Masaccio ‘Holy Trinity’ (Santa Maria Novella) II

Masaccio ‘Holy Trinity’ in situ

Masaccio 'Holy Trinity' in situ
photo: Steven Zucker

Space and time in the Trinity

God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Christ

According to art historian Rona Goffen, Masaccio uses space in his sacred trinity in a very refined and deliberate way. Time and space are in fact connected. As a devotional work, the Trinity is timeless, or at least that part where God the Father, the Holy Spirit (the dove) and Christ can be seen on the cross. The fresco also becomes more narrative where John and Mary are located. Both are mourning at the cross. They are positioned closer to the viewer and lower in the picture plane.

Masaccio 'Triniy' detail:God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Christ

This is where the boundaries between devotion and narrative blur. After all, the narrative is always tied to place and time. The two donors belong to a different time than that of the crucifixion and this, of course, also applies to the skeleton closest to the viewer. The skeleton has a double meaning. Its text warns that life is short and thereby calls for a virtuous life. In addition, the skeleton also refers to Adam as the first human being. During the Middle Ages, it was believed that Christ’s cross stood on the same spot as Adam’s tomb. The death of the second Adam (Jesus as man and God) redeems the sin of the first. Adam is liberated by the blood of Christ that ran down on the cross. Masaccio thus refers to the crucifixion on the place of the skull, and therefore also to the redemption of Adam and mankind. Besides, Masaccio has depicted Christ’s cross on a very, very small mountain in front of the place of the skull.

Adam’s tomb

Masaccio 'Trinity" detail: tomb
photos: Steven Zucker

In the fresco, Masaccio has given the events different places in space, each corresponding to a specific time. The inexplicable mystery of the Trinity in the form of an abstract and non-narrative formula of the Mercy Seat, is a timeless one. The Trinity itself is placed at the back of the space. As a viewer you are left in the dark about where exactly God the Father is. This is no coincidence, Masaccio was in mastery of perspective. It was done deliberately and turns the Holy Trinity into an incomprehensible mystery.

St. Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow      In situ

In the Brancacci Chapel, Masaccio already shows how he depicts time in St. Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow. In this work, the placement of the figures within the perspective space also creates time. Saint Peter moves just like his shadow. Where he has walked past, the sick have already been healed, and where he will arrive, not yet. One man is in the process of standing up. The other cripple is looking up at Peter with a hopeful gaze. Past and future in one single space: a street in Florence, where Peter walks through. In the Trinity there is also a close connection between the figures in space and time.

photo in situ: Kotomi_

As usual, Mary and John the Baptist stand beside the cross. They refer to the crucifixion. John looks up to the Redeemer, while Mary looks down on us. The powerful portrayal of Mary is an astonishing innovation. There is no forerunner of this in the history of art. The church, as the name says, is dedicated to Mary. Her gesture is like an exhortation to accept the sacrifice. Her role is central to this Trinity. Masaccio’s Mary has no feminine beauty or sweetness.

Masaccio 'Trinity' detail

A determined, monumental woman is shown here. The way Mary looks out of the picture space, is reminiscent of what Alberti recommended to the painter in his book on painting about nine years later. 

Masaccio 'Holy Trinity' detail: Mary

“In the performance, there should be someone who clearly communicates to the spectators what is happening, either by beckoning them to look with a hand [introductory figure], or by warning them with a stern face and a forbidding gaze not to come closer, as if he wanted to keep their dealings a secret, or by pointing out a danger or something that should be admired. Alternatively, he may invite you to laugh or cry together with him through his gestures. Finally, it is necessary that everything the depicted figures do with the spectators or with each other contributes to the action and the explanation of the performance.” Cited and translated from: Alberti, ‘Over de schilderkunst,’ Boom, Amsterdam Meppel 1996 (vertaling Lex Hermans Inleiding en annotaties Caroline van Eck en Robert Zwijnenberg; eerste uitgave 1435) blz. 110

Or is it the other way around, and did Alberti’s advice come only after he saw Masaccio’s work in Santa Maria Novella? The Italian version of De Pictura, the Della Pittura from 1436, was dedicated by Alberti to Brunelleschi. The use of a figure which, as it were, appeals to and guides the viewer already existed before Masaccio. 

The Trinity and the Dominicans’ views on the Christian community

The cemetery which is now on the right of the Santa Maria Novella, was originally located in front of the façade (click here for the map of the old and the new square and the Planta del Buonsignori; Wikipedia). By the end of the thirteenth century, the church was considerably extended. The old nave became the transept of the new church and a nave was built at the correct angles to it. This implied that the old square, Piazza Vecchia, was no longer in front of the main entrance, but on the east side.

Fabio Borbottoni ‘Piazza Nuova’        ‘Piazza Vecchio’
Map         Pianta del Buonsignori 

Fabio Borbottoni 'Piazza Nuova'   Santa Maria Novella

The monumental entrance of the cemetery from 1301 still reminds us of the old situation before the extension of the Santa Maria Novella. The old habit of entering the church from the east side remained for a long time. According to art historian Verdon, this has had a great influence on Masaccio’s depiction of the theme. The Dominicans played a very active role in keeping the peace between different families, such as the Pazzis, Donatis and Adimaris and groups fighting each other. At the old square, the Dominicans ensured that peace was made between fiercely fighting factions. The chronicler Giovanni Villani describes how the leaders of these groups, under pressure from the Dominicans, were forced to promise peace: “He [Dominican cardinal] caused them [two rows of 150 members of each group each] to kiss each other on the mouth […] and make peace (Verdon, T.,’Masaccio’s Trinity: theological, social, and civic meanings’, in: Ahl, D.C., (edited) The Cambridge Companion to Masaccio, Cambridge University Press 2002 174-175).

Cemetery of the Santa Maria Novella

Santa Maria Novella Cemetery
photos: Rodrigo Vera and niches: Avital Pinnick

The Trinity fits perfectly within the ideology of the Dominicans in which all people are members of the same Christian community and are supposed to co-exist in harmony. The parishioners from the Quartier di Santa Maria Novella, who entered their church through Piazza Vecchio, first had to pass through the entrance gate of the cemetery. Here lie their relatives, acquaintances and fellow members of brotherhoods of which some were members. These graves were marked with crosses. Besides, the avelli, or grave niches, on the east side near the old square and the front of the church, are also quite remarkable. Many a wealthy family had bought a grave here.

Vasari not only painted another fresco on Masaccio’s Trinity, as already mentioned, but he also constructed the old high Gothic entrance after 1560. This passage was exactly in line with the fresco of Masaccio. In addition, the church originally had a choir screen separating the front part where the common faithful were allowed to go, and the choir section that was exclusively reserved for the Dominicans. When you entered the church on the east side, there was a holy water basin right next to a pillar. After cleaning your hands, you immediately saw that ‘striking hole’ in the wall: the Holy Trinity with an altar in front of it. An altar similar to the one you can still see today in the chapel of Strozzi. The lower part of the Trinity must have been clearly visible beneath the altar. The inscription on the sarcophagus with the skeleton reads as follows: IO FUI GIÀ QUEL CHE VOI SIETE, E QUEL CHIO’SON VOI ANCO SARETE or ‘I once was what you are now, and what I am, you too will be’.

Adam’s tomb

Masaccio 'Trinity' detail: tomb
photos: Steven Zucker

Next to the Holy Trinity we see Mary, the Mother of God, and John the Baptist. According to the evangelist John (19: 26-27), John was identified by Christ himself as a son of Mary. In a prayer that Christ uttered at the Last Supper, the night before he died, he asked his Father the following:

John the Baptist
‘My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one’ John 17: 20-23 (New International Version 2011)

Masaccio 'Trinity' detail: John the Baptist
photos: Yannick

Lorenzo Monaco ‘Intercession of Christ and the Virgin’ before 1402

This view about true believers as one big family, and about the crucifixion as an opportunity for man to be redeemed, is the joyful message the churchgoer immediately saw when he entered the church through the east side. A message that is no different from what Lorenzo Monaco painted about twenty-five years earlier. Masaccio must have known this altarpiece from Monaco, because it hung on a prominent place in the Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo), on the main door.


The style of the two artists, Monaco and Masaccio, shows great differences. Lorenzo Monaco’s work is medieval and Masaccio’s Trinity dates from the Renaissance. However, the message of both pieces of art is the same. Lorenzo Monaco painted the Holy Trinity as well: God the Father, the Holy Spirit and his Son. In addition, one can still see Mary pointing out the people who, in accordance with traditional medieval hierarchy, are depicted small. The texts Lorenzo painted on the altarpiece reveal what the painter wanted to express. Mary, who kneels down and raises one of her breasts to Christ, says: ‘My dear Son, for the milk I gave you, have mercy on these people’. Christ, pointing with one hand at his wound and with the other at his mother, speaks: ‘My Father, let those be saved for whom you wished me to suffer the Passion’. God the Father answers by sending the Holy Spirit (symbolized as a dove).

In Masaccio’s work, however, the two donors of the altarpiece are depicted on the same scale as the other figures. But they are located in the same room as the churchgoer. The viewer becomes part of the Christian family as well, due to a pyramidal composition. This means that he or she can also be redeemed, thanks to the sacrifice that the son of God made for man by dying on the cross.

Masaccio might have used cartons for each of the 28 giornati. Another possibility is that he used a modular system in which he could convert the modello to the dimensions of the fresco. Traces of pouncing holes have been found in the ornament of the entablature. This indicates the use of a cardboard.

The fresco is heavily damaged, with some original parts (black) missing. During the last restoration, a number of traces have been discovered that reveal how Brunelleschi worked. For example, nail holes were identified. Furthermore, Masaccio used ropes to establish the lines of perspective. In the case of Christ on the cross, the pattern of these ropes is still clearly visible. He also used a stylus to carve lines in the chalk. These notches are easy to see on the rosettes. The face of Mary still bears a lozenge pattern. This would have been used to enlarge the modello. However, according to art historian Borsook, the pattern in her face was not used to convert a modello to true scale. The pattern is not completely uniform: it consists of squares and rectangles. Masaccio only used this pattern for this particular spot in the fresco. Mary’s face is painted from below and foreshortened. Such a pattern was needed for this kind of difficultà. It was not entirely successful, given the remarkable shape of Mary’s face.

Continuation Florence day 5: Uccello in the Chiostro Verde (Santa Maria Novella)