The painting in the Santa Maria Novella 4/11
Masaccio’s Trinity 2/2

The Renaissance in Santa Maria Novella and the Trinity of Masaccio

Space and time in the Trinity

Masaccio 'The Holy Trinity' detail Santa Maria Novella

photo: Iris Ippel

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.109 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 'The Holy Trinity' detail Santa Maria Novella

photo: jean louis mazieres

Masaccio ‘The Holy Trinity’  c. 1426
Masaccio 'The Holy Trinity'  c. 1426 Santa Maria Novella

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.

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 complete mastery of perspective. It was done deliberately and turns the Holy Trinity into an incomprehensible mystery.

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.

Masaccio ‘St. Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow’
Brancacci Chapel
Masaccio 'St. Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow' Brancacci Chapel

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
Masaccio 'The Holy Trinity' detail Santa Maria Novella

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. 

‘I like there to be someone in the ‘historia’ [historical painting] who tells the spectators what is going on, and either beckons them with his hand to look [introductory figure], or with ferocious expression and forbidding glance challenges them not to come near, as if he wished their business to be secret, or points to some danger or remarkable thing in the picture, or by his gestures invites you to laugh or weep with them. Everything the people in the painting do among themselves, or perform in relation to the spectators, must fit together to represent and explain the ‘historia.’

Leon Battista Alberti, ‘On Painting’, trans. Cecil Grayson, Penguin Books, London 1991, book 2, 42, pp. 77–78 (original edition 1435).

Mary video working method foreshortening   John the Baptist
Masaccio 'The Holy Trinity' detail: face Mary Santa Maria Novella   Masaccio 'The Holy Trinity' detail: face John the Baptist Santa Maria Novella

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 use of a figure which, as it were, appeals to and guides the viewer already existed before Masaccio.110

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). 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. 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.111 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 peace112

Old entrance with avelli and the map of both squares

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.

Via Avelli           Old entrance          Large size
Via Avelli Florence

photo: Linda De Volder

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.113 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’.

‘I once was what you are now, and what I am, you too will be’
Masaccio 'The Holy Trinity' detail: 'I once was what you are now, and what I am, you too will be'

photo: Iris Ippel

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:

‘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)

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.114

Lorenzo Monaco ‘The intercession of Christ’ large size c. 1400
and Masaccio
Lorenzo Monaco 'The intercession of Christ' c. 1400 MET

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)..115

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.116 Traces of pouncing holes have been found in the ornament of the entablature. This indicates the use of a cardboard.

Masaccio ‘Trinity’ and video working method of Masaccio
Video restoration    Video giornati
Black parts: original paint has disappeared
Masaccio Triniteit

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.117 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.

Click here for the continuation of day 5