Brancacci chapel (Santa Maria del Carmine) III

The frescoes in the chapel of Brancacci

Brancacci chapel      Reconstruction

Web Gallery of Art

Map of the fresco cycle:
A. Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Masaccio)
B. St. Paul visiting St. Peter in prison (Filippino Lippi)
C. The Tribute Money (Masaccio)
D. Raising of the Son of Theophilus (Masaccio)
E. St. Peter Preaching (Masolino)
F. St. Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow (Masaccio)
G. Baptism of the Neophytes (Masaccio)
H. Distribution of alms (Masaccio)
I Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha (Masolino and Masaccio?)
J. Disputation with Simon Magus and Crucifixion of St Peter (Filippino Lippi)
K. Original Sin (Masolino)
L. St Peter Being Freed from Prison (Filippino Lippi)

Original sin and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

Masolino painted the Original Sin and Masaccio painted the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. These scenes are often compared with each other to illustrate the difference in style between the two artists. The elegant and calm figures painted by Masolino differ greatly from those of Masaccio. For example, Eve holds her arm around the tree while the human head of the snake tries to draw her attention. Masolino does not paint the feet very realistically, whereas the young painter Masaccio does make it appear that they are standing. Adam’s right foot, for instance, is still standing on the threshold of the gate. The older Masolino (1384-1447) is closer to the end of the Gothic tradition with his style. Masaccio (1401-1428), on the other hand, paints in the new style: the Renaissance.

There is absolutely no peacefulness in the Expulsion, on the contrary. The angel arrives at full speed, threatening and menacing, with a sword in his hand as he gestures for the fleeing Adam and Eve to leave Paradise.

Adam and Eve      Faces of Adam     Eve

There is no God, as often seen in medieval manuscripts, but only rays of light reminiscent of the thundering voice of the Lord. Light is falling on both figures, streaming in from the right through the windows. The parallel dark shadows of Eve and Adam foreshadow a gloomy future. Adam walks bent over and covers his face with his hands. Eve has thrown her head back, her mouth is opened as if crying out. This is suffering, fear and despair.

Many suggestions have been made as to which visual sources Masaccio bases his figures on. For example, Brunelleschi’s panel that he made for the contest for the doors of the Baptistery is mentioned. The open mouth of Isaac, who is about to be killed by his father, served as a model for Masaccio’s Eve. Her pose is often referred to Giovanni Pisano and the Venus Prudentia (a copy after a classical statue in the Uffizi). Yet there is a remarkable difference: Masaccio’s Eve actually suffers and is despised. Many examples have also been mentioned for Adam. For example, the head of the crucified Christ of Donatello (Santa Croce) has striking similarities.

Both frescoes, the Original sin and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, were originally higher. You can still see this clearly when you look at the adjacent section. After the restoration of 1983-1989, the leaves that were applied in the seventeenth century were removed again. The frescoes, especially the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, turned out to be in poor condition. The blue colour difference in Adam is not the painter’s fault. Masaccio did not mix his colours differently for Adam’s part of the day than in the rest. The difference can easily be explained by the fact that the original colours have disappeared.

The Tribute Money

When establishing the size of the various scenes, the choice fell on four wide reclining sizes on the side walls. Ghiberti had done the same for his second pair for the Baptistery. He did this very differently from his first door, working with no less than twenty-eight frames, in the form of a Gothic quatrefoil.

Masaccio ‘The Tribute Money’       Perspective

Ghiberti ‘Four scenes of Adam and Eve’
Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

Within this framework, Ghiberti was able to tell his story. At the so-called golden gate (story of the Golden Gate), his second door, he only had ten frames, although they were considerably larger than the quatrefoils. Such a wide size has great advantages, but also disadvantages. The advantage is that the artist has a spacious stage on which he can paint his figures, the buildings and the landscape. Moreover, such a wide size also fits with the way we look at people. The big problem arises when the artist has to depict many stories in a limited number of frames. In the Brancacci Chapel only ten frames are available for the many stories (originally sixteen without the vault). How was this solved? Ghiberti depicted four scenes from the Creation in one panel as you can see below. Masaccio chose a different solution.

He used what we call the ‘simultaneous method’. This means that by depicting one figure several times in the depiction, you also introduce a time lapse. This way you see the tax collector twice. The first time he asks Christ to pay tax and the second time, later in the story, he stands at the gate and receives the money. We see Peter exactly as the evangelist Matthew (17: 27) describes it: “go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours”

Peter and the fish

Christ speaking to Peter that he must go and catch a fish is seen to the left of the middle. Peter must have been a little surprised by the words of Christ as evident by his frown. Peter’s left hand gestures that he will do what is asked of him. Peter’s other hand points to the sea where the story continues. On the left Peter can be seen taking the coin out of the fish’s mouth. As an interesting sidenote, the large restoration effort made that coin visible again. On the right we see Peter again when he is paying. Here, Peter also symbolises the church. Because he pays, the church acknowledges that it has to pay tax to the state. The tribute money would also be a protest against the introduction of a new tax, the catasto, in Florence in 1425 and 1427. Felice de Brancacci was vehemently opposed to this tax.

Peter is pays tax money

Despite the seventeen life-sized figures, the story is very legible. The landscape as a quiet background does not distract from the story. The customs house on the right is reminiscent of the loggia that Donatello carved earlier in the predella near his Saint George. The lines of the eaves, the cordon strips and the steps of the stairs meet at the face of Christ. This quickly directs the viewer’s eye to the beginning of the story. Christ is not standing in the middle of the picture plane, but to the left. This composition must have been given serious thought. For example, the tribute money is exactly six times as wide as the adjacent Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Furthermore, the group of apostles around Christ accounts for exactly half of the whole. Meanwhile, the part where Peter takes money from the mouth of the fish is exactly the one-sixth part of the tribute money. The right-hand section, where Peter pays the money to the tax collector, occupies two sixths of this fresco. The pagan character of the taxpayer, which can only be seen in the right-hand section of the composition, is underlined by his Roman tunic.

The figures are firmly rooted, especially if you compare this with the way the Adam and Eve of Masolino stand. In order to achieve this, Masaccio used a handy tool when painting his figures, namely by scratching perpendiculars in the intonaco. These lines start slightly above the heads and are set exactly on the axis of the figures up to the heel of the foot of the supporting leg. Masaccio was the first to convincingly.

Continuation Florence day 5: Brancacci chapel (Santa Maria del Carmine) IV