Masaccio ‘Holy Trinity’ (Santa Maria Novella) I

Gentil Fabriano ‘Two Magi’      ‘Adoration of the Magi’ 1423
Google Art project

At the beginning of the Quattrocento, most Italian artists worked in the international Gothic style. This style emphasizes decorative and graceful shapes. For instance, figures are often depicted slender and in graceful poses. They wear beautiful clothes, in line with the latest aristocratic fashion. The folds of the robes they wear do not fall down according to the laws of gravity, but form exuberant, almost calligraphic, patterns. Landscapes are usually filled with tiny rock formations with trees and beasts.  In proportion to the landscape, the figures are far too large. The middle ground is often omitted. Lorenzo Ghiberti was the master of international Gothic sculpture, at least as far as his first door of the Baptistery is concerned. The painters, Lorenzo Monaco and Gentile da Fabriano, were renowned artists from Florence who worked in this style. The Adoration of the Magi of Fabriano from around 1423 (Uffizi) is one example of the international Gothic style (Wikipedia).

Gentil Fabriano  'Adoration of the Magi' detail: 'Two Magi'

The Renaissance in Santa Maria Novella with the Holy Trinity of Masaccio

Giotto ‘Enthroned Madonna with Child; detail Mary and Child

Giotto ‘Enthroned Madonna with Child’ c. 1310      Zoom in

Thanks to Masaccio, another generation of artists appreciated Giotto’s ‘old style’. The old master, Giotto, was so excellent, according to Vasari, because he was the ‘first to produce well resembling images of existing people, by drawing from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years […] What Giotto had done around thirteen hundred was the imitator of nature (imitation) and thereby imitation del vero (true). The benchmark for good art is the extent to which an artist succeeds in faithfully depicting nature. Something that is by no means an easy feat, given the limited means available to a painter: a flat surface (panel or canvas), some pigments, binders and brushes. Realism, however, has its peculiarities, especially in the Renaissance. As an artist it is important to perfect nature. Alberti formulated this in his book on painting as follows: ‘So let us always take from nature whatever we are about to paint, and let us always choose the things that are most beautiful and worthy.’ This idea dates from the fifth century B.C. The famous story of the Greek painter Zeuxis about combining the most beautiful parts, is a wonderful illustration of how to perfect Mother Nature.

‘One day Zeuxis planned to make a painting of Helen of Troy – daughter of Zeus and Leda, also considered the ‘most beautiful woman in the world’ – for the inhabitants of the city of Agrigento (Sicily). There, the work would be placed in a temple of Hera. The artist held an inspection [François-André Vincent c. 1791] of all the girls in the city, deprived of their clothes, to judge their beauty. In the end, he selected five of them: he reproduced their most beautiful parts into his painting.’ Cited and translaterd from: Erftemeijer, A., ‘De aap van Rembrandt Kunstenaarsanekdotes van de klassieke oudheid tot heden’, Becht, Haarlem 2000 blz.12

Masaccio ‘Trinity’ c. 1427

Giotto had begun to draw directly from nature. He had reached an important breakthrough by discovering the already described ‘law of Apelles’. Yet Giotto’s work shows elements that are certainly not true to nature. Painters in the early Renaissance, and especially Masaccio, adopted a more lifelike manner. They followed, albeit somewhat later, the development of sculpture in Florence. It was Donatello who, in a relief of Saint George, had already created the illusion of depth on a flat surface. More than a decade later, around 1427, Masaccio painted a fresco with linear perspective for the first time, although not entirely flawless.

Masaccio 'Holy Trinity' c. 1427

There are no sources, nor is there a contract preserved on Trinity. The kneeling man on the left wears the clothing of a gonfalonieri di giustizia. This was a senior position in Florence that was only allowed to be held for two months.

The tombstone in the floor bears the inscription: ‘Domenico di Lenzo et suorum 1426.’ Domenico’s nephew was Lorenzo di Piero Lenzo. Under his term of office as gonfalonieri di guistizia, the feast of the Eucharist was instituted in August or September 1425. Yet it remains unclear whether this Domenico Lenzo is actually buried here as he was not originally buried in this church, but in the Ognissanti. If the kneeling man really depicts Domenico Lenzo, this fresco is actually a cenotaph.

Maso di Banco Chapel Bardi di Vernio (Santa Croce)

Maso di Banco Chapel Bardi di Vernio (Santa Croce)

The whole is reminiscent of what Maso di Banco painted one century earlier in the Bardi di Vernio in Santa Croce. Yet there are substantial differences. The style is completely different, the ‘new style’ of Maso looks very old compared to Masaccio. Furthermore, Maso painted a Last Judgement and Masaccio a Holy Trinity. And while Maso di Banco only refers to the donor and his family, Masaccio addresses the visitors of the church.

Masaccio ‘Holy Trinity’ c. 1427       Zoom in

Masaccio ' Holy Trinity' c. 1427
photo zoom: Lawrence OP

The Trinity was a popular theme in funerary art. It allowed one to show there was still hope for mankind after the crucifixion. Hope and belief in salvation are already shown in this fresco by juxtaposing the mortal and the immortal.

Thanks to Vasari’s careful description of the work and its location in the church, Masaccio’s fresco can now be seen again, although it has suffered greatly. In 1570 Vasari painted a panel depicting Madonna del Rosario on the site of Masaccio’s fresco. The Maria del Rosario now hangs in the Cappella Bardi. “During the dismantling of the Madonna del Rosario [1860] Masaccio’s Trinità was rediscovered.” (Iris Ippel). In 1951 Ugo Procacci discovered the lower part with the painted tomb in the northern aisle. The two separate parts were brought together again in 1954 at the original spot where we can still see it today. Unfortunately the fresco is in a bad condition. Moreover, not everything currently on display was painted by Masaccio. For example, the lower part of Maria is missing and has been completely repainted.

Masaccio ' Holy Trinity' detail: Christ Holy Ghost Jesus
photos: Steven Zucker

Barrel-shaped vaulting

“In S. Maria Novella, also, below the tramezzo of the church, he painted a Trinity in fresco, […] On the sides are two figures on their knees, which, in so far as it can be determined, are portraits of the men who had the picture painted; but little is seen of them, for they have been covered with a gilt ornament. But the most beautiful thing, apart from the figures, is a barrel-shaped vaulting, drawn in perspective and divided into squares filled with rosettes, which are foreshortened and made to diminish so well that the wall appears to be pierced.” Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Lives of the Artists’ Gutenberg p. 186

The perspective in the barrel vault is not entirely correct. For example, the coffers directly above the walls are too large. While Brunelleschi understood the application of perspective, he did not document it; this task was undertaken by Alberti, who authored a manual on its application. The definitive proof and correct application of perspective, however, came from Piero della Francesca in his ‘Flagellation‘ painted between 1468 and 1470 (Wikipedia “De Prospectiva Pingendi’).

The invention of perspective, or the so-called ‘hole in the wall’, is attributed to Brunelleschi. Around 1410-1415 he experimented at the Duomo, the Baptistery, and the Palazzo della Signoria (Vecchio). In these experiments Brunelleschi painted two panels with the use of a linear perspective: one of the Baptistery and the other of the Palazzo Vecchio. These paintings have been lost, but they have been described by Brunelleschi’s biographer Manetti in his ‘Vita di Brunelleschi’.

Brunelleschi was neither a painter nor a mathematician, but an architect. As an architect he was probably very aware of what a building looks like from a certain angle.

It was not until the twenties of the Quattrocento that Brunelleschi’s method established itself in painting. Probably because within the existing tradition of painting there was no need to depict buildings correctly by means of complicated procedures. The old way of working was considered sufficient to create depth in the paintings.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti ‘Annunciation’ 1344 127 x 120 cm

Ambrogio Lorenzetti ‘Annunciation’ 1344

As early as the fourteenth century, the Sienese Duccio and the Florentine Giotto, but especially their younger contemporaries Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, used parallel lines to create more sense of depth. This can be clearly seen in the Annunciation of Ambrogio (Pinacoteca of Siena). Although there is depth in the Annunciation of Ambrogio Lorenzetti, it does not yet have a proper linear perspective.

Masaccio Rosette in arch spandrel
Brunelleschi Rosette in arch spandrel hidden under Baroque layer

Masaccio’s architectural paintings are very similar to Brunelleschi’s work. This can be clearly seen in the Barbadori Chapel in Santa Felicita. Inside this chapel, there still exists an arch spandrel with a pillar and a rosette in it, which is hidden under a later applied Baroque layer. In the fresco, ‘The Trinity’, we can see a painted version of this combination. More than likely, Masaccio had help from Brunelleschi. It is even quite possible that the signatures on the now disappeared arriccio were applied by Brunelleschi.

Masaccio 'Holy Trinity' detail: Rosette in arch spandrel

The tradition of Masaccio’s Mercy Seat and Holy Trinity

Everything about the Holy Trinity of Masaccio is unusual (Mercy Seat miniature). No traditional background with gold, landscapes or clouds like in the Mercy Seat of Nardo di Cione. This type was always combined with an anachronistic group of saints in the adjoining panels. The triptych of Nardo di Cione was very popular among other artists. His composition was often copied. All of these works show a non-historical approach without a specific time or space. Therefore making it ideal for a devotional altarpiece.

Nardo di Cione ‘Throne of Grace’ 1356

Nardo di Cione 'Throne of Grace' 1356
Web Gallery of Art and Feast of Romuald

Masaccio ‘Trinity’ c. 1427

Masaccio positions his Trinity in a spacious area with a barrel vault and an arch reminiscent of a classic triumphal arch. The type of architecture remains unclear. Is it a church, a chapel, a mausoleum or a triumphal arch? Masaccio was the first to cast the Trinity as a Mercy Seat, a traditional theme in painting, in a monumental form. The fresco measures no less than 667 x 317 cm. In order to reach a height of 667 cm, even a part of the wall surface near a window has been filled in and flattened out. All figures, including the skeleton on the painted tomb, are life-sized, which is unprecedented for that time. This, of course, contributes greatly to the Renaissance’s pursuit of realism.

Gentile da Fabriano ‘Adoration of the Magi’ c. 1423 Uffizi
Google Art project

Mary       Zoom out

A comparison between the Holy Trinity of Masaccio and Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi shows how innovative Masaccio was. Four years before Masaccio finished his Holy Trinity, Gentile painted his altarpiece in the international style. Masaccio’s work is not graceful, but majestic. One glance at Masaccio’s Mary renders any explanation unnecessary. Compared to those of Masaccio, the figures of Gentile da Fabriano in his Strozzi altarpiece (for the Santa Trinita, now in the Uffizi) resemble dolls.

Brunelleschi’s theory did not explain how to depict figures in different places at the right size. The figures in Masaccio’s fresco are too large in proportion to the architecture. This was probably done on purpose. With the right proportions, the figures would no longer be life-sized. And it is precisely this size that impresses the viewer.

Masaccio used a modular system in his fresco. A system which Brunelleschi also applied in the San Lorenzo and the Santo Spirito, as described earlier. The base was the Florentine palmo, which is half a braccia or 29.18 cm. The distance from the stone floor in the church to the one in the fresco is seven palmi, exactly the same distance as from the painted floor to the arms of the cross. This distance is also reflected in the diameter of the barrel vault. The perspective shape of the entire barrel vault fits exactly into a square of seven palmi.

Continuation Florence day 5: Masaccio ‘Holy Trinity’ (Santa Maria Novella) II