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DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in Santa Maria Novella, and we're looking at the left wall of the nave, inside the left aisle. About midway down is Masaccio's the Holy Trinity. This is a painting that is often credited as being the earliest known example of true scientific one-point linear perspective. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right, which had only been discovered by Brunelleschi a few years earlier. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So it's really exciting to see it. DR. BETH HARRIS: It is, and it's an incredibly realistic illusion of space. And these days, instead of entering from the front door of the church, you enter actually through the cloisters, and this fresco is directly opposite the entrance. It really looks as though this is an actual space and not just an illusion. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's funny to think that many wealthy families commissioned an actual chapel. In this case is a more modest commission, which is the illusion of a chapel. Let's talk a little bit about what's being represented, what's actually going on here. DR. BETH HARRIS: Well, down the center of the fresco, we see the Holy Trinity, and by Holy Trinity we mean the three part nature of God. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: As understood in the Catholic tradition. DR. BETH HARRIS: At the top, we have got the Father. Below, in the form of the dove, we have the Holy Spirit. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, that's a little hard to see, and I think that sometimes people mistake that white as a kind of collar. DR. BETH HARRIS: Yeah, it looks a little like God's collar. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But if you look very closely, you do see that there are two wings, a tail, and the head of a bird. And the head of a bird actually is looking down towards Christ. DR. BETH HARRIS: And also has a halo. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. It has a little radiating gold. DR. BETH HARRIS: And so below the dove, which is the Holy Spirit, we see Christ on the cross. We have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, this is an extraordinary rendering of the human body pulled and tortured and really affected by gravity. This is so far from the medieval treatment of the human body. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's hard to imagine that Masaccio could have painted this without actually stringing someone up on a cross so he could observe what happened to the muscles of the body, and the way that they would be pulled in this position. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It creates such a great sense of sympathy, at least in me, and I think in many viewers, to see the hollow of the abdomen, Christ's bleeding. His pain feels real and emotional in a way that feels very direct and is such a great illustration of the way in which the early Renaissance is able to marry deep faithfulness with scientific observation. So the other figures in the sacred space within the room that's depicted are Mary, in the dark cloak. She's presenting her son to us. I'm not sure that I can remember a more mournful Virgin Mary. DR. BETH HARRIS: She's pointing up at Christ, showing us that Christ is the path to salvation. And on the opposite side, we see Saint John. Mary and Saint John are the two figures that we often see in images of the crucifixion. But this isn't a narrative of the story of the crucifixion but rather a devotional image, an image that would be an aide to prayer. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So the figures on the outside of the sacred space, in a prayerful position, kneeling, looking in and witnessing as we're looking in and witnessing, are the donors. But there's even more to this painting, because below those steps is a representation of a tomb that's been exposed, that's been opened for us. DR. BETH HARRIS: And on that sarcophagus, we see a skeleton and an inscription in Latin. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And in rough translation would read, As I am now, so you shall be. As you are now, so once was I. DR. BETH HARRIS: So the message is that death is inevitable. That the skeleton is what we all will be, and what the skeleton was was us alive. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's a Memento Mori. It's a reminder of the imminence of our death. Even though we walk in our day to day lives, taking for granted our ability to wake up the next morning, very soon-- DR. BETH HARRIS: And at a time when we can't predict. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: --we will look like a skeleton. DR. BETH HARRIS: I think there's a tendency in our modern era to think about this as a reminder of death and therefore to live life to its fullest. But I think in the 15th century the meaning was different. It was a reminder of death, therefore prepare now for your salvation so that you can have eternity in Heaven. And the way to an eternal life in Heaven is indicated up above through Mary's gesture, through Christ's sacrifice on the cross for the sins of mankind. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Let's go back to the point that we made at the very beginning, which is the innovation of linear perspective here. Because what Masaccio has done is to create an incredibly convincing deep space. DR. BETH HARRIS: Masaccio's created a very specific viewpoint for the viewer. As we stand in front of the painting we look up at the barrel vault created for us. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's a wonderful classical ceiling, isn't it? DR. BETH HARRIS: It is. Well, the whole architecture that Masaccio's created here is based on the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. We have a barrel vault with coffers. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So, hold on, because it's so interesting. If you were thinking that you're just going to be tentatively exploiting this new technique of linear perspective, you might want to do something straightforward, like a nice tiled floor, but he's really showing off here. DR. BETH HARRIS: He's really showing off. He's showing off with the architecture, with the linear perspective. He's showing off with the figures, embracing humanism that's happening in Florence in the early 15th century. So the architecture looked modern, the figures looked incredibly believable because Masaccio's using modeling to make the figures appear round and three dimensional. We can really see it in the drapery of the figures and in the body of Christ, articulating his muscles. So the figures looked, I think, radically new and real, and the space looked radically new and real. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So, he's creating this emphasis on the humanity of this experience, on the emotion of this experience, on the life-likeness and proportional accuracy of the bodies themselves. And then of course, he needs to have an accurate space in which to place those human figures. And so he's giving us both his very convincing sense of mass and volume and proportion and anatomy, as well as emotion, and then he's placing those figures in a space that makes sense to us. And one of the things that art historians have sometimes asked is, why is linear perspective developing here in Florence in the 15th century. And there's so many answers to this, but one of the ways you might begin to think about this is that here we have a culture of trade, where there really is a kind of mathematics that underlies the economy of this city. People are trained to be able to buy and sell. They think about fractions, they think about space volumes, they think about commodities. And so this is a very analytic and a very rational culture, and in a sense art had to respond to that. To follow that thought forward, what Masaccio has done is given us an interior that is rational. That we could enter it. And from the information that he's given us, even from this limited view, we could do a very accurate drawing, and really determine its depth, its width, and its internal decoration. DR. BETH HARRIS: Masaccio is doing in painting what Donatello has already done in sculptures. Create figures who are deeply human and real. The humanism that inspires this is something that's here in Florence and that sculptors were able to respond to earlier because they had the example of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So, Donatello in sculpture is responding to this revival of interest in classical Greece and Rome. And then we have Masaccio following, not long after, with a kind of illusionism that allows for the same sets of issues. It's to a large extent Brunelleschi as well. DR. BETH HARRIS: Some people have suggested that Brunelleschi had worked with Masaccio on the architectural setting. We have Corinthian pilasters, thatched columns with ionic capitals. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: There's the coffered vaulting. DR. BETH HARRIS: The round arch. The architecture that Masaccio represented here would have looked startlingly modern, I think, to anyone looking at it in the early 15th century. It would have looked very different, for example, than the architecture we see around us in this church. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So in Florence in the 15th century, you have sculpture, you have architecture, you have painting all responding to this revival of interest in humanism, this notion that man can observe, understand, and to some extent, control his world, and that this is and can be in the service of God.