… Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth Act 5, scene 5.)
At the time of the Renaissance, many adults died before they were thirty, and we have no way of knowing how many aspiring Masters never achieved the greatness that they deserved because they died before their talent was manifest. One painter who died tragically young but who had already transformed art was Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone (Simone) Cassai – you will know him as Masaccio (1401–1428).
Born on 21 December 1401 in Tuscany, his father died when he was only five. He is believed to have moved to Florence to start his apprenticeship in a painting workshop at the age of 12, but the first reliable records are of his admission to Florence’s painters’ guild as an independent master in early 1422.
In that year, his first as a master in his own right, he painted the Triptych of San Giovenale (1422), which was only discovered in 1961. Its central panel shows the Virgin Mary and infant Christ, with two winged angels in attendance. As is traditional, Mary is shown wearing a deep ultramarine blue cloak. The left panel shows Saints Bartholomew and Blaise, and the right panel Saints Juvenal (patron of the commissioning church) and Anthony Abbot.
For his first commission, this is a remarkably skilled and beautiful painting, which builds on the developments of Giotto in modelling faces, in particular, to impart a sense of depth. His attempt at perspective in the throne on which Mary sits is also very good for the day, although it clearly was not formally projected to a single vanishing point and looks a little out of kilter.
He appears to have travelled to Rome in 1423 with Masolino da Panicale (1383–1440), who was nearly twenty years older than him and much more experienced. The following year, Masaccio was admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke in Florence.
Masaccio’s first surviving work undertaken with Masolino is Sant’Anna Metterza (the St Anne Metterza) (1424-5). This shows the Virgin Mary seated with the infant Christ on her lap, and behind her is Saint Anne. Five angels attend from around the edges.
It is believed that the Virgin and Child were painted by Masaccio, with Masolino painting Saint Anne, the angels, and surrounds; this is a peculiar division of labout given their ages and relative experience.
The Brancacci Chapel
In 1424 Masolino and Masaccio were commissioned by Felice Brancacci, a wealthy and influential Florentine, to paint frescoes for his family chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. In 1425, Masolino left the remaining work there to Masaccio and went to Hungary. In 1426, Masaccio left the work, possibly because of declining fortunes in the Brancacci family, but he returned probably during 1427 and perhaps 1428 to do further work on them.
In the end, these frescoes were completed by Filippino Lippi in the 1480s. Unfortunately they were damaged by fire in 1771, and some areas were obscured by the later addition of marble slabs. All have now undergone modern cleaning and restoration so that they can be seen in their full beauty. Here I will show some of Masaccio’s work from the chapel, and will complete these in the next article.
The Baptism of the Neophytes (1425-8) shows Saint Peter baptising newly converted Christians in the early part of his ministry after Pentecost. The saint stands in the left foreground, using a bowl to pour water over the head of a kneeling young man. Anachronistically, two Florentines wearing mazzocchio headgear (who may have been members of the Brancacci family) stand behind Saint Peter, at the left edge of the painting. A loose queue of men fills the centre and right, as they wait their turn for baptism. In the background are vegetated hills with markedly exaggerated height.
The musculature, faces, and clothing of the figures is beautifully modelled, in a far more advanced way than even a few years before in the Triptych of San Giovenale
The Distribution of Alms and Death of Ananias (c 1425-8) shows Saints Peter and John (to the right of centre, foreground) distributing money to the poor, who are gathered in front of them. Lying on the ground at their feet rather incongruously is the dead body of Ananias, who had retained some of the money received from the sale of his land. The bearded figure looking at the viewer from behind the saints may be a Brancacci.
This scene gave Masaccio the chance to experiment with perspective projection, in the buildings behind and framing the view. It appears that those lines which should converge at the vanishing point off to the left of the scene are correct, but those which should converge at a vanishing point off to the right do not do so, and the two vanishing points are not on the same horizontal line. This suggests that at this stage he could project one-point but not two-point linear perspective, a big step forward.
In St. Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow (c 1425-8), the saint (foreground) is walking through a street in Jerusalem. In his shadow is a line of the sick: closest to the viewer, and only now in the saint’s shadow, a man is low down on the ground, crippled. Just behind him, and being healed as we watch, an older man is half-risen. The two men standing behind him have already been healed, and the nearer holds his hands together in praise at his miraculous recovery. The figure at the back of that line, wearing a red hat, has been identified as Masolino.
Masaccio here uses meticulously-drawn one-point perspective to great effect, giving the wall and its accessory structures real depth, with the vanishing point situated off to the right.
The Polyptych of Pisa (1426)
In February 1426, Masaccio was commissioned to paint a large and complex polyptych altarpiece for a chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa, and he spent much of that year working on it. It appears to have been completed by the end of 1426, but in the 1700s it was dismantled and its individual paintings dispersed. Masaccio’s design was centred on The Virgin and Child with Four Angels, and this reconstruction shows how the eleven panels so far identified were probably placed. It is thought to have originally consisted of a total of twenty panels.
Working through the major surviving panels in narrative sequence, The Adoration of the Magi (1426-7) offers a frieze-like view of this very popular subject. The Virgin Mary is sat on a golden portable folding chair decorated with lion heads and paws, the infant Christ on her knee. To the left of her is the standard group of ox and ass in a shed, and behind her is Joseph, holding one of the gifts from the Magi. The three Magi are lined up to present their gifts: the first has already done so, and is still kneeling in front of Christ. The second has had his crown removed and is also on bended knees, and the third is just having his crown removed but still standing.
Masaccio’s painting makes good use of shade to form realistic faces and clothes. He also projects the halos in perspective.
The centrepiece, The Virgin and Child with Four Angels (1426), is a fairly conventional portrait of the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ on her left knee, surrounded by four angels. Mary wears her usual deep ultramarine cloak, and Christ is eating a grape, symbolic of his future Passion.
Masaccio models the faces and drapery to give them form, and although the perspective projection of the Virgin’s throne is not perfect, it is reasonably close; coupled with the two angels shown behind the throne, it gives further depth to the scene.
The other panel of central importance is his Crucifixion (c 1426), again composed to the standard formulae. In keeping with his efforts to depict 3D space more faithfully, Masaccio has painted this in recognition of the fact that, at the top of the altarpiece, it will always be viewed from below. Accordingly Christ’s head appears to be oddly flexed at the neck, when the painting is seen from perpendicular to its picture plane. He has shaded and modelled Christ’s body, the faces, and clothes of the three Marys to give very effective depth and volume.
Sadly the panel showing St Paul (1426) has suffered extensive wear and damage. It has modelling similar to the other panels in the polyptych.
Saint Andrew (1426) is in better condition, and more able to show Masaccio’s superb rendering of his face, robes, and hands.
The Martyrdoms of St Peter and of St John the Baptist (1426) shows the gruesome scenes of the inverted crucifixion of Saint Peter, and the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Their halos are projected in perspective, but the projections of the buildings shown are not as rigorous as Masaccio’s other work at the time.
Stories of St Julian and St Nicholas (1426) shows two of the stranger scenes from the lives of the Saints. On the left, Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his parents while they are asleep in their bed, something that he was tricked into doing by the devil. In the central alley, he is shown a second time, now covering his face in despair at what he has done. On the right, Saint Nicholas looks into the house of a poor man and his daughters, and gives them three golden balls to fund the girls’ marriages.
Masaccio experiments with perspective here, by projecting both scenes in common. In order to do so, the room at the right is rotated slightly. The cross-sectional views appear novel, and although the projection looks a little strange, I think that it works.
The next and final article will look at the last works of Masaccio, including one of the greatest and most influential paintings in the whole of Western art.
Spike JT (1995) Masaccio, (French translation) Liana Levi. ISBN 978 2 8674 6133 0. (Also original English version and other translations.)