Brancacci chapel (Santa Maria del Carmine) V

The wall by the altar

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Brancacci chapel: Altar wall
Web Gallery of Art


Peter preaches      baptizes

These two stories painted by Masolino and Masaccio complement each other. For instance, the book of Acts (2:41) reads the following : ‘Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.’ It was the first time in Florence history that these Biblical stories were painted. Yet, they are not entirely true to the Bible, as not all apostles are depicted at the sermons and baptisms. The baptism does suggest, however, that there are more than just the thirteen persons being baptized. By painting the figures partly behind the pilaster, it seems as if we’re only seeing a glimpse of the landscape with all the people wanting to get baptized. To the right, just as in the Tribute Money, we see two Carmelites who listen to Peter’s sermon.

Brancacci chapel: Peter baptizes
Peter baptizes

The mountains in the Preaching continue along the side wall where Masaccio painted the Tribute Money. This achieves a trompe-l’oeil effect, as the landscape appears to actually continue behind the pilaster, making it seem very realistic. This effect was revealed during the restoration. This warrants a repeat of what was explained (briefly) earlier. The Preaching is a work by Masolino and the Baptism was painted by Masaccio. Masaccio, who painted the Tribute Money, also created the landscape in St. Peter Preaching. The rest of the work was still done by Masolino. Here too, as usual, painting was started on the top side. In the fresco of the baptism, the mountains were not painted by Masaccio, but by Masolino. This landscape is typical for Masolino’s style.

Later, after 1430, Masolino would paint a landscape in the Palazzo Brande in Castiglione Olona with similar pointy, treeless mountains. Masaccio always added trees to his landscapes as you can see in the Tribute Money.

Vasari was very impressed with the nude figure behind the man kneeling and being baptized. He writes:

Masaccio ‘Baptizes’

“In the scene where St. Peter is baptizing, a worthy mention is the nude figure who is shivering and quivering between his fellow baptized, a graceful depiction executed in the finest relief, which has always been admired and honoured by both the ancient and modern artists […]” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel I blz. 154 (originele editie 1568).

Brancacci chapel: Peter baptizes detail

A figure who was visibly cold was greatly admired in the Renaissance. No one had ever done this before. It was also seen as extremely difficult: a true difficultà. What Vasari does not mention is another great difficultà, namely how Masaccio paints the water. The droplets of water on the hair and skin of the kneeling man glide off him and drip into the running water.

Kneeling man

Brancacci chapel: Peter baptizes detail Masaccio
Masaccio Peter healing with his shadow  

Masaccio Peter healing with his shadow      The sick

Both stories are based on Acts (4:32 and 5:12). Any relief is blocked in the distribution of alms. Left and right through buildings where the backdrop with the high mountains sends the spectator’s eye back to the foreground. The white building stands diagonally on the picture plane in a diamond shape, which was unusual for that time. This is very different from Peter, who is healing the sick with his shadow. The street appears to actually break through the wall, while Peter and John are walking toward us. The difference between both frescoes was a conscious choice. In these frescoes, Peter represents the church. After all, he was the first pope. St. Peter with his shadow is the man saving the believer. In the Distribution of Alms, we see the church helping those in need, but also punishing the sinner.

Masolino ‘Distribution of Alms’      Mother with child

In the Distribution of Alms fresco, we see another story. A group of Christians agreed to sell all their possessions and donate them to the apostles. This allowed them to give alms to the poor. The woman with the child on her arms receives money from Peter. Peter’s hand shows part of what the Christians surrendered. One of the Christians, Ananias, doesn’t live up to the agreement. He withholds some of his money. Masaccio paints the moment when St. Peter has already uttered the words that Anasias was not deceiving the people, but God himself. As St. Peter spoke those words, Anasias dropped dead.

During the restoration, it was revealed that the cloak of John and the right bottom corner, including Ananias’ hands, were painted by Filippino Lippi (Casazza, O., ‘Masaccio’, Scala Istituto Fotografico Editoriale, Antella (Firenze), 1990 p. 52).

Masolino 'Distribution of Alms'

The first Christians in Jerusalem gathered at the colonnade of Solomon’s temple. This is where the sick were placed and it was hoped that St. Peter’s shadow would heal them as he passed (Acts 5: 12-16). Like the adjacent fresco on the right side wall, this too deals with miracles. Masaccio does not paint a temple, but a street with buildings that looks a lot like the square near the San Felicita in Florence that also had a monumental column. The church in the background re-appeared during the restoration when the altar was removed. The vanishing point of the lines is outside the fresco, namely at the head of Peter. This was visible in the painting about the crucifixion that served as an altarpiece and has disappeared.

Masaccio Peter healing with his shadow  detail

Four men      Cripple man

The story of Peter can only be understood if you read it from back to front. Peter and John walk toward the viewer, their eyes look dead ahead and they do not notice the sick. But Peter’s shadow has already done its job. The two standing men are healed. The man with crossed arms is just getting up and the face of the cripple man on who the shadow has fallen is now receiving the light of grace. According to Vasari, the man with the red cap is a portrait of Masolino. Vasari used this figure as a frontispiece for his Lives of Masolino from 1568.

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