The painting in the Santa Maria Novella 3/11

Masaccio’s Holy Trinity 1/2

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

Masaccio ‘Holy Trinity’ in the Santa Maria Novella
Masaccio 'The Holy Trinity' in the Santa Maria Novella

photo: jean louis mazieres

Santa Maria Novella and Masaccio’s Holy Trinity large size
Masaccio ‘Trinity’
Santa Maria Novella and Masaccio’s Holy Trinity

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.

Gentile da Fabriano  ‘Adoration of the Magi’ c. 1423 Uffizi
Large size google art project      Video Khan Academy (6.09 minutes)
Gentile da Fabriano  'Adoration of the Magi' c. 1423 Uffizi

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 […]’100 Wat Giotto rond dertienhonderd had gedaan was het imitatore della natura (nabootsen) en daarmee imitatione del vero (ware).101 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.’102 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 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.’103

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 constructed for the first time a fresco with a linear perspective.

Donatello ‘Saint George’ detail Orsanmichele
Donatello 'Saint George' detail Orsanmichele

The Holy Trinity or Trinity of Masaccio in Santa Maria Novella

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.

Masaccio Trinity Santa Maria Novella donor   Masaccio Trinity Santa Maria Novella donor

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 and Taddeo Gaddi two burial niches c. 1340
Cappella Bardi di Vernio Santa Croce
aso di Banco and Taddeo Gaddi two burial niches c. 1340 Cappella 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.

1. Video Khan Academy Trinity (8.36)
2. Video lecture  professor Vida Hull (102.49 – 115.49 minutes)

Masaccio ‘Trinity’ c. 1426 perspective     Large size
Video  perspective (7.57 minutes)
Masaccio Trinity

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.104 The Maria del Rosario now hangs in the Cappella Bardi. “During the dismantling of the Madonna del Rosario [in 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 (see image with mouseover).

A hole in the wall: the linear perspective

Vasari writes the following about the Trinity that seems to break through the wall:

‘In Santa Maria Novella, he also painted a fresco of the Trinity below the choir screen of the church and above the altar of Saint Ignatius, placed between Our Lady and Saint John the Evangelist as they contemplate the Crucified Christ. At the sides are two kneeling figures who are, as far as can be determined, portraits of those who had him paint the work, but they are hardly visible, since they are covered by a gold decoration. None the less, what is most beautiful, besides the figures, is the barrel vault drawn in perspective and divided in squares full of rosettes which are so well diminished and foreshortened that the wall appears to have holes in it.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Lives of the Artists’, trans. J.C. Bondanella and P.E. Bondanella, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, part II p. 104 (original edition 1568).

1. Video Khan Academy Masaccio’s Trinity ( 8.36 minutes)
2. Video Masaccio’s Trinity (7.57 minutes; very worthwhile)
3. Video Brunelleschi as inventor of the linear  perspective
4. Video Brunelleschi and the lineaire perspective

This marks the first time that linear perspective has been used in painting. 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.

Lorenzetti ‘Annunciation’ 1344
Lorenzetti 'Annunciation' 1344

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’.105

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.

In 1436, twenty-one years after Brunelleschi’s experiments, Alberti described perspective. The Italian edition of ‘On Painting’, published a year after the first edition in Latin, was dedicated to Brunelleschi. Alberti’s method of perspective is truly different from Brunelleschi’s approach. Among other things, Alberti speaks of a vanishing point.106 With such a vanishing point, the diagonals are not just more diagonals, but lines in a controlled pattern. Yet the result of both methods is the same: the illusion of depth is created on a flat surface.

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.

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.107

Masaccio ‘Trinity detail  and video painting rosette
Rosette in arch spandrel Brunelleschi Barbadori Chapel hidden under Baroque layer 
 Oude Sacristie San Lorenzo Brunelleschi

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 ‘Mercy Seat with Saints’
Nardo di Cione 'Mercy Seat with Saints'

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.

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.

Gentile da Fabriano ‘Adoration of the Magi’ c. 1423 Uffizi large size

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 ‘Holy Trinity’  c. 1426
Masaccio 'Holy Trinity'  c. 1426

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.108

Click here for the continuation of day 5