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Painting in central Italy

Video transcript

(mellow jazz music) - [Steven] We're in Santa Maria Novella, an enormous Dominican church in Florence. We've just come in from a cloistered graveyard. The first thing we see across this enormous expanse is Masaccio's The Holy Trinity with the Virgin and St. John. - [Beth] Although this painting has a long and complicated history of being moved and restored, the doorway we walked in and the view that we got was likely the view that the public got in the early 15th century when Masaccio painted it. - [Steven] Much of the rest of the church has changed. There may have been an altar in front of this painting. To the right, there would have been an enormous tramezzo, that is a screen that would have blocked access to the inner sanctum of the church. - [Beth] The subject is the Holy Trinity. According to Catholic doctrine, God is God the Father, the Son Christ and the Holy Spirit. - [Steven] This was a fairly standard motif, this elder figure that represents God the Father, the dove representing the Holy Spirit and Christ on a crucifix. This is known as the Throne of Mercy. The idea is that this throne is the throne of judgment, that through Christ, man can be saved. - [Beth] On the side of the Holy Trinity, we see Mary. She gestures to Christ and God. She acts as an intercessor, an intermediary between us and the divine world and points to Christ and God. - [Steven] Opposite her stands St. John. - [Beth] All of those divine figures occupy the same space. Outside of that space, we see two kneeling figures, a man on the left, a woman on the right. These are the patrons who commissioned this fresco. If you look at them closely, you see that they look straight ahead. - [Steven] And slightly up. - [Beth] They're in a position of prayer, of contemplation. - [Steven] Below this, we have a memento mori that is a reminder of death. We see a tomb, two columns on either side, and between that, a sarcophagus. But laid on top of that is a skeleton. In back of it, as if carved into stone, is an inscription. - [Beth] I was as you are. And what I am, you soon will be. This is written in Italian, not in Latin, so not in the language of the church, but in the everyday language of the people of Florence. It is reminding us that our time on earth is short, and death could come at any time. We should be preparing for our salvation. - [Steven] It's a reminder that this painting had multiple audiences. It had the Dominican clergy of this church. But there was a secondary audience, the lay people of Florence that were allowed into this part of the church. - [Beth] We have to imagine the Dominican friars preaching in front of this image to the citizens of Florence, who would come specifically to hear that preaching. People would come to visit their loved ones in the cemetery, just outside in the cloister. They'd walk through the door, and they would see this image and make a connection between the death of their loved ones and their own mortality. - [Steven] Although this motif was common, almost anybody looking at this painting in the early 15th century would have recognized the changes that Masaccio has brought to this motif, principally, the classicism of the architecture and the naturalism of the figures. - [Beth] In most representations of this, Christ and God are placed in the mandorla, that is a kind of enormous halo that encompassed both figures and in that way, situated them in an otherworldly, heavenly space. But here, Masaccio has given us what looks like ancient Roman architecture. And in fact, Brunelleschi, the great early Renaissance architect, likely helped design the architectural framework that we see here. On either side, we see fluted pilasters. Those have Corinthian or composite capitals. - [Steven] A pilaster is really a flattened column-- - [Beth] one that's attached to a wall. - [Steven] Above that is an entablature and a cornice with dentils, another ancient Roman motif. - [Beth] The figures of the Trinity are framed by a round arch which is a classical arch, not a pointed, medieval Gothic arch. That arch is carried by two attached columns with Ionic capitals. Everything that we're describing here is taken directly from ancient Greek and Roman architecture. - [Steven] Behind the arch, we see a barrel vault that's defined by a beautiful series of coffers with alternating colors. At the very back of the space, we can see a secondary arch. So we have a very rational space, a measurable space, a space that makes sense. - [Beth] And it makes sense precisely because Masaccio is using linear perspective. This is one of the earliest uses of linear perspective, rediscovered by Brunelleschi less than a decade before. Masaccio is using linear perspective to create a convincing illusion that this is not a wall, but in fact, the space of a chapel. - [Steven] The linear perspective is made of three components, most importantly, a vanishing point. According to Alberti, who published a book called "On Painting," soon after this painting was made, linear perspective works best when the vanishing point is at the eye level of the viewer. And indeed, that is precisely where Masaccio has placed it. It's in the center of the composition, just a few inches above my eye level. From it radiate a series of orthogonals, illusionistic diagonals that appear to recede in space. They are the agent that create the illusion of depth on a flat surface. And then, the third piece is the horizon line, defined by that bottom step. - [Beth] And Masaccio exploits chiaroscuro, that movement from light to dark to create a sense of volume. So we see the ribcage lifted up. We see the muscles in the abdomen, the muscles in the arms. We sense the pull of Christ's weight from the cross. This interest in naturalistic human anatomy is a key feature of the early Renaissance. - [Steven] Here again is a correspondence with the work of the architect and sculptor, Brunelleschi, who produced a wooden crucifix which is also in Santa Maria Novella which like the painted rendering before us, expresses the artist's careful observation of the human body and understands it, responding to gravity, a reminder that Christ here is human, has suffered, has died. Both Brunelleschi and Masaccio could look back a century to another great Italian master, Giotto, and his massive Crucifixion. He was perhaps one of the first artists to begin to think about the representation of the human body, using light and shadow to define its forms, to begin to pay attention to the anatomy of the body, to render Christ as physical. - [Beth] One of the most remarkable things to me is God's foot. There we have a perfectly foreshortened foot and therefore, a sense that God is standing. To me, that epitomizes what the Renaissance is about, this interpretation of divine figures as having all of the qualities that human beings have. - [Steven] So there is this wonderful conflict between the visionary and the actual. - [Beth] So although the laity couldn't go beyond the tramezzo, Masaccio is giving the public a taste of what's beyond by quoting some works of art in the Strozzi Chapel. - [Steven] In that chapel, above the altar, is an image of God. And then, just before the chapel and below, there's a tomb with a fresco of the Lamentation. So there is a correspondence, perhaps even a deliberate quote in Masaccio's painting in the public part of the church. - [Beth] What we're seeing is this very frontal image of God, of the Divine, presenting to us the sacrifice that God has made on our behalf. It's remarkable that this has survived, and we get to see it in its original location.