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Masaccio's The Trinity
It's generally accepted that the Early Renaissance began about 1400 with the contest to find a designer for the Baptistery doors of the new Florence Cathedral. If this is so, then a good case can easily be made that the first great painter of the Renaissance was Tommaso Giovanni di Mone Masaccio. He was born in 1401 in Arezzo near Florence, the son of a young notary. Not much is known about him other than the fact he must have admired and studied deeply the work of Giotto in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. At the age of 21 he became a member of the painter's guild and began his life's work in painting a series of frescos in the Brancacci Chapel sometime after 1425.

The most famous of these is The Trinity. It's a huge thing, some 25 feet tall and just over ten feet wide. This single work was to revolutionise painting for generations to come. Its presence was said to have had a marked influence on Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and every other painter to come out of Florence for the next two hundred years. It was a total departure from anything that had ever been done before. First of all the painting utilised a one-point perspective with the vanishing point set near the base of the main scene at the eye-level of the viewer making the illusionary niche seem an extension of the chapel itself. Behind an architectural facing and beneath a deep barrel vault the figure of God stands on a shallow balcony supporting the weight of his Son on the cross while a white dove hovers just above Christ's golden halo.

Below that are the figures of Joseph and Mary, painted life-size with Mary interceding for humanity. Slightly below and flanking it on either side, just outside the niche, are portraits of the donors of the work, the Leni family, Lorenzo and his wife. Below that is the open tomb with a skeleton above which are inscribed in Latin the haunting words, "I was that which you are. You will be that which I am." Though the painting is somewhat deteriorated today, probably in bad need of cleaning, the figures are in every way realistic and believable, a vision, as it were, of mankind's relationship to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost--a presentation so perfect and powerful as to impact the viewer both emotionally and artistically. And its impact on artists especially left them with a whole new way of seeing and painting both man and God.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
2 January 1999

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