Brancacci chapel (Santa Maria del Carmine) I

The Brancacci Chapel: Masolino, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi (Santa Maria del Carmine)

The church and chapel of Brancacci

Santa Maria del Carmine      La Veduta della Catena Santa Maria del Carmine

photo: Kent Wang

In 1268, the Carmelites settled in the district of San Frediano and built the church, Santa Maria del Carmine, as part of the Carmelite convent. The chapel was donated to the church by Piero di Piuvichese (Brancacci). He left a sum of two hundred florins to complete the chapel. Piero was the man who had contributed most to the family capital. Nevertheless, it would still take about forty years before any painting work was actually started. The chapel itself was very conveniently situated: clearly visible and close to the main altar. In addition, the popular sacra rappresentazione (theatre performances of sacred or biblical events) were staged in front of the chapel in the crossing (main altar 1; Brancacci chapel 4; tramezzo: 7).

The chapel and in particular the decorations are also part of the mystical play that was held at Ascension Day. There is a document showing that Masolino was paid in July 1425. For the Ascension, he painted angels and clouds, among other things Bishop Abraham of Souzdal, a Byzantine prelate, was admiringly about the performance of the Ascension which he attended in 1439 writing:

“There was a crash of thunder from the Heavens, and God sent a fire from the Heaven to the middle of the stage where the Prophets had earlier enacted their scene; a flaming and crackling fire seems to fill the whole church.” Cited: Bishop Abraham of Souzdal’s about the sacred play in 1439, translated by Orville K. Larson.

It was a true spectacle. There was a choir, dancing and music by ‘angels’ while actors performed the Ascension. All this against the backdrop of a magnificent setting lit by countless candles on many candlesticks. The highlight was the moment when Christ appeared, bathed in light. Christ ascended to the gothic vaults of the Santa Maria del Carmine. Brunelleschi had designed a clever machine for the Ascension (reconstruction with tramezzo) as he had done for the play of the Annunciation in the Santa Felicita.  According to a popular legend, the day Christ ascended to Heaven, he thus handed over the keys to Peters. Thus, the fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel about Peter is a beautiful backdrop for the performance of the Ascension.

Donatello ‘Christ giving the Keys to St Peter’

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, the chapel is no longer in its original state. When Felice Brancacci, who commissioned the painting of the family chapel, was banished from Florence by the Medici in 1435, the chapel was dedicated to Mary. All traces of the family were removed from the chapel. Portraits of the Brancacci, such as the revival of the son of Theophilus, were erased.

Brancacci chapel      Reconstruction

Web Gallery of Art

Parts of the original fresco cycle have disappeared, like the ones in the vaults, the three lunettes and parts of the wall near the altar. Between 1746 and 1748, the groined vault was removed as it suffered large leaks. In its four vault sections, Masolino had painted the evangelists. In 1734, Vincenzo Meucci painted the new ceiling with St. Simon Stock receiving Mary’s scapular. Carlo Sacconi painted architectural motifs in the lunettes. In addition, the chapel was given a new window and this also meant that parts of the frescoes disappeared. During the major restoration of 1983-1989 it turned out that the lunettes were completely empty. At the walls next to the windows, however, parts of two sinopias were found, namely the repentance of Peter and Peter as shepherd. In the lunettes near the side walls, above the tribute money, the vocation of Peter and Andrew was painted. The right wall showed the shipwreck of Peter.

Zoom in

The Madonna del Popolo      Zoom in

Right above the altar was the crucifixion of Peter. This crucifixion likely disappeared when the altarpiece, the Madonna del Popolo, was moved from the main altar in the church to the chapel of Brancacci. It was thought that this panel originated from the Holy Land before the advent of Islam. An extremely precious possession that had fallen into the hands of the Carmelites. The Madonna del Popolo had a knack for performing miracles.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

On the night of January 28-29, 1771, a terrible fire broke out. While most of the church burned down, the chapel of Brancacci remained virtually undamaged. In 1780, the chapel passed into the hands of another family: Riccardi. Gabriello Riccardi had the chapel restored and opened it to the public. Between 1983 and 1989 there was a large-scale restoration. The altar was removed from the wall and important original fragments were discovered, including two medallions. The colours were still intact. Later additions such as the leaves of Adam and Eve were also removed.

Masolino ‘Two medallions with female heads’       In situ

photo in situ: Sailko

The painters of the Brancacci Chapel

f.l.t.r. Masolino, Masaccio and Alberti

Owing to the thorough research and restoration, we now have a better understanding of who of the three painters, Masolino, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi, painted what. Web Gallery of Art lists each name: MasaccioMasolino and Lippi and who painted what & where in the chapel.

Masolino and Masaccio are from Castel San Giovanni: today’s San Giovanni Val d’Arno. Both have a rather different style. In those days, painters, despite their typically different styles, often worked together.  For example, the panel, ‘The Madonna and Child with St. Anne’, which now hangs in the Uffizi is also painted by Masolino and Masaccio. Vasari wrongly attributed this altarpiece, which hung in the church of Sant’Ambrogio in Florence, exclusively to Masaccio (Spike, J.T., ‘Masaccio’, Abbeville Press Publishers, New York/London/ Paris 1995 pp. 112, 114).

Macassio and Masolino ‘Madonna with St. Anne’ 1424 -1425
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Web Gallery of Art  and  Wikipedia

When Felice Brancacci returns from Egypt to Florence, he speeds up the decoration of his family chapel. The chapel was probably painted around 1424. In the years 1423 and 1425, Felice Brancacci sold three houses including the ancestral home. The family had to move into rented accommodation. Seven years later it also came to light that Felice had embezzled money from municipal funds in the same period. The family was certainly not poor, on the contrary, but money still seemed to be in short supply during this period. This is also when the painting started. Apparently Felice had to raise a lot of money to ensure the painting work in his family and burial chapel would get done.

Art historians differed about when exactly Masaccio and Masolino did their painting. However, according to art historian Diane Cole Ahl, recent insights and research during the restoration have yielded some results (Cole Ahl, D., ‘Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel’, in: Cole Ahl, D.C., (edited) ‘The Cambridge Companion to Masaccio, Cambridge University Press 2002 152-153). Masaccio and Masolino likely worked together at the same time. Certainly on the frescoes directly below the three lunettes, which is now the top band, before the summer of 1425. A total of ninety-two giornata (parts of the day) have been used in these frescoes (the Fall, Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha, the Baptism of Neophytes, the expulsion from Paradise, the Penance and St. Peter Preaching). This means that Masaccio and Masolino both painted sixty-four days.

In addition, Masolino and Masaccio changed places while painting on the scaffolding. In the St. Peter Preaching, Masaccio started in the upper part with the mountains. After all, it was customary to paint from top to bottom so that there were no splashes on the painted parts. The rest of the sermon was painted by Masolino. In the fresco on the other side of the window, the baptism of the Neophytes, Masolino started with the mountains while Masaccio did the rest. It is worth mentio.ning that these mountains are typical of the style of Masolino. Later in the 1430s, Masolino painted a similar landscape in the Palazzo Brande in Castiglione Olona.

The entire painting appears well considered and Masolino and Masaccio must have planned it together. This is evident, among other things, from the use of colour, the shadows, but also in the perspective in the two opposing frescoes: ‘the tribute money’ and the ‘Healing of the Cripple’ and ‘Raising of Tabitha’. In these two stories, the vanishing point of the perspective is at the same level. As far as we know, Masaccio was in Florence between 1424 and 1425. In the following years he was busy with his altarpiece for Pisa. In 1428 Masaccio left for Rome where he died at the age of twenty-nine. Masolino left for Hungary at the end of 1425 and returned in the summer of 1427. It is unknown whether Masolino worked in the chapel before or after his stay in Hungary.

Masaccio ‘Tribute money’      Zoom in       In situ      Perspective

photo zoom and in situ; Steven Zucker

Masolino ‘Healing of the Cripple and the Raising of Tabita’

Masaccio ‘Portrait’     Filippino Lippi ‘Four portraits’
Masaccio one and Lippi two portraits

The third artist who also worked in the chapel is Filippino Lippi. Between 1481 and 1485, Lippi completed the fresco cycle and painted new faces where Brancacci’s family portraits had been removed.

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