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holy trinity, masaccio

Artist: Masaccio (1401-1428)

Technique: Fresco (Tempera)

Dimensions: 667 x 317 cm

Year: 1427

Location of creation: Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

Current Location: Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

Movements: Early Renaissance

Theme: Religious

Subject: Representation of The Holy Trinity. The painting depicts

the crucifixion of Christ, God behind Him, with the figures of the

Virgin and St John at the foot of the cross, two patrons, and a

skeleton.

painting summary

Finished in 1427, painted inside the church of Santa Maria Novella, on one of the walls inside the church, the painting was the first to demonstrate the application of linear perspective. Creating the illusion of a new space within the existing religious space, it broke the possibilities of painting as a medium. Masaccio aligned the painting with the architectural features of the space in which it was located, creating a continuation between the architecture and the painting.

general description

The painting depicts the interior of a church, demarcated by a big arch, where the figure of crucified Christ appears in the middle of the composition, a taller figure appears behind, while two figures stand on each side, a woman on the left and a man on the right. Kneeling before them are two other figures, a man on the left and a woman on the left. The inferior section is connected to a tomb, a skeleton adjacent to a sarcophagus, with an inscription: “What you are I once was; what I am, you will be”.  Ivories, soft reds and dark blues echoe and alternate through the image.

This is a common theme of Jesus on the Cross (in the middle), attended by God the Father (behind him), Mary (at the left) and John (at the right). In this case, the patrons are also included in the painting, kneeling before the main scene, the man (at the left) and his wife (at the right), as was typical at the time. The architecture pays close resemblances with the style of the church where it was painted, making it appear to be a continuation of the sacred space.

Due to its innovation in the various fields (inventor of pictorial solutions, explorer of shapes, use of perspective, introduction of anatomical scrutiny, and others) and its combination of the many influences, the work pioneered the Renaissance, and gave Masaccio the name of the Father of the Renaissance. The mastery of the perspective system, and ability to suggest the mass and volume of objects, greatly derived from an intuitive creation process, accomplishing new discoveries and applications of the many pictorial tools, all represent Massacio’s peak of artistic creativity, although he was only 20 years old when he painted it.  The artist performed a synthesis of biblical art, religion and science to create his most famous work, and one of the most important paintings in the history of art.

The origins of this commission are uncertain, although the buyers may be the Lenzi or the Berti families, as it was discovered below a Vasary fresco, close to the tomb of the Lenzy family, in the church of Santa Maria Novella. It is known, however, that the commission originated from Florence, given by the clothing style of the patrons in the painting. This painting acts as a memento mori, an adequate theme for a funeral ceremony, to which it was probably commissioned for. The purpose of Massaccio’s works were to be eternal spiritual creations, transforming the human body into a spiritual monument, to stand the test of time.

Since the beginning of his career, Masaccio already demonstrated concerns with tri-dimensionality, employing volume and introducing foreshortening, for example in San Giovenale Triptych (1422). Before he painted the Holy Trinity, he began collaborating with Masolino da Panicale, an older and well-known artist, painting the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (c. 1424). Rejecting the decorative aesthetic of the Gothic style, and replacing the  previous gothic traditional style, this work represents a change of style and a change of human thinking, establishing a bridge between Giotto and Michelangelo.

content analysis

Focus on Emotion: The focal point of the work is human emotion, and this importance is accentuated by the individual facial expressions and gestures of doubt and suffering, dignifying them through a realistic approach.

Solemnity and Restraint, Virgin Mary: The solemnity is intensified by the calm gestures of the Virgin Mary – that is pointing towards the crucifixion – and the restraint of Saint John’s sorrow (as they are the traditional mourners at depictions of the crucifixion).

The Visual Illusion/The trompe l’oeil  (“deceives the eye” in French): A visual illusion of depth is conveyed by the carved like quality of the painted chapel and the volume given to each figure. (…)

  • A Spatial Lived Illusion: This visual illusion aims to materialize the spiritual content into a physical reality, reinforcing the connection between the viewer and the image, by making it a sort of inhabited space. The viewer is no longer a passive spectator but an active participant.

Transposition of the Renaissance Ideals: The human figure becomes the central feature, a reflection of the Renaissance ideal where man is the measure of all things. The human figure is enhanced in the composition by the realistic space.

God: The figure of God breaks the sense of perspective and depth (being bigger in scale than the rest), and defies the laws of time and space (appearing to be back on a ledge, and, at the same time, appearing to be forward supporting the cross).

  • God as a Man: Whereas in prior art, God was often represented by a hand (a force, a power), Masaccio innovates in his view of God, depicting God standing on the ground, like a human. (…)

Architecture: The architecture assumes a significant importance in the understanding of the painting. Its use in the composition is not only a testament of the tastes in classical culture of classical times, but also intensifies the spiritual meaning of the scene.

The Colours of Female and Male: The application of red and blue is a usual combination in Early Renaissance painting, when it comes to religious paintings. The blue was thought to be a feminine colour.

The Theme of Mortality: Connected to its purpose, the tomb is an outward projection of the morbid and grim message, both from the inscription, and from the skeleton. (…)

  • Representation of less beautiful realities: Masaccio transposes in this painting his interior ghosts, mortality as the ultimate human condition. This is confirmed by the inscription left above the skeleton, inside the tomb. (…)

What you are I once was; what I am, you will be (original inscription: IO, FU. GA. QUEL. CHE. VOI. SETE; E. QUEL. CHI. SON. VOI. ACO. SARETE.)

Death and Resurrection: The thought of mortality is balanced by the hope of resurrection in the Crucifixion, the transformation of the human body as a spiritual monument.

The Dichotomy of the Holy and the Earthly (setting of the figures): Biblical and divine figures are on a higher level, almost on a pedestal, while Mary serves as an intermediary between the viewer and the divine.

The Use of Religious Symbols: A broad symbol of the Holy Trinity, is presented by the isosceles triangle formed by the compositional display of the figures – The Father high at the top represented as an elderly man, Christ on the cross, and the Holy Spirit among Them. (…)

  • Adam: Traditionally, Jesus was crucified above the tomb of the first man, Adam. (…)
  • The Crucifixion: Masaccio elevates the important Christian meaning of the Crucifixion scene, presenting it in an innovative way, by striping down the composition, and balancing it out.

An Expression of Faith: The expression of the mystery of faith and God’s perfection through harmonious symmetry of classical architecture and the dignified human figures and their emotions, is the culmination of all its significant content – divinity, the human condition, redemption and salvation -, leading to the most holy sacrament – the Eucharist.

Linear perspective: Rediscovered by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, this is the first painting projecting the three-dimensional space onto a bidimensional surface. The scientific method provides a sense of depth and three-dimensionality, and helps to create the illusion of a real space where nothing really exists.

  • One Point Perspective: Use of one single point perspective set at the horizon line where all points converge, and the vanishing point is set just below the cross’s foot.
  • Use of Simple Geometrical Forms: Masaccio cleverly relied on geometrical shapes such as circles, squares and rectangles, to better demonstrate precise and accurate perspective, as they are easier to translate into a perspective grid.
  • A New Spatiality: The rigorously applied linear perspective makes the observer identify himself with the painted universe.

Geometric, Symmetric, Centrality and the Structured Approach: The composition is balanced symmetrically by the evenly distributed figures throughout the image spaces, and the precise depiction of the architectural setting.

  • Triangular/pyramidal Structure: Organizing it all, there is a triangular/pyramidal structure, formed by the position of God, at the top, Virgin Mary on the left and Saint John at the right, and the patrons at each side.
  • Golden Ratio: In Masaccio’s time, the golden ratio, a mathematical pattern which can be found in nature, had not been applied to painting, which would only happen almost a century later, in 1509, by Luca Pacoli, which means the artist did not rely consciously on this to create this composition.

A Composition Defined by Light: The natural feel of the composition, mainly conveyed by the architecture (just like Giotto), and the new treatment of light and dark effects, result in a pictoric space that is set independently from the figures, as they inhabit the space, instead of defining it.

Colour: The complementary colours of red and blue, are used in alternating points in order to create balance, movement and rhythm (red and blue, blue and red, red and blue – vertically and horizontally).

Creating Rhythm, Dynamics and Movement: All these different compositional elements, together, create a dynamic psychological and engaging experience for the viewer: the lines of the plaster, the arched lines of the ceiling, the use of color, shapes, are orchestrated in such a way that they all create movement in the painting, keeping the eyes moving and wandering throughout the whole image.

Armature grid

technique and creative process

Giotto, Donatello, and Brunelleschi’s influence: Grand scale, compositional balance and sculptural volume, are just a few elements Masaccio borrowed from these masters. (…)

Further Anatomic study: Masaccio pushed his knowledge beyond the influence of Donatello, drawing the naked model, and later painting clothing over it, creating realistic draperies that follow the bodies that wear them. (…)

Underlying Geometry Process: For the overall underlying structure of the painting, the design process, Masaccio used a vertical and horizontal squared grid on specific places such as the faces of the secondary characters. (…)

Painted from the Top down/The Giornata: Started by the development of the architectural space, the artist followed a top down methodology. The painting was further created in small portions, as the artist could only paint before the wet plaster dried. (…)

The natural feel of the composition, mainly conveyed by the architecture (just like Giotto), and the new treatment of light and dark effects, result in a pictorial space that is set independently from the figures, as they inhabit the space, instead of defining it.

Chiaroscuro, Mass and Volume:  Line began to be considered secondary, as volume was enhanced instead. (…)

Painting Christ in an Interior Space: Most artists before and during that period still used either a golden background (applied gold leaf), or an outdoor scene. Even beyond the years that followed, in the following Renaissance centuries, it is still a very uncommon depiction of the Crucifixion.

A New Idea, for a New View of Life: Masaccio brought new light into the figures and settings that had been abandoned since Giotto. This new, more realistic approach to space and light, capturing moments of tension and human character, make the viewer identify with the painted reality. (…)

direct influences and connections

Artists:

  • Piero della Francesca,
  • Michelangelo,
  • Leonardo da Vinci,
  • other artists from the Renaissance that followed later, after his death in the early 15th century.

Paintings: Painting, by Francis Bacon, 1946.
Movements:

  • High Renaissance,
  • Mannerism.
  • Baroque.

Other:

  1. Masaccio means “big ugly Tom” or “Rough Tom”, and his actual name was Tommaso Cassai da San Giovani Val d’Arno.
  2. This fresco was covered by a painting by Vasari in 1570, and was only rediscovered in 1861.
  3. Masaccio was only in his 20’s when he created the Trinity painting.
  4. Vasari wrote about the painting: “the most beautiful thing, apart from the figures, is a barrel-shaped vaulting, drawn in perspective and divided into squares filled with rosettes, which are foreshortened and made to diminish so well that the wall appears to be pierced”.

painting details

significant images

related works

Artist: Giotto di Bondone
Title: Crucifixion
Date: 1304-1306
Size: 200 x 185 cm
Medium: Tempera on panel
Location: Cappella degli Scrovegni all’Arena, Padua, Italy

Artist: Rogier van der Weyden
Title: The Descent from the Cross
Date: c. 1438
Size: 220 x 262cm
Medium: Oil on panel
Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Title: The Last Supper
Date: 1498
Size: 4.6 x 8.8 m
Medium: Fresco (tempera)
Location: Convent of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

Artist: Masaccio
Title: San Giovenale Triptych
Date: 1422
Size: 110 x 65 cm
Medium: Panel
Location: Masaccio Museum, Cascia di Reggello, Italy

Artist: Duccio di Buoninsegna
Title: Crucifixion triptych
Date: c. 1310
Size: 48 x 20 cm | 53 x 28 cm | 48 x 20 cm
Medium: Gold and tempera on panel
Location: Società di Esecutori di Pie Disposizioni, Rome, Italy

(CC BY-SA 3.0 – GFDL)

Artist: Masaccio and Masolino da Panicale
Title: Virgin and Child with Saint Anne
Date: c. 1424
Size: 247 x 597 cm
Medium: Fresco
Location: Brancacci Chapel, Florence, Italy

Artist: Masaccio
Title: Detail of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
Date: ca. 1427
Size: 208 x 88cm
Medium: Fresco
Location: Brancacci Chapel, Florence, Italy