That wall seems to be pierced. Masaccio's Trinity

Masaccio: Portrait of a young boy (perhaps a self-portrait of Masaccio who died at the age of only 26), 1420s

“In rock’n’roll, those cut down in their prime are lucky to be remembered for the art they created. Masaccio, on the other hand, is remembered for creating art itself.”

The great Hungarian literary historian Antal Szerb writes that the image of the great classics fixed in public opinion is mostly true, as it has passed through a thousand filters, but it gradually becomes an empty scheme. “When you talk about it, you don’t really mean anything. In such cases, it is necessary to revise this image, and if it proves to be correct, to fill the scheme with new life, to make it true again.”

This is what I would like to do now with Masaccio, whom we hold in high esteem as one of the founding fathers of Renaissance art, but most of us would not be able to tell why.

I have long wanted to survey, in a series of lectures, the European Renaissances, the markedly different visual worlds the new style created in different regions from the Netherlands to the distinct Italian schools in the 14th and 15th century, before merging in a single homogeneous “post-Raphaelite” style from the mid-1500s. This is what I start now, thanks to our weekly virtual trips, by analyzing the picture that, as we shall see, was a kind of manifesto and zero point of Renaissance painting, and which radically changed the direction of European painting. This picture is Masaccio’s fresco of the Trinity painted between 1426 and 1428 in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

In the architectural frame of the fresco we see Got the Father holding the cross of the crucified Christ with both hands, while the dove of the Holy Spirit is hovering between the heads of the two of them. At the foot of the cross, as on the Crucifixion images, stand Mary and St. John the Evangelist. Mary looks outward, toward the spectator, and points to the cross, while John is completely immersed in the contemplation of the dead Christ. In front of them, and outside the virtual architecture, a donator couple is kneeling. They are not looking at the extraordinary spectacle unfolding beside them, within the arch, but rather inward, as if this vision appeared on the screen of their brains during prayer or meditation. The arch as a boundary also indicates that the donators and the figures of the crucifixion scene are in two different layers of reality. Nevertheless, Mary turns directly to us from the reality removed from us by two layers, inviting us to the crucified Christ, the same vision the donators see in their imagination. We’ll get back to that.

The fresco is in a privileged place in the church: in the nave, the place of the laity, right next to the pulpit, which is a particularly important site of the church of the Dominicans – the Ordo Praedicatorum. This image provides the closest visual background and illustrative material for the preacher, to which we will also get back. To its significance, we must therefore briefly look at what the Dominicans and their monastery meant to 15th-century Florence.

The Dominicans arrived in Florence in 1221, where – like all the late-established mendicant orders, including the Franciscans and Augustinians – they were given bulding plots outside the city walls. The building of the church and the monastery began in 1246 and lasted for almost a century. It was useful that the complex was built as a greenfield investment, as this was the only way to expand it into a kind of a city-in-the-city with its multi-chapeled basilica, cemetery, no less than six cloisters, academy of theology and a number of wings. From the early 15th century, it was also the city’s official “luxury hotel” where the city’s representative guests – popes, kings, emperors – stayed with their entourage, and here was organized between 1431 and 1449, with the participation of the prelates of many never-before-seen Eastern countries, the Council of Florence to end the rupture between the Western and Eastern churches.

The monks played an equally important role in the religious and spiritual life of the city. The Dominican church was the social center of large merchant families, which commissioned the magnificent fresco cycles, marble façade and all other decorations of the church with the most famous artists of the age, and the Dominican fathers were their spiritual leaders.

The Strozzi Chapel, whose frescoes of the Last Judgment were painted between 1350 and 1357 by Nardo di Cione on the basis of Dante’s Commedia

The main altar of the Strozzi Chapel was made by the brother of the frescoes’ master, Andrea di Cione, better known as Orcagna. In the period, it was customary for masters executing public paintings in the church nave to pick up important motifs from the upscale sanctuary chapels. Masaccio borrowed from here the face of God the Father and the posture of the two donators kneeling beside the niche in his Trinity.

The central Tornabuoni Chapel. In Masaccio’s time, this was also adorned with paintings by Nardo di Cione, but between 1485 and 1490 the family commissioned here one of the most important fresco cycles of the Quattrocento with Ghirlandaio, which, as we shall see, also refers back to Masaccio.

Tornabuoni Chapel. Ghirlandaio: The apparition of the angel to Zechariah the priest. To the right are portraited some members of the Tornabuoni family, and in the lower left corner the prominent humanist members of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s Accademia Platonica, Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino, Agnolo Poliziano and Demetrio Calcondila

The Gondi Chapel, with the crucifix of Filippo Brunelleschi, 1410-15. This was the first truly Renaissance crucifix with the anatomically accurately, muscularly, nakedly depicted Christ. Masaccio borrowed this corpus to his Trinity.

Giotto’s large crucifix now hangs in the middle of the nave, but in Masaccio’s time it was in the sanctuary. The similar head of Christ in the Trinity can also refer to this with.

The sermons of the Dominican church attracted the entire city. In that age, preaching was a public show, it played the role of today’s theaters, concerts and cinemas. People remembered and appreciated good preachers, whose speeches were great mass events. In 1400, for example, after the sermon of theological professor Giovanni Dominici, notary Lapo Mazzei wrote a letter to Francesco Datini, the richest merchant of the age, in Prato, explaining in detail that he had never heard anyone so effectively moving the audience: “we all cried or stood shocked before the obvious truth he pointed out”, and tries to persuade Datini to come and hear it for himself: “it will be as if you heard a disciple of St. Francis, and you will be born again”.

The pulpit of the Dominican church, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, 1443

Apotheosis of the Dominican order. A fresco by Andrea da Bonaiuto in the chapter hall of the convent, 1365, about which I will later write in detail. In the picture we see the Duomo of Florence with a dome that Filippo Brunelleschi will be able to complete with great difficulty seventy years after the fresco. Around it, the Dominicans are teaching, preaching, protecting the lambs of Christ from the heretic wolves, and leading them to heaven. The symbols of the Dominicans – Dominicani – wearing black and white dresses are the equally black and white Domini Canes, the Dogs of the Lord, who are performing the same at their feet.

Visual means – images displayed, adjancent altarpieces referred to, etc. – were common elements of sermons in the period. So it was with Masaccio’s fresco, which had many intricate theological layers of meaning, obviously for the purpose of illustration. This program was given to the artist by a Dominican theologian collaborating with the commissioner. The artist could not decide it for himself: in this age, he was still the same craftsman as a carpenter or bricklayer who carved and walled what he was ordered.

What was this program?

Such a public image in such an important place had to address a wide range of social layers at once, from the most sophisticated theologians to the common people, and therefore its program also conveyed a wide variety of messages. Let’s look at the most important ones.

The most unusual element for us, God the Father holding the cross of the dead Christ, had two theological meanings in the age, which are connected through the sacrifice of Christ. This motif first appeared in mass books and altars in the 12th century, and symbolized the most important part of the Mass, the sacrifice. During this, the priest transforms the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, thus repeating the redemptive work that Christ fulfilled through crucifixion. According to the conception of the church, this sacrifice, which takes place in time here on earth, and therefore must be repeated over and over again, is connected with the heavenly sacrifice of Christ, which takes place continuously in the heavens, where time does not exist. Thus the first paragraph of the most sacred text of the Mass, the canon, asks God to accept the sacrifice presented on earth and make it part of the heavenly Mass:

“We therefore humbly pray and beseech Thee, most merciful Father, that Thou wouldst accept and bless these gifts, so they become the body and blood of thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ, by whose order we celebrate these holy secrets. … In humble prayer we ask Thou, almight God, command that these gifts be borne by the hands of Thy holy angel to Thy altar on high in the sight of Thy divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy body and blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.”

In the visual formula we see that God the Father already lifted this sacrifice in the image of the crucified Christ, and holds it up there as the sacrifice of the heavenly Mass. Since the Latin text of the canon (“Te igitur…”) begins with the letter T, this was often painted in the manuscripts as the cross of Christ, sometimes held by the Father.

Heinrich Quentell’s Mass book of Cologne (1500) in the Franciscan library in Gyöngyös

A miniature from the Cambrai Mass Book, c. 1120

The altar of the Jesuit church in Eger, 1772. It is especially dear to me, because I wrote my M.A. dissertation about it some thirty years ago. The Jesuit General St. Francis of Borgia is kneeling at the altar and is just reciting the canon “Te igitur”, while an angel at the top of the altar is already carrying the sacrifice symbolized with the cross to the heavenly altar.

Another meaning of this visual formula emphasizes the redemptive power of the sacrifice of the cross. At such times, the person praying turns to the Father, and asks for His assistance with reference to the redeeming power of Christ. As Jean de Fécamp, the most popular 10th-century meditation author writes it: “Father, I place the sacrifice of Christ among you and my sins.” This is exactly how the miniature of Duke Berry’s Book of Hours (1412-1416) represents it:

This representation spread mainly in prayer books, breviaries and meditation images. The figure of Christ, who saved us by dying on the cross, is pictured as an encouragement, a proof of salvation. Since these images served the purpose of prayer and meditation, that is, the communication with God, therefore the Father looks openly at us, and often the person praying / meditating is also kneeling on the image, as if to invite us to imitate him. All these motifs are clearly present in Masaccio’s picture.

This very common pictorial formula is called “Throne of Mercy” (or, in German, Gnadenstuhl) in art history, based on St. Paul’s verse: “Let us then approach the Throne of Mercy with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb 4:16). The “Throne of Mercy” here does not mean the throne of God the Father, but the cross, the throne of Christ who died on it and thereby brought us the grace of salvation.

Silesian meditation icon, before 1345. Museum of Wrocław

A home altar with the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist. Westphalia, after 1250. Berlin, Gemäldegalerie

A home altar from the Netherlands, with angels carrying the means of suffering around the Trinity, c. 1390. Berlin, Gemäldegalerie

Throne of Mercy, Salzburg, c. 1470. Berlin, Gemäldegalerie

The formula of the Throne of Mercy was even adopted in Russian icons. This was recently studied by the Hungarian art historian Ágnes Kriza in the prestigious Journal of Warburg and Courtauld Institutes.

A side branch of the formula: the “openable Madonnas” were fashionable mainly in France and Germany in the Middle Ages. Opening the regular statue of the Madonna with the Child, we see a representation of the Throne of Grace. This did not mean as if Mary had given birth to the full Trinity. The formula is used here as a pictorial abbreviation for “grace”: Mary as the mother of salvation, that is, Christ.

Decoding these complex theological meanings required a high level of theological education or meditation practice, or the preacher to tell them to the faithful gathered before the fresco. But the image also had a message for those who approached it without such education, and/or outside of preaching.

Beneath the donators stands a painted stone sarcophagus with a skeleton laying on it. The quote over the skeleton, in Italian – that is, deliberately in the common vernacular instead of Latin – says: “I was who you are, and who I am will you be.”

Fra Angelico: The mourning of Christ, 1435. The laying dead also had to remind the viewers of this pictorial topos.

This memento mori refers to an extremely popular legend of the period, “the encounter of the three living and the three dead”. In this narrative, widespread across Europe, three young men set out to hunt and meet three dead in the woods. When asked in shock who they are, they respond with the above sentence. The young men are shaken by this encounter and follow their lives along a more pious path.

De Lisle Psaltery, c. 1310 (MS Arundel 83 II, fol. 127r)

Prayer book of Bonne of Luxembourg, Duchess of Normandy. Attributed to Jean LeNoir. Before 1349

Thaymouth Hours (MS Yates Thompson 12), fol 179v and 180r. Marginal drawings on two pages of a Latin manuscript, with an Anglo-Saxon poem:

[above:] Ich am aghast. Lo whet ich se.
Me þinkeþ hit beþ develes þre.
[below:] Ich was wel fair. Such shal tou be.
For godes loue be war be me.

The most famous Italian example in the Camposanto of Pisa

Masaccio’s fresco was placed on the wall of the nave so that it best revealed itself when someone entered the church from the adjacent cemetery, through the side door. So if one visited his or her decased loved ones in the cemetery and the entered the church with the pain felt over their death, this painted altar immediately served as a consolation. Contemplating it from the bottom up, he or she first identified his/her dead with the skeleton and then him/herself with the donators, while the top scene announced that through Christ’s salvation, both the dead and he/she will receive grace and they will see each other in heaven.

The church with the cemetery and the side door to the right. Today this is the standard entrance for tourists.

Jacopo da Sellaio’s altarpiece after Masaccio. He converted the “memento mori” skeleton into two real dead, mourned by the donator as his wife and daughter, while his little son is consoled by St. John the Evangelist. Florence is in the background.

Finally, the image also had a very popular layer of meaning, which was actually its model. In medieval and early modern Florence, street tabernacles – small-depth booths in which a public sacred image was placed – were extremely popular. There were hundreds of them, most of which have survived to this day. The paintings placed in them depicted an intercessory saint – mainly the Virgin Mary –, to whom the passers-by could say a quick prayer, and in this way they were the means of sanctifying everyday life. These images also had many other casual roles: for example, a major market sale was often finalized before such tabernacles. This casualty was their main characteristic: that they helped each to communicate with the intercessory saint and through him/her with God in his or her own way, freely, without ritual precepts and priestly mediation.

Painted glass window of Orsanmichele: The Madonna rescuing the thief from the gallows who prayed before her tabernacle (1380-1400) (above), and the people praying before the tabernacle of the Orsanmichele Madonna in a Vatican manuscript (below)

The public character of these images meant that they competed for the attention of passers-by, and therefore followed very similar visual rules as modern posters: they had to be quickly readable, easy to understand, and convincing / commanding authority. This was supported by the small number of figures composed in a compact group, and new visual means, such as some of the saints looking out of the picture and stopping and inviting the passers-by with a pointing gesture, not unlike 20th-century recruiting posters. This tool, that the painter should employ an outward-looking character who creates a visual bridge between the viewer and the plot, was first recommended by Leon Battista Alberti in his treatise On painting (De pictura, 1435, but published only in 1450). However, this book only harvested the best of the visual solutions of the previous generations, and as we see, public painting had developed and used the inviting gesture already a century earlier.

Giottino (Tommaso di Stefano), Madonna della Sagra, 1356, today in the Accademia (above), and in its original place, in a tabernacle on the corner of Piazza di Santo Spirito (below)

So Masaccio actually brought such a street tabernacle into the church space, painting the Trinity and its veneration in its frame structure. This also meant that even the simplest people immediately understood the basic message of the picture: they saw a mediator, the Savior Christ himself, to whom they could pray in their own way, and while Mary invited them to do just that, St. John and the donators were already showing the viewer’s job. The image, like the street tabernacles, is quickly readable, easy to understand, and convincing / commanding authority.

By what visual means does the painter achieve this? With the solid, sculptural figures and tight architectural frame.

Like any other master, the painter works from “brought material”, he selects and further develops his visual solutions from what he has seen. What did Masaccio see, what could he choose in contemporary Florence from?

Artists in the Florence of the period followed basically two trends. Either they used to a greater or lesser extent Giotto’s visual solutions, or they imitated the works of the international Gothic of French-Flemish origin.

Giotto: Burial of Mary, c. 1310. Berlin, Gemäldegalerie

Giotto: Burial of Mary, detail. An angel blowing the coal of an incense burner. Berlin, Gemäldegalerie

Giotto: Lamentation of Christ, Padova, Scrovegni Chapel, c. 1305

We remember from school that Renaissance painting began with Giotto, who first painted by nature. However, this is a retrospective historical construction of Giorgio Vasari who wrote the history of Italian renaissance in 1568. Reality, as usual, is more complicated. Giotto did not paint by nature, but he rather carried over into painting the classicizing, solid sculptures of his older contemporary, the Florentine chief architect Arnolfo di Cambio. In doing so, he broke with the stylized figures of his predecessors, Cimabue and Duccio, based on Byzantine icons, which was undoubtedly a great novelty and naturalness for contemporaries. On the other hand, he also tried to show the depth of space in his paintings, which he achieved by the solid figures lined up behind each other, or with the rocks and architectural details set as stage props. During the 14th century, his followers applied these two highly regarded novelties to varying degrees. It was not, therefore, as Vasari suggests, that he created a method, followed and improved by the next generations, but he only created some visual solutions that his followers could incorporate into their fundamentally medieval pictures. In Florence, such were Maso di Banco, who painted the life of Pope St. Silvester in the Bardi Chapel of Santa Croce (1335), Agnolo Gaddi, who painted the legend of the Holy Cross in the main chapel of the same church (1385-87), or Spinello Aretino, who depicted the life of St. Benedict in San Miniato al Monte (1388). These imposing cycles undoubtedly had a great influence on Masaccio, who formed his grave, solid figures on the base of these paintings.

However, it was not this Giottesque trend that was most fashionable in Masaccio’s time, in early 15th-century Florence, but rather the international Gothic of Franco-Flemish origin. This style worked with gracefully curved, almost disembodied figures, to whom only the rich folds of their drapery lent volume, and who lined up side by side in the plane of the picture almost without depth of space. Such were, for example, the Camaldolese monk-painter Lorenzo Monaco, who painted his Magi almost at the same time with Masaccio (1422), or Gentile da Fabriano, whose impressive Magi of 1423 was so successful that the Medici even recommended it as a model to Benozzo Gozzoli who painted the chapel of the Medici Palace in 1459. And in this style also worked the most acclaimed Florentine artist of the age, Lorenzo Ghiberti, who completed his masterpiece in 1424, the “Gate of Paradise” of the Baptistery.

In this atmosphere of reception, Masaccio probably needed no small degree of autonomy and renunciation of immediate success to develop his own individual style, based on the development of Giotto’s figures to the extreme, and on scenes only constructed with them, renouncing medieval “frills”. Characteristically, he could do this not in one of the major churches in the bourgeois old town, but in the workers’ neighborhood beyond the Arno, in the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmelite church between 1425 and 1427 (which I will talk about next week), and he summarized the result of it in the last and most important work of his life, the grave sculptural figures of the Trinity.

And the architectural frame comes from the same Filippo Brunelleschi whom we have already met a few times in the church, in connection with the dome of the Duomo in the Dominican fresco, the crucifix of the Gondi Chapel, or the pulpit. Here, Masaccio takes over his characteristic architectural structure from the Sagrestia Vecchia of San Lorenzo, or the façade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti.

But Brunelleschi had an even greater role in the construction of the Trinity’s space. It was him who first became interested in the proportion of the apparent heights of the columns of a colonnade seen in perspective, and by examining this he came to the formula of the central perspective: that is, that the lines that are parallel in reality, converge at a single point on a regular perspectivic representation. Brunelleschi was no painter, so he did not represent his calculatinons on a picture. This was first done by his close friend Masaccio, on this very fresco, which can thus be considered as the first regular perspectivic image in European art. The idea would be promoted by Leon Battista Alberti, a friend of both of them, in his already mentioned pictorial recipe book De pictura, but it was only published a quarter of a century after the Trinity fresco.

Contemporary and later critics primarily celebrated this illusionistic representation of space in Masaccio’s fresco. As Vasari writes in his 1568 Masaccio biography:

«Quello che vi è bellissimo, oltre alle figure, è una volta a mezza botte tirata in prospettiva, e spartita in quadri pieni di rosoni che diminuiscono e scortano così bene che pare che sia bucato quel muro.»“What is beautiful in it, besides the figures, is the perspectively depicted vault, whose cassettes shrink and shorten so well, that the wall seems to be pierced.”

The shortening is so precise that an exact architectural drawing can be made of the virtual chapel behind the “pierced wall”:

Perspective suggests the unity of space. It’ about more than just placing Giottesque figures in an indefinite space, as with previous painters. Some radical change is happening here. The narration of previous images yields to sight. The image appears as an accurate representation of the instantaneous reality seen from a given point. Masaccio actually invented the camera, or at least the photo. Alberti, who did not yet know this device, describes the method with a different metaphor: he says that the image is an open window through which we view the scene depicted.

The birth of the illusionistic depiction diverts painting from its previous trajectory, and provides painters with a hammer so they must look for nails. Henceforth, the Renaissance is not a matter of choice, whether to use Giottesque figures and rocks to symbolize space. The new mode of representation and the new conception of image obliges, and not painting in this way means ignorance. Suddenly a new chapter starts in the history of European painting, which will end the same suddenly four and half centuries later, when Impressionism will take the illusionist representation to the extreme and exhaust all its possibilities, and the actual invention of the camera makes it superfluous anyway. Post-impressionist and avant-garde artists can then return with a calm soul to the pre-Masaccio perception, which does not reflect a sight, but constructs an image in the plane.

In addition to Vasari, Ghirlandaio expressed the appreciation of Masaccio’s contemporaries the best when, sixty years after Masaccio’s death, was commissioned to decorate the central Tornabuoni Chapel of Santa Maria Novella (1485-1490). Just as Masaccio borrowed visual elements from the prestigious chapels between 1426 and 1428, Brunelleschi’s Christ from the Gondi Chapel, or Christ and the two kneeling saints from Orcagna’s altar in the Strozzi Chapel, so Ghirlandaio now lifts back Masaccio’s virtual chapel in the very center of the sanctuary’s decoration, to the middle of the colored glass window, as a hommage to the master who marked the new path of Renaissance painting.

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