Masaccio and Linear Perspective

“In the Middle Ages, the period before the Renaissance, most art in Europe featured heavenly figures devoted to the worship of Christ. Because the people in Medieval paintings were citizens of heaven and the artists painting these pictures had never actually seen heaven, the background was left to the imagination and the teachings of the church. Gold backgrounds were very common, as the air in heaven surely must be precious. When people became more interested in the world around them and the ideas of other people rather than heaven and the teachings of Christ and the saints, landscapes and buildings began to show up in paintings. Everyone could see landscapes and buildings everyday so one of the essential artistic problems of the Renaissance became how to paint landscapes and buildings in pictures so that they looked the same as in real life.”
“Discovering Linear Perspective,” The Renaissance Connection (Allentown Art Museum)

Linear Perspective
Linear perspective was one of the major breakthroughs of the Renaissance.  It was discovered by Brunelleschi, and later codified by the architect Alberti in his treatise On Painting, published in 1435; but it was first applied by Masaccio in his Trinity Altarpiece.  In a linear perspective system, parallel lines are made to converge on a single vanishing point (like the parallel lines of a railroad track).  Vertical elements diminish in size as they recede into depth, while the spacing between horizontal lines also gets smaller as they move further back in space.

Empirical versus Linear Perspective
Jan Van Eyck used a form of perspective in his Arnolfini Wedding, but he was using empirical perspective, based on observation rather than a mathematically precise system.  The resulting work is imprecise, with figures that are too large for the room they occupy, and there are inconsistencies in the space.  The perspective system used by Renaissance artists, on the other hand, was precise, and it was based on a mathematical system that determined the size of objects within the space, and exactly how much they should diminish as they recede into depth.

Linear perspective was important because it gave artists the tools to create a convincing illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface.  If Renaissance art strove to “bring the divine down to earth,” linear perspective made it possible to create a fully rational space for figures to inhabit.

How One Point Linear Perspective Works (Smarthistory)

Masaccio, Trinity Altarpiece, c. 1424-1427. Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Masaccio’s Trinity Altarpiece was commissioned by the Lenzi family, who are seen kneeling on a ledge below the crucifixion.  Mr Lenzi is dressed in the red robes of a galfoniere, the elected leader of the Florentine Republic.  He and his wife pray piously towards a vision of the Holy Trinity.  The Lord stands behind his crucified son, while the Dove of the Holy Spirit hovers between their heads.  The Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist flank the crucifixion, as was customary in Medieval art.  Below, a painted image of a skeleton lies within a coffin with the inscription “I was once what you are, and what I am you will become.”

The Trinity Altarpiece is very Medieval in its subject matter:  the skeleton functions as a momento mori (“reminder of death”), and the necessity of prayer as a path to salvation is clearly spelled out.  What is revolutionary about the picture is the way that Masaccio painted it. Using Brunelleschi’s linear perspective for the first time, Masaccio placed his figures in an illusionary architectural niche that is so precise it can be measured.  The barrel-vaulted niche, with its coffers and classical detail, was no doubt a tribute to Brunelleschi’s classically-inspired architecture.

Christ as Pantokrator, Church of the Dormition, Daphne, Greece, c. 1090-1100

To fully appreciate the implications of Masaccio’s breakthrough, we must recall how God was represented in Medieval art.  Untouchable and remote, God was meant to be understood as beyond human comprehension.  Masaccio, on the other hand, has brought God into our world (much like his son entered our world by becoming flesh and blood), and placed him in a space that can be measured and understood.  The mysteries of God are no longer inaccessible to us, but literally within our reach.  As the Renaissance Connection website sums up:

“The act of painting would no longer be to glorify God, as it had been in Medieval Europe. Painting in the Renaissance related instead, to those people looking at the painting.”
“Discovering Linear Perspective,” The Renaissance Connection (Allentown Art Museum)

Masaccio, Holy Trinity, c. 1427, Fresco, 667 x 317 cm, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

Masaccio’s Tribute Money was part of a larger cycle of frescos completed for the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence.  The patron was Felice Brancacci, a wealthy silk merchant and diplomat.  The frescos in the chapel all focus on the life of Saint Peter, and revolve around the theme of charity and civic duty.

Masaccio, The Tribute Money, c. 1424-1427. The Brancacci Chapel, Florence

Peter retrieving the coin from the fish; detail of The Tribute MoneyIn this scene Christ and his disciples are stopped by a Roman guard who demands they pay a tax before entering the city (sort of like paying a toll to cross the George Washington Bridge).  Since the group had no money, Christ gestures towards Peter to fetch a coin from the mouth of a fish.  Peter appears a second time in the scene, kneeling down to retrieve the coin, and he appears yet again on the right, placing the coin into the tax collector’s palm.  This narrative device is called continuous narration, and it enabled the artist to tell the story as if unfolding through time.

Like Giotto, Masaccio used modeling with light and shade to give his figures volume and weight.  But Masaccio took Giotto’s innovations even further.   For the first time, Masaccio used a single light source (corresponding to an actual window in the chapel), so that the lighting on the figures comes from a consistent direction, and the cast shadows correspond logically to the direction of the light.

Masaccio also expanded upon Giotto’s accomplishments by his treatment of space.  While Giotto had placed his figures on a shallow stage, Masaccio creates the illusion of a landscape setting that recedes far into the distance.  To create this illusion, Masaccio used several techniques:

  • He used linear perspective to create the illusion that the buildings on the right recede into depth
  • He used diminishing size in the figures and trees, so that they get smaller as they recede into space (notice how much smaller Peter is in the background)
  • Finally, Masaccio used atmospheric perspective (also called aerial perspective) to make the mountains in the background appear distant.  By making them “blurry,” they look like they are far away.

Why This Story?
The story of The Tribute Money was not a common subject in the Renaissance (it is admittedly a pretty boring story).  It so happens that when this painting was commissioned, there was a controversial tax (called the catasto) being proposed in Florence to pay for its war against the Duke of Milan.  Those in favor of the tax used stories from the life of Christ to support their position, and the story of the Tribute Money was one of them:  if Christ consented to pay a tax (after all, he was a God, and he could have turned the tax collector into a monkey if he wanted to!), then this certainly meant that he supported the idea of taxation!

A predecessor of the modern income tax, the catasto would have placed a heavy burden on men like Felice Brancacci.  Nonetheless, the frescos in his chapel all center on the theme of the civic duty of charity, so it is possible that the patron chose this story to advertise his support for the tax!

Masaccio, The Tribute Money, 1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

Listen to one more Smarthistory conversation about Masaccio that sums up his achievement:

Masaccio (Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone), Virgin and Child Enthroned, 1426, tempera on panel (National Gallery, London).  Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Other Artists Using Linear Perspective

Domenico da Veneziano, St. Lucy Altarpiece, 1447
Uffizi Gallery

Everybody started using perspective!  This painting by Domenico da Venziano (a Venetian painter working in Florence) is a large altarpiece depicting the Virgin enthroned with the Christ Child on her lap, surrounded by Saints (Saint Francis and Saint John the Baptist on the left, and Saint Zenobius and Saint Lucy on the right).  The image is of a type known as a sacra conversazione, or “sacred conversation,” where Saints are brought together in one space, as if they are having a holy conversation:

“In 15th-century works the saints are only rarely engaged in actual conversation; they are frequently meditating or reading. Often one looks out at the viewer, while another gestures towards the Virgin and Child directing the viewer’s attention to their presence as the focal point of the altarpiece.”
Sacra Conversazione, National Gallery, London

Giovanni dal Ponte, Ascension of St. John the Evangelist, c. 1420-4
Giovanni dal Ponte, Ascension of St. John the Evangelist, c. 1420-4

Departing from the traditional convention of representing the Saints in separate panels (as in the example above), Venziano creates the illusion that the figures are inhabiting the same room.  Using the new science of linear perspective, he is able to create a space that is so logical and coherent, we feel as if we could step right into the painting and join the conversation!

Domenico Veneziano, Saint Lucy Altarpiece, 1445-47, tempera on wood panel, 82 1/4 x 85″ or 209 x 216 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris 

Fra Angelico, Annunciation, c. 1438-1447. Monastery of San Marco, Florence

Humanism and religion were not mutually exclusive in 15th century Florence.  This can be seen particularly well in the work of Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk who became prior of the monastery of San Marco in Florence.  In spite of his position within the church, Fra Angelico was a pioneer in the new style of painting, and his work was widely sought by patrons:

“Masaccio’s groundbreaking use of mathematical perspective and his sculptural treatment of the human figure during the mid- and late 1420s powerfully affected Florentine art. Angelico adapted some of the younger painter’s innovations to refine his own advances toward the depiction of three-dimensional forms in logically constructed spatial settings. Following Masaccio’s premature death around 1428, Angelico emerged as the city’s most modern and sought-after artist. As his clientele quickly expanded beyond the Dominican community over the following ten years, he completed a large number of altarpieces, private devotional works, and fresco commissions”
Fra Angelico, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History 

This fresco is one of series commissioned by Cosimo de Medici to decorate the Monastery of San Marco (Cosimo sponsored the building of the monastery, and had his own cell where he could retire for prayer and meditation).  Fra Angelico used the new science of perspective in his image of the Annunciation, but this hardly diminishes the pious atmosphere of the work.  Set in a plain loggia, furnished only with a rough wooden bench, the Virgin Mary receives the miraculous news with a serene gesture that indicates her willing submission to God.  Despite the naturalism of the scene, the figures have a spiritual quality that recalls the ethereal angels of the Italo-Byzantine style.  Here, we see Humanism co-existing with a deeply spiritual commitment.

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, c. 1438-47, fresco, 230 x 321 cm (Convent of San Marco, Florence).  Speakers: Dr Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with Angels, c. 1455. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Fra Filippo Lippi was also a monk, but his personality was very different from Fra Angelico. Orphaned as a child, he was placed in a monastery for upbringing and soon discovered that he was not suited for monastic life!  Known for his “lusty” behavior, he ran off with a pretty young nun named Lucretia, and he was eventually de-frocked (i.e. he was kicked out of the monastery).

Lippi’s early work was influenced by Masaccio, but he developed a unique linear style that endowed his figures with a delicate grace and sense of movement.  His fluid use of line would have a deep influence on his pupil, Sandro Botticelli.

Lippi’s Madonna is fashionably dressed (it is said that Lippi used Lucretia as his model), and is seated at a window with a landscape view behind her.  Her halo has been reduced to just the faintest circle, while her fine clothes and aristocratic setting (the window suggests the view from a country villa) seem to emphasize her beauty and wealth, rather than her spiritual purity.   The baby Jesus also seems much more “down to earth.”  He has the true proportions of a toddler, with a large head, rosy cheeks, and chubby limbs.  The angel supporting him glances at the viewer with the mischievous expression of a naughty child.   This “worldly” and seemingly profane image of the Virgin represents an increasing humanization of religious themes, as Renaissance artists re-envisioned the spiritual in terms of the sensual beauty of their own physical world.

Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with two Angels, c. 1460-1465, tempera on panel, 95 x 63.5 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)

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