Death and salvation in renaissance Florence: Masaccio, The Holy Trinity

Death and salvation in renaissance Florence: Masaccio, The Holy Trinity


(mellow jazz music) – [Steven] We’re in Santa Maria Novella, an enormous Dominican church in Florence. We’ve just come in from
a cloistered graveyard. The first thing we see
across this enormous expanse is Masaccio’s The Holy Trinity with the Virgin and St. John. – [Beth] Although this painting has a long and complicated history of
being moved and restored, the doorway we walked in
and the view that we got was likely the view that the public got in the early 15th century
when Masaccio painted it. – [Steven] Much of the rest
of the church has changed. There may have been an altar
in front of this painting. To the right, there would have
been an enormous tramezzo, that is a screen that
would have blocked access to the inner sanctum of the church. – [Beth] The subject is the Holy Trinity. According to Catholic doctrine, God is God the Father, the Son
Christ and the Holy Spirit. – [Steven] This was a
fairly standard motif, this elder figure that
represents God the Father, the dove representing the Holy Spirit and Christ on a crucifix. This is known as the Throne of Mercy. The idea is that this throne
is the throne of judgment, that through Christ, man can be saved. – [Beth] On the side of the Holy Trinity, we see Mary. She gestures to Christ and God. She acts as an intercessor, an intermediary between
us and the divine world and points to Christ and God. – [Steven] Opposite her stands St. John. – [Beth] All of those divine
figures occupy the same space. Outside of that space, we
see two kneeling figures, a man on the left, a woman on the right. These are the patrons who
commissioned this fresco. If you look at them closely, you see that they look straight ahead. – [Steven] And slightly up. – [Beth] They’re in a position
of prayer, of contemplation. – [Steven] Below this,
we have a memento mori that is a reminder of death. We see a tomb, two columns on either side, and between that, a sarcophagus. But laid on top of that is a skeleton. In back of it, as if carved
into stone, is an inscription. – [Beth] I was as you are. And what I am, you soon will be. This is written in Italian, not in Latin, so not in the language of the church, but in the everyday language
of the people of Florence. It is reminding us that
our time on earth is short, and death could come at any time. We should be preparing for our salvation. – [Steven] It’s a reminder
that this painting had multiple audiences. It had the Dominican
clergy of this church. But there was a secondary audience, the lay people of
Florence that were allowed into this part of the church. – [Beth] We have to imagine
the Dominican friars preaching in front of this image to
the citizens of Florence, who would come specifically
to hear that preaching. People would come to
visit their loved ones in the cemetery, just
outside in the cloister. They’d walk through the door, and they would see this
image and make a connection between the death of their loved ones and their own mortality. – [Steven] Although this motif was common, almost anybody looking at this painting in the early 15th century
would have recognized the changes that Masaccio
has brought to this motif, principally, the classicism
of the architecture and the naturalism of the figures. – [Beth] In most representations of this, Christ and God are placed in the mandorla, that is a kind of enormous halo that encompassed both
figures and in that way, situated them in an
otherworldly, heavenly space. But here, Masaccio has given us what looks like ancient
Roman architecture. And in fact, Brunelleschi, the great early Renaissance architect, likely helped design the
architectural framework that we see here. On either side, we see fluted pilasters. Those have Corinthian
or composite capitals. – [Steven] A pilaster is
really a flattened column– – [Beth] one that’s attached to a wall. – [Steven] Above that is an
entablature and a cornice with dentils, another ancient Roman motif. – [Beth] The figures of
the Trinity are framed by a round arch which is a classical arch, not a pointed, medieval Gothic arch. That arch is carried
by two attached columns with Ionic capitals. Everything that we’re describing here is taken directly from ancient
Greek and Roman architecture. – [Steven] Behind the
arch, we see a barrel vault that’s defined by a
beautiful series of coffers with alternating colors. At the very back of the space, we can see a secondary arch. So we have a very rational
space, a measurable space, a space that makes sense. – [Beth] And it makes sense precisely because Masaccio is
using linear perspective. This is one of the earliest
uses of linear perspective, rediscovered by Brunelleschi
less than a decade before. Masaccio is using linear perspective to create a convincing illusion
that this is not a wall, but in fact, the space of a chapel. – [Steven] The linear perspective is made of three components, most
importantly, a vanishing point. According to Alberti, who published a book called “On Painting,” soon
after this painting was made, linear perspective works best when the vanishing point is at
the eye level of the viewer. And indeed, that is precisely
where Masaccio has placed it. It’s in the center of the composition, just a few inches above my eye level. From it radiate a series of orthogonals, illusionistic diagonals that
appear to recede in space. They are the agent that
create the illusion of depth on a flat surface. And then, the third piece
is the horizon line, defined by that bottom step. – [Beth] And Masaccio
exploits chiaroscuro, that movement from light to dark to create a sense of volume. So we see the ribcage lifted up. We see the muscles in the
abdomen, the muscles in the arms. We sense the pull of Christ’s
weight from the cross. This interest in
naturalistic human anatomy is a key feature of the early Renaissance. – [Steven] Here again is a correspondence with the work of the architect
and sculptor, Brunelleschi, who produced a wooden crucifix which is also in Santa Maria Novella which like the painted
rendering before us, expresses the artist’s careful observation of the human body and understands
it, responding to gravity, a reminder that Christ here is human, has suffered, has died. Both Brunelleschi and Masaccio
could look back a century to another great Italian master, Giotto, and his massive Crucifixion. He was perhaps one of the first artists to begin to think about the representation of the human body, using light and shadow to define its forms, to
begin to pay attention to the anatomy of the body,
to render Christ as physical. – [Beth] One of the most remarkable things to me is God’s foot. There we have a perfectly
foreshortened foot and therefore, a sense
that God is standing. To me, that epitomizes what
the Renaissance is about, this interpretation of divine figures as having all of the qualities
that human beings have. – [Steven] So there is
this wonderful conflict between the visionary and the actual. – [Beth] So although the
laity couldn’t go beyond the tramezzo, Masaccio
is giving the public a taste of what’s beyond by
quoting some works of art in the Strozzi Chapel. – [Steven] In that
chapel, above the altar, is an image of God. And then, just before
the chapel and below, there’s a tomb with a
fresco of the Lamentation. So there is a correspondence, perhaps even a deliberate quote in Masaccio’s painting in the public part of the church. – [Beth] What we’re seeing
is this very frontal image of God, of the Divine, presenting to us the sacrifice that God
has made on our behalf. It’s remarkable that this has survived, and we get to see it in
its original location.

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    Richard the Great

    Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.
    As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

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