Masaccio and the Holy Trinity

Mark Michael Astarita - 

Painted in 1427, The Holy Trinity (Santa Trinità) by Masaccio is an elaborate piece of artwork that uses numerous stylistic techniques characteristic of the Early Italian Renaissance. Born in 1401 under the name Tomasso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, Masaccio expertly used the location and subjects of the work to, not only convey a sense of beauty, but also inspire trends that would influence later Italian art movements. Masaccio’s The Holy Trinity with the Madonna, St. John the Evangelist, and donors was truly revolutionary for its time, and influenced the Renaissance as a whole.

Auto-portrait of Masaccio

The subjects of The Holy Trinity are God the Father, the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, the Madonna, St. John the Evangelist, and two donors from the Lenzi family. The painting portrays a chapel with a barrel vault and coffers, and showcases a crucified Christ with God the Father holding him. The Madonna and St. John the Evangelist are intermediaries between the divine and the mortal donors. At the bottom of the painting is a Lenzi tomb with the inscription stating, “I was once what you are and you will become what I am.” Masaccio was ambitious with his wide subject choices.

The setting of this work, and all Renaissance works, is quintessential to understanding the full meaning. The work is in situ, or its original location. It was painted across from the entrance door of the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. He uses scientific perspective to create a 3D space in a 2D picture plane using orthogonal lines. He also uses one point perspective, with the vanishing point on Christ, drawing the viewer’s eyes to him. The perspective painting style also makes the chapel the characters occupying it look realistic, like it is a chapel actually constructed and attached to the church. It is suggested Brunelleschi helped Masaccio imagine this space, as it looks strikingly similar to the Cardini chapel he designed.

The artwork itself lies in front of the tomb, which instills a stark memento mori, or a reminder of death. The tomb may have belonged to the Berti family of the Santa Maria Novella Quarter who are often cited as commissioners of the painting. The juxtaposition of the artwork and the tomb can be described as an artistic rendition of complementary motifs, where the sum of the tomb and the art is better than each separately placed. The two contributed to Renaissance thought and its artistic wonder is only paralleled by the unknown origins of the painting.

The Holy Trinity

It was widely accepted that Masaccio worked as an apprentice under another artist. However, little record can be found as to who and when this occurred. Thus, it is difficult to say through whom he experienced his first artistic epiphany or influential artistic motifs. Revolutionary for his time, Masaccio was one of the most celebrated Florentines who profoundly shaped artistic ideas of the natural world, as described by Giorgio Vasari. His hallmark oeuvre d’art embodied the shift away from the dreary Gothic architecture of yesteryears, and the gradual shift towards paintings that embodied the rebirth, or Renaissance, of classical art and architecture. The painting was revered for its usage of chiaroscuro, or lights and darks, in the characters make them seem three dimensional with depth, not just flat people in the foreground of the picture plane. This pattern was notably used in later artworks, including Caravaggio, who further developed the practice into his style of tenebrism, and even Rembrandt van Rijn.

Symbol of the Arte dei Medici e Speziali

Masaccio passed a year after his hallmark creation in 1428. He left no pupils to directly carry on his legacy. However, the intricate patterns and innovative designs in his style influenced later generations of humanists in the Renaissance. It is possible that many of his ideas were coveted by other members of his guild, the Arte dei Medici e Speziali. From Raphael to Michelangelo, and even lesser known artists like Piero della Francesca, the future artists of the Renaissance utilized Masaccio’s paintings as one from which major themes could be drawn, including those concerning lighting, fixture, and realism.

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