The Holy Trinity by Masaccio
Interpretation of Early Renaissance Biblical Fresco Painting

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The Holy Trinity by Masaccio
The Holy Trinity by Masaccio.
A highly innovative work
of Christian art, it is
regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Holy Trinity (1428)

Contents

Description
Interpretation/Meaning of The Holy Trinity
Further Resources

Description

Artist: Masaccio (1401-28)
Medium: Fresco painting
Genre: Religious art
Movement: Early Renaissance
Location: Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

For more masterpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.


Posters of The Holy Trinity
Fine art posters of paintings
by Masaccio, are
widely available online.
See also: Poster Art.

Art Appreciation
To understand paintings
by Masaccio,
see our educational
article for students:
Art Evaluation:
How to Appreciate Art
.

Interpretation

One of the iconic works of Renaissance art, The Holy Trinity with the Virgin and Saint John and donors (1428) can be seen in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence. Like many paintings produced during the Renaissance in Florence, it is both religious and secular: it depicts the Trinity of God the Father, Christ the Son and the Holy Ghost (symbolized by a white dove), and also functions as a commercial portrait of the donor or patron. The work is believed to have been commissioned by Domenico Lenzi and his wife, as a mural painting for the family remembrance chapel at Santa Maria Novella. However, the feature that makes it one of the greatest Renaissance paintings of the 15th century, is its use of single-point linear perspective to organize its composition. Its 27-year old creator Tommaso di Giovanni Masaccio (1401-28) was to Renaissance painting what Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was to architecture, and Donatello (1386-1466) to sculpture.

 

Superb Demonstration of Linear Perspective

The geometric principles of linear perspective - the technique whereby an artist may depict three-dimensional depth on the flat painting surface - appears to have been discovered by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) in his treatise Della Pittura (On Painting) published in 1435. As a science, perspective was associated with optics and the study of vision, but as a pictorial technique it was only properly explored during the Early Renaissance in Florence. In his Holy Trinity, Masaccio was the first individual in Early Renaissance painting to properly explore the illusionistic potential of this new technique. The painting depicts a chapel, whose cavernous interior seems to open up before the viewer. Inside, framed by Ionic columns, Corinthian pilasters and a barrel-vault ceiling, a crucified Christ is overlooked by God and the Holy Spirit, flanked by John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary. The modelling of these figures is so realistic that they could be statues. Each of them - except for God, the immeasurable entity - occupies their own three-dimensional space. To cap it all, in front of the pillars which form the entrance to the make-believe chapel, Masaccio portrayed the two donor donors Domenico Lenzi and his wife. He painted them life-size and in equally realistic detail. The whole trompe l'oeil effect of the chapel and its occupants, is a stunning example of how realistic depth can be incorporated into a flat painting.

At the front of the picture, below the level of the chapel floor, there is a sarcophagus on which Adam's skeleton is laid out as a memento mori for the viewer with its inscription "I was once as you are and what I am you also shall be."

Influential

Masaccio's Holy Trinity became a hugely influential painting for generations of Florentine artists. Writing over a century later, the Mannerist artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) was so overwhelmed by the effect of Masaccio's perspectival foreshortening that he was convinced there was a hole in the wall containing the make-believe chapel.

In 1570, a stone altar was built in the church of Santa Maria Novella, which led to Masaccio's mural being covered up. As a result, the fresco remained invisible for almost three centuries from 1570 to 1861, until the altar was removed and the painting once again became visible. However, it wasn't until 1952 - when the lower (skeleton) part of the painting was also uncovered - that the entire fresco was put on view.

Meaning

No art historian has come forward with anything but a fairly straightforward interpretation of the iconography of the work - the theme of Jesus on the Cross, attended by God the Father, Mary and John, was a relatively common motif in quattrocento (15th century) and early cinquecento (16th century) art. The meaning of The Holy Trinity, emphasized by the skeleton's rather ghoulish caption, seems to be that only through prayer (the praying donors), the intercession of holy figures (the Virgin Mary, Saint John), and a resolute belief in Christ, can we transcend our earthly existence and obtain everlasting life.

The Holy Trinity exemplifies cutting edge early Renaissance painting. Furthermore, in its synthesis of Biblical art, religion and science, it expresses the mystery of faith as well as God's perfection through the harmony of classical architecture and the dignity of the human form. It is also a demonstration of the impossible - the creation of three-dimensionality from a two-dimensional surface. Who knows, perhaps Masaccio was using this scientific demonstration to allude to the greater impossibility of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Masaccio

Within months of completing the work, Masaccio was dead. His sudden demise put an end to his meteoric 7-year career, during which he had already produced three other masterpieces: Madonna with St. Anne (c.1423, Uffizi, Florence), the Pisa Altarpiece Polyptych (c.1426, Staatliche Museen, Berlin), and the Brancacci Chapel frescoes (c.1425) in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine. He remains one of the greatest Early Renaissance artists.

 


 

Further Resources

If you're interested in other quattrocento frescos, please see the following:

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1426-7) Brancacci Chapel.
Tribute Money (1425-7) Brancacci Chapel.
The Annunciation (1450)

• For more about Renaissance painting, see our main index: Homepage.


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