“I painted, and my picture was like life;
I gave my figures movement, passion, soul:
They breathed. Thus, all others
Buonarotti taught; he learnt from me.”
In the later 14th century, the proto-Renaissance was stifled by plague and war, and its influences did not emerge again until the first years of the next century. One of the major artists working during this period was the painter Masaccio (1401-1428), known for his frescoes of the Trinity in the Church of Santa Maria Novella and in the Brancacci Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, both in Florence. Masaccio painted for less than six years but was highly influential in the early Renaissance for the intellectual nature of his work, as well as its degree of naturalism.
Masaccio, byname of Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Cassai (born Dec. 21, 1401, Castel San Giovanni [now San Giovanni Valdarno, near Florence, Italy]—died autumn 1428, Rome. In the span of only six years, Masaccio radically transformed Florentine painting. His art eventually helped create many of the major conceptual and stylistic foundations of Western painting. Masaccio’s early demise has meant that very few works exist that are entirely attributed to him. During his short life he did not enjoy the popular esteem given to some of his contemporaries, his fame was confined to other painters, but his influence on successive generations of artists is profound. It is said that all the Florentine artists studied his work, including Michelangelo. His legacy was to direct Italian Painting way from the Gothic style and towards a more realistic and natural interpretation of the world.
In the Renaissance, art was often a family enterprise passed down from father to son. It is curious, therefore, that Masaccio and his brother became painters even though none of their immediate forebears were artists. Masaccio’s paternal grandfather was a maker of chests (cassoni) which were often painted. It was perhaps through his grandfather’s connection with artists that he became one. In the Renaissance, art was learned through imitation—individuality in the workshop was discouraged. The apprentice would copy the master’s style until it became his own. Knowing who taught Masaccio would reveal much about his artistic formation and his earliest work, as Masaccio underwent such training, but there remains no trace of where, when, or with whom he studied. Masaccio’s weighty, dignified treatment of the human figure and his clear and orderly depiction of space, atmosphere, and light renewed the idiom of the early 14th-century Florentine painter Giotto, whose monumental art had been followed but not equaled by the succeeding generations of painters. Masaccio carried Giotto’s more realistic style to its logical conclusion by utilizing contemporary advances in anatomy, chiaroscuro, and perspective. However, his works came to light and were given the recognition they deserved only 75 years after his death, when his monumental figures and sculptural use of light were newly and more fully appreciated by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, the chief painters of the High Renaissance. Some of Michelangelo’s earliest drawings, for example, are studies of figures in The Tribute Money, and through his works and those of other painters, Masaccio’s art influenced the entire subsequent course of Western painting.
Masaccio used colour not as a pleasing decorative pattern but to help impart the illusion of solidity to the painted figure. The Tribute Money, which depicts the debate between Christ and his followers about the rightness of paying tribute to earthly authorities, is populated by figures remarkable for their weight and gravity. Only four frescoes undoubtedly from Masaccio’s hand still exist today, although many other works have been at least partially attributed to him. He transformed the direction of Italian painting, moving it away from the idealizations of Gothic art, and, for the first time, presenting it as part of a more profound, natural, and humanist world.
Giotto was a major source of inspiration for the painter, and he embraced Giotto’s example in a rejection of the International Gothic style of the time. He is one of the first artists to use a vanishing point in his work employing the use of scientific perspective in his paintings. The first work attributed to him is the San Giovenale Triptych in the church of Cascia di Reggello near Florence. His two major works are a polyptych, painted for the Carmelite church in Pisa, and his frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence painted in or around 1425/6.
Masaccio’s Holy Trinity
In 1426 Masaccio painted his Holy Trinity for the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence. This fresco is considered to be one of his finest masterpieces and was rediscovered in 1861 after being hidden by a stone altarpiece in the sixteenth century. It also presents important pictorial innovations that embody contemporary concerns and influences. Masaccio’s Trinity is one of the first examples of the systematic use of one-point perspective in a painting. One-point perspective takes the spectator’s viewpoint and sets it to an exact location, which determines his relation with the painted space, thus giving an added illusion of participation to the viewer. The architectural setting of The Trinity is derived from contemporary buildings by Brunelleschi which, in turn, were much influenced by classical Roman structures. Masaccio and Brunelleschi shared a common artistic vision that was rational, human-scaled and human-centred, and inspired by the ancient world. If one is to look for examples of the early Renaissance scientific approach to creating the illusion of space within a painting, then the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is without a doubt, one of the best specimens.
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. In the painting, God (the Father), is portrayed on a more realistic space following the laws of physics, i.e, a platform in the back rather than an elevated or extraordinary space demarcating his relative superiority to the rest of the subjects in the painting, which was the traditional way to go. 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 others, the donors are meant to appear to be in the space of the viewer, and not in the recessed space in which the cross is located.
The composition of the figures, form a kind of pyramidal shape 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 happens is also very significant, as it can be considered to be a setting point for the perspective and theme, something that would bring the whole thing together. At first, we see 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. Many historians of art, like Panofsky and others, assumed the perspective correctness of the Trinity fresco—probably following Vasari’s Vite. John White says for instance: “The foreshortening of the architecture, in accordance with the principles of artificial perspective, is accurate both in the diminution of the coffering and in the single vanishing point which lies slightly below the plane on which the donors kneel” (‘The Birth and rebirth of pictorial space’, London, Faber and Faber, 1967, p. 139).
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 a continuity within 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 comparisons can be drawn between said dimensions and the dimensions of the very room in the fresco itself.
As we go downwards, we see a skeleton in a tomb at the bottom. 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. Coming back to the vanishing point, it is set at a level between the tomb below and the cross above, that unites the two different spaces created in the entirety of the masterpiece. Masaccio approached this fresco in a very rational way to masterfully create a convincing illusion of space, in a way which preserves the integrity of the Christian meaning at the core of the scene, while maintaining the aesthetic of the overall creation.
One of Masaccio’s most famous paintings, “Tribute Money,” not only reiterates the linear perspective and chiaroscuro techniques which are present in Trinity, but also the choice of colors and his depiction of three dimensional characters in three different settings, setting a broad theme pertaining to his personal customized artistic style, which ultimately turned into a revelation in painting.
Masaccio uses an age old narrative format from the Dark Ages, by showing three consecutive events in the one painting. The vanishing-point on Christ’s forehead draws our attention to the fact that although one normally reads from left to right, the first image is presented in the middle of the painting. The use of this type of narrative moves away from a symbolic portrayal of Christ as the Gothic artists would have him presented. The narrative instead reverts back to classicism and logic.
This painting is very different from the ones before it, even though the elements utilized in it have been seen before in paintings. Once again, Masaccio utilizes linear perspective to add a new dimension to the painting. Light seems to alternate and change throughout the painting. Theamount of detail on each of the men’s faces adds a stark realism to the painting and the shadowing on the clothes and drapery is done so well that the painting seems devoid of any lines.
There are three main aspects to this painting that give us depth and athree-dimensional painting.
Firstly, the landscape in the background and Peter by the river extracting the coin have been painted at the very back of the painting compared to the other two scenes and are almost colourless, thus adding a stark contrast for depth.
Secondly, the buildings on the right, that pushes light towards the center of the painting using classical structure. The entire thing converges at Christ’s head and this serves as a sort of middle ground. While the halos have been tipped to one side, to show them as real physical objects,it is surprising that they are even in the painting at all, considering the premise of realism that he strived to follow. He may have needed something to mark them as religious figures and inserted said halos out of an obligation to the audience, rather than artistic fulfilment.
Thirdly, The semi-circle around Jesus is probably a mathematical tribute to the wisdom of God. Jesus is depicted in the center of his disciples and the use of the semi-circle, although a classical pagan tradition could be intended to show the perfect grace of the divine.
This painting is not the first time Masaccio had used linear perspective, but it has been his best to incorporate not only the technique but also his preferred uses or likes, detail and shapes that we see lacking in his “Trinity.”
The figures of The Tribute Money and the other frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel are placed in settings of remarkable realism, as has been a constant theme in Masaccio’s work. For the first time in Florentine painting, religious drama unfolds not in some imaginary place in the past but in the countryside of Tuscany or the city streets of Florence, with St. Peter and his followers treading the palace-lined streets of an early 15th-century city. By setting his figures in scenes of such specificity, Masaccio sanctified and elevated the observer’s world. His depiction of the heroic individual in a fixed and certain place in time and space perfectly reflects humanistic thought in contemporary Florence.
In Robert Baldwin’s essay “Wealth, Gender, and Civic Humanism in Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel”, he states that although sanctified by Biblical imagery, the economic values of the Brancacci Chapel were more closely tied to the secular humanism of the modern, burgher republic. The Tribute Money offered the perfect subject to express the new humanistic sense of the harmony between piety and worldly obligations.
The scene depicted in The Tribute Money is consistently lit from the upper right and is in sync with the actual lighting of the chapel, which comes from a window on the wall to the right of the fresco. The mountain background of the fresco is created using atmospheric perspective where an illusion of depth is created by successively lightening the tones of the more distant mountains, thereby simulating the changes effected by the atmosphere on the colours of distant objects. Tribute Money boasts of breaking medieval conceptions of pictures being governed by arbitrary physical laws, with its solid, anatomically convincing figures set in a clear,controlled space lit by a consistent fall of light.
Masaccio thought of the concept of a painting as a window behind which a continuation of the real world is to be found, with the same laws of space, light, form, and perspective that can be obtained in reality. This concept was to remain the basic idiom of Western painting for the next 450 years.
3. Wealth, Gender, and Civic Humanism in Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel, Robert Baldwin.