peter’s shadow does not fall on the face of the crippled person closest to us. Instead, it falls on the lower part of his body, the part that needs healing. This is not realistic, but instead focuses on the precise nature of the act of healing: the shadow is magical; hence, unlike realistic shadows, it directs itself only to the crippled limbs.

The sick are represented so as to bring out their individuality. This is in consonance with Masaccio’s depiction of other groups arranged around the centre where the action takes place. As with Christ’s disciples in Tribute Money, or with the audience of the miracle and the Carmelites in Raising, the fact of the crowding around the centre of focus is undercut by the individualistic representation of the separate figures. I focus on the three sick men: the almost prostrate figure closest to the screen, the old man, and the bearded man in a gesture of prayer.

All three are united in the sense that they are “the sick” whom Peter’s shadow heals, but they are also individuals, and Masaccio seems to have taken pains to represent them as both individuals and as a united entity. As noted above, the prostrate man looks up to the saint in hope for benediction. His elbows lean on an object for support. He looks like a young man, even a boy. In contrast, the man behind him is old, and is kneeling. His torso is not covered completely. The man behind him is standing; he is bearded, unlike the other two; and unlike the old man, his lower body, from the thigh downwards, is completely uncovered, while his torso is covered. The gestures of the three men are also different: the young boy uses his hands for support, the old man arranges his hands in a protective gesture around his uncovered chest, presumably because it is cold and affects his old body more, while the middle aged man folds his hands in prayer. The young boy and the middle aged man look at the saint from their different perspectives, while the old man looks beyond the scene into an empty space – it is possible to surmise from his vacant stare that he was blind, and is gaining vision.

These distinguishing details are nevertheless presented within the frame narrative of them being “the sick” who are healed by Peter. The fact that the three men are individuated against each other highlights the fact that they are in different stages of being healed. If standing erect is the condition of health (intimated by the erect figures of Peter and the youth behind him), the middle aged man (also standing erect) has been healed completely; Peter’s shadow is at a distance from him. The old man (kneeling, intermediate to standing and being prostrate) is in the process of being healed; the magical shadow has just passed over him, metaphorically and literally bringing light to him. The young boy (almost prostrate and looking helplessly, yet hopefully, at Peter) is the one whom the healing will affect next. Thus, the individual figures here become a mass entity, “the sick”, and the very features that distinguish them from each other join together to focus on Peter’s miracle.

As Carman argues in his analysis of this painting, “Peter has the demeanor of an inspired Florentine leader, whose dignity the three men at the left […] reverently yearn to follow. The apostle’s presence, nevertheless, is as deeply divine as it is secular. Indeed, the point here seems to be the importance of transforming the secular into the divine.” Peter has, thus, completed his transformation from being Adam-like to being Christ-like.

However, we must note that his comparison to Christ is the one thing that Peter, by asking to be crucified upside down, was at pains to not so much downplay as demolish. Masaccio seems to recognize this. In his Crucifixion of St. Peter and Baptism of St. John the Baptist, a part of the Pisa Altarpiece, Masaccio represents Peter’s face in all its mortality. The saint-like calmness is nowhere to be seen. In contrast, in both his paintings dealing with Christ’s crucifixion, Crucifixion and Holy Trinity, Masaccio represents Christ’s face as calmly accepting the fact of his crucifixion.

Christ’s peaceful demeanor while on the cross contrasts starkly with Peter’s face, which betrays a sense of stoic acceptance, even defiance, in the face of death.

Having said that, however, the comparison that Carman suggests, and I highlight, is not supposed to equate Christ’s divinity with Peter’s on a quantitative level. Christ is the son of God and hence inherently divine, while Peter is inherently sinful, his divinity only an acquired feature. Instead, the point being made is that Peter, by following Christ’s path, redeems himself and becomes a model for other sinners to look up to and emulate. Indeed, the motive of God’s son coming to earth as a human being was to provide a model of living that may be followed to protect faithful souls from incurring eternal damnation.

From this perspective, then, one of the things that is highlighted by Masaccio through the representation of Peter’s life in the Brancacci chapel is its ability to be related to Christ’s. Like Christ, he performs miracles. He inspires the sinful, as Christ had inspired him, to have faith enough to move mountains. The secular and the divine commingle more prominently in Peter than in Christ, because Christ’s divinity, as noted above, is inherent, while Peter achieves divinity through his faith and his choice to follow Christ’s path. Thus, Peter’s transformation not only stands as concrete proof that redemption is possible, but it also outlines the path to be taken to achieve it.

I started my analysis by noting that social determinants are always an important, if sometimes secondary, factor. I would conclude by drawing attention to the didactic function of religious paintings. Michael Baxandall, in his study of fifteenth-century pictorial style, notes the reason for having religious paintings in churches. He refers to John of Genoa’s late thirteenth-century Catholicon, still a standard dictionary of the period, and Fra Michele da Carcano’s sermon, published in 1492 under the title Sermones quadragesimales fratris Michaelis de Mediolano de decem preceptis, to argue that the reason is three-fold. Firstly, they allow religious instruction to be provided to those who cannot read the Scriptures. Secondly, it is an attempt to move by visual art those who are not moved by hearing or reading scriptures. Finally, on a more general level, it assists in planting in the mind of the viewer a more vivid memory of the scene, story, or person that is the subject of the painting (Baxandall, 40-41). Thus, Peter’s development and transformation from the sinful to the divine would stand as religious instruction not just for the ones whom he cures, resurrects, or those who witness his miracles in the paintings, but also for Masaccio’s contemporary and future audiences in the Brancacci Chapel.

[*The title is taken from Acts 5:29. The apostles are brought before the Council, and are reminded that they had been told not to preach in Christ’s name, to which “Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than men!’”]


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Hartt, Frederick. History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., and New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1979.

Honour, Hugh, and John Fleming. The Visual Arts: A History. Prentice Hall, 2005.

Molho, Anthony. “The Brancacci Chapel: Studies in Its Iconography and History”, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 40, 1977.

Shulman, Ken. Anatomy of a Restoration: The Brancacci Chapel. New York: Walker, 1991.



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