Florence produced many masters during the Renaissance, a miraculous feat given its 50,000 inhabitants but Masaccio stands out as a radical and innovative genius who changed the history of painting forever, leaving behind the stiffness of international gothic and inventing a new naturalness and vivacity.
“Everything done before him can be described as artificial, whereas he produces work that is living, realistic and natural.”
Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists. 1550
Despite a career that spanned a mere seven years, Masaccio, the XV century Florentine artist, has been dubbed both the ‘Father of the Renaissance’ and a precursor of modern painting. His heroic style and experiments in perspective became a prototype for the painters of the Italian Renaissance that succeeded him.
Tommaso Cassai da San Giovanni Val d’Arno (1401-1428) – known as Masaccio – is best remembered for two masterpieces, both in Florence: his fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, which he completed in collaboration with Masolino and Filippino Lippi and his fresco of the Trinità (Holy Trinity) in Santa Maria Novella. Completed in c1427, Masaccio’s Trinità became a defining painting of the Italian Renaissance, encapsulating all that was radical and modern in his work. This fresco quite literally changed the history of painting. Nothing would ever be the same again.
The little we know about his life is predominantly from Giorgio Vasari’s seminal work, “Lives of the Artists”. He was nicknamed Masaccio or “Rough Tom” – Maso being the diminutive of the Italian Tommaso and “..accio” an untranslatable derogatory suffix. Vasari assures us however that there was nothing nasty about him – it may have just been a playful way of distinguishing him from his colleague Masolini – “Little Tom”. Masaccio was in some sense a very modern artist, taken up completely with the business of art. Vasari described him as: “….very absent-minded and erratic … he devoted all his mind and thoughts to art and paid little attention to himself and still less to others”.
Vasari showered him with high praise: “He gave a beginning to beautiful attitudes, movements, liveliness and vivacity, rendering relief in a way that was characteristic and natural and that no painter had ever before attempted.” Not since Giotto, one hundred years earlier, had naturalness been such a crucial feature of painting. Here for the first time we have human dramas being played out in believable three dimensional space.
Masaccio broke away from the tradition that was in favour at the time in Florence – international gothic, with its elegant atmosphere, extravagant draperies and figures in sophisticated poses -choosing instead to breathe new life into classical models and employ new techniques in perspective. His style moved on from international gothic’s tendency to use different scales within the same painting, combining as it did minute vistas and landscapes in the distance behind outsized figures in the foreground, as well as unforeshortened feet which made the subjects look like two-dimensional images on tip-toe. These paintings lacked transitional spatial flow, a problem that Masaccio resolved brilliantly, sweeping away their almost childlike qualitites by skillfully using the rules of linear perspective developed by Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi.
The Heroic Style
Masaccio’s heroic style captured moments of majestic tension, developing a realistic approach to space and light. He brought a human element to his work. Observers recognised and identified with the humanity on display. His style brought a naturalism and realism to Florentine painting that up until then had struggled to reach a sense of perfection. Masaccio’s radicalism represented not just a change of style but a change in human thinking. No longer are we being asked to concentrate exclusively on the divine. Art is no longer merely a vehicle with which to access a spiritual reality, but a celebration of the worldly, which had previously been passed off as a merely squalid, sordid and above all sinful, earthly reality. The Trinità in Santa Maria Novella is a subtle fusion of divine metaphysics with this new vision of earthly reality.
Reading the fresco
The fresco of the Trinità is on the wall of the nave of Santa Maria Novella and as you enter the church through its courtyard, the fresco it is just off to your left.
One should read the fresco from the bottom up, letting one’s eyes work up towards the Trinity. The fresco works on a variety of levels: juxtaposing wordly time and divine timelessness. The skeleton and the two donors are worldly (outside the barrel vault) and the Virgin Mary, St John and the Trinity are in a majestic space but outside time. The fresco also works on a one- dimensional level as a purely devotional image, an object of meditation on the mystery of the Trinity. The devotional image also breaks into a more complex narrative, literally the telling of the story of the crucifixion. The fresco also works spatially. Beginning from the outside, you work your way into the illusionistic space of the barrel vault. With every reading there is a juxtaposition of concepts: space/illusion – time/timelessness – meditation/story telling- sin/redemption.
It has been suggested that the fresco originally had a small altar just in front, at about the same height as the skeleton of Adam, the memento mori – the grim reminder of human mortality – so the supplicant would have faced the devotional image of the Trinity literally on their knees, directly confronting the image of death, and facing the inscription “IO. FU. GA. QUEL. CHE. VOI SETE: E. QUEL. CHI. SON. VOI. ACO. SARETE” (I was once that which you are, and what I am, you also shall be). Traditionally Jesus was crucified above the tomb of the first man, Adam.
But the fresco is not merely a reminder of where we will finish our days but also an indication of the path to redemption via the central mystery of the Christian Church, the Eucharist. When the person at prayer lifts their eyes they first see the image of the two donors, probably the husband and wife who commissioned the fresco (the identity of whom has generated much conjecture – possibly members of the Lenzi or Berti families) who are placed outside the architectural realm of the Trinity in worldly time, as is the observer. Interestingly, they share the same human proportions as the divine characters, however the two donors are kneeling to emphasize their inferior iconic status. It is important to note that the traditional hierarchy of religious figures has been abandoned, with everyone sharing a human scale. The emphasis is more on equilibrium, symmetry and the rational.
Thus the observer’s gaze first encounters the worldly realm with the reminder of death, to then be lifted gradually towards the very human figures of the donors. However when our eyes reach the Virgin Mary, set importantly within the well-defined space of the barrel vault, her intent expression encourages us to acknowledge the full meaning of human redemption and the ineffable nature of the trinity. We are no longer overwhelmed by the ineluctable reality of death. We are being lifted up and out.
Within the vaulted barrel arch there is the Trinity: God, holding up Jesus on the cross and flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist – the Holy Spirit is the dove flying down toward the head of Christ. The condition of the fresco is not optimal in this section and the dove is often mistaken for a collar of some sort, but a close look at the beak leaves no room for doubt. The members of the Trinity would have traditionally been placed in an otherworldly or divine setting, but Masaccio gives them a realistic environment – albeit an illusionistic tour de force. This was a completely new and radical departure in terms of iconography.
Here we move from a traditional devotional image of the Trinity into a biblical narrative – the story of the crucifixion. The Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist were the traditional mourners at the crucifixion and Christ was said to have been crucified on top of the tomb of the first man Adam, suggesting an identity to the skeleton at the base of the fresco. The barrel arch may also hark back to the traditional medieval double chapel of Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion. The traditional icon of the Trinity is being merged with a biblical narrative.
The figure of the Virgin Mary is a radical departure from the sweet-faced madonnas of the early Renaissance. She is a commanding presence, the survivor of her son, a mother in mourning and a woman of the people but possessed with a specific funcion within the fresco. She invites the observer to take in the full meaning of the crucifixion and by definition the cardinal mystery of the Chritian church, the Eucharist. She breaks the narrative tension and looks directly to the observer of the fresco with a potent message.
The body of Christ is remarkable for its anatomical realism – note how the muscles seem to be tensed, to reflect the physical reality of a human body being hung on a cross.
Everything appears to be to a perfect human scale and within a precise architectural setting but looking closely, it is difficult to identify the exact location of God. He appears to hover somewhere between the front and the back of the barrrel vault, as would befit an ineffable figure whose presence, by definition, transcends space and time. It looks like God is standing on a ledge at the back of the barrel vault but he is also simultaneously at the front of the vault supporting the crucified Christ.
Many see the key to interpreting the fresco as the triumph of Renaissance Reason over Medieval religious devotion. Here we have religion itself moulded by a new humanistic and sophisticated mentality.
The barrel vault arch reflects a perfectly proportioned architectural realm where the gravitas of God and the mystery of the Eucharist can be played out. Ironically it was Vasari himself, under orders from the Medici in 1570, who had the Trinità covered over with his own altarpiece painting, the “Madonna del Rosario”, a situation which lasted for nearly three hundred years until the Trinità was again revealed in 1861. The upper part of the fresco was then moved and attached to the entrance wall of the church and there it stayed until 1952 when it was re-united with the lower half in its original location.
In this fresco we are looking not at a traditional chapel commissioned by a wealthy family but the illusion of a chapel. It has been suggested that Filippo Brunelleschi had a hand in the design of the barrel vault – with its direct references to classical architecture (ribbed pilasters with Corinthian capitals and the Ionic capitals supporting the opening of the vault with its decorative coffers), harking back to Rome’s triumphal arches and perhaps to Hadrian’s Villa, near Tivoli. Masaccio used Brunelleschi’s one point perspective and the vanishing point is at the viewer’s eye-level, at the foot of the cross. The classical features, the columns, pilasters and vaults and the one point perspective show a desire for detail and precision that was entirely new. It has been suggested that the accuracy of the one point perspective was the result of calculations elaborated on an astrolabe. The setting for the Trinità with its architectural precision would have appeared startlingly modern to a XV century observer.
An untimely death
In his short life, Masaccio achieved an enormous amount and dragged Florentine painting from its tentative experiments into a state of near perfection, laying the groundwork for modern art. Who knows what he might have achieved if he had lived as long as Michelangelo. Brunelleschi, upon hearing of Masaccio’s death in Rome was plunged into grief and cried: “We have suffered a terrible loss in the death of Masaccio”. His end was something of a mystery prompting rumours that he had been poisoned by a jealous rival painter. We only know that after abruptly breaking off his work at the Brancacci Chapel for no apparent reason, he headed for Rome. He never returned.