If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:8:05

Masaccio, The Tribute Money in the Brancacci Chapel

Painting in central Italy

Video transcript

DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in a chapel within the church, which is called the Brancacci Chapel. It is completely filled with fresco and also a tempera painting. And on the left in the upper register is a painting by Masaccio. Actually, two paintings. One is The Expulsion from the Eden, and to its right is a much larger painting, The Tribute Money. DR. BETH HARRIS: And the chapel is filled with people here to see Masaccio's great masterpiece. Masaccio painted a few of the scenes here of the life of St. Peter, but the rest of the chapel was largely painted by one of his contemporaries, Masolino. But it's Masaccio who we are here to see. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So let's talk about the Tribute Money first. It's a pretty complicated scene, but it's a story from the New Testament that tells of Christ being confronted by a tax collector who works for Rome. And the problem is that Christ has renounced all worldly possessions, he doesn't have any money to pay. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right, Christ and the apostles have no money to pay the tax collector, who we see here in the center in orange with his back to us. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And with a short skirt, unlike the other figures which are more fully closed. DR. BETH HARRIS: And Christ and the apostles have halos, and we can identify the tax collector because he doesn't have a halo. And he's making gestures demanding money. The tax collector's standing in the lovely contrapposto. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And some artist drawings have suggested that may have been painted from a Roman sculpture. DR. BETH HARRIS: The contrapposto could also have come from Donatello. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Absolutely. DR. BETH HARRIS: Christ directs St. Peter to go get money to pay the tax collector from the Sea of Galilee from the mouth of a fish. So Christ performs a miracle. The apostles will indeed be able to pay the tax collector, because the money will appear in the mouth of the fish that we see St. Peter getting on the far left. And then on the far right, we see St. Peter paying the tax collector. So we've got three different moments of time. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: In the New Testament, Christ says render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and render unto God what is God's, in a sense saying, Caesar minted this money, we can give it back to him, it's not important. What's important is the soul. DR. BETH HARRIS: There's a really specific Florentine context for this. The Florentine government had just initiated a new tax called the Catasto, which was an income tax. I think this was seen, by the Florentine, as an idea that Christ was condoning that kind of civic responsibility. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: I'm. really interested in how complicated that story is and yet have clearly Masaccio's able to convey it. Our eye goes not to the left of scene first-- which presumably would be where we would start, we read from left to right-- but instead goes to Christ in the center. All of the apostles' attention and tax collector's attention is on Christ. And so our eyes go to Christ as well. Christ points to Peter, who in turn points almost incredulously to the Sea of Galilee. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right, you want me to go to get the money from where? DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And that of course moves our eye left, over to where we see Peter again. We can recognize it's Peter even though his face is so foreshortened. He's taken off the red garb, presumably not to get it dirty or wet as he kneels. DR. BETH HARRIS: You can see him just opening up the mouth of the fish. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: I love it, it's so literal. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's very sweet. Masaccio's also separating that scene on the left so we read it as a separate scene, because he's put St. Peter way into the background. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And there really is background. And it's been accomplished in a number of different ways. This is lovely, atmosphere prospective that allows us to move back from mountain to mountain as the sky gets lighter. DR. BETH HARRIS: Masaccio's created a deep illusion of space here. So the figures are really in a very believable landscape, not only the atmosphere perspective but linear perspective is employed on the right and we can see the orthogonals in the rather classical looking building on the right. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: In fact, sometimes I've suspected the only reason that there's a building in this painting at all is because Masaccio is so interested in linear perspective. This is one of the first surviving examples of the employment of linear perspective in a painting that we have the Holy Trinity just a year or so earlier. Christ's head is the vanishing point in his use of linear perspective. So not only is all the attention paid to Christ by his apostles, but the very structure of the painting brings our eye there. DR. BETH HARRIS: So you look at Christ, he looks very calm. You follow his gesture over to St. Peter, and St. Peter looking agitated and annoyed-- DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: He does look grumpy doesn't he? DR. BETH HARRIS: And in disbelief. And then you see this circular gathering of the apostles around them and you start to register their reaction. Some of them looking, ooh, what's going to happen next? DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Apprehensive. DR. BETH HARRIS: Some of them looking a little bit more calm. But in all of that, Christ remains central and calm in this moment when he performs a miracle. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It really is a kind of conversation. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's all this gesturing to tell the story. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Really activating the story, absolutely. I love also the contrast between certain apostles. For instance, you're absolutely right. Peter looks like he's angry and is not sure if he should actually be protecting Christ from the tax collector or not. Where as John, next to him with blond hair, is such a passive face. So, so calm. I can't help but think that Masaccio put those faces together in order to achieve the greatest contrast. DR. BETH HARRIS: I think there's no question. I mean, Masaccio is thinking about every possible way he can make this image seem real. And I think that the space to a 15th century viewer looked incredibly realistic. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Use of light and shadow really picking up on Masaccio's achievement of the previous century, but pushing it forward dramatically. To me I think the element that adds the greatest realism are those cast shadows on the ground. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Yes, they're amazing! DR. BETH HARRIS: They're so believable. I mean you really get a sense of these figures standing in a landscape. The light hitting them from the right, which is, by the way, the same direction as the real light in the chapel. There's a window over to the right. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Just over the altar. DR. BETH HARRIS: If you follow those shadows back, if you look down at the ground, they give you an alternation of light and dark that helps establish a foreground and background. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: I have to say, I'm really taken with representation of the feet. We talked about the sense of mass and volume in the figures. But all these figures seem so planted. DR. BETH HARRIS: Well I love their feet. They're so grounded. If you look, for example, at the left foot of the tax collector, you'll see that the left side of his ankle is in shadow. But the front part of his left foot is in the sunlight. So Masaccio takes such careful attention to light and shadow. And look at those foreshortened halos that Masaccio has employed so that they're not those flat, gold circles that we see. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well they're foreshortened, just like Peter's face on the left of the painting. DR. BETH HARRIS: Except a halo isn't a real thing. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So in a sense, taking this symbol of spirituality and treating it as if it was a solid in the world, it is this funny moment in the 15th century when the symbolic traditions of representation that have been handed down from the medieval are coming into contact with a kind of naturalistic facility and an interest in naturalism. And seek it as very funny relationships. DR. BETH HARRIS: Mhm. So Masaccio really is giving us a masterpiece of illusionism. The illusion of space, the illusion of volume. To me the figures are just fully human in a way that I think about Donatello's figures or [INAUDIBLE]. They have psychological depth. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: What is it about the Florentine culture that is allowing for this kind of fully human expression? This is one of the great centers of humanism. This looking back to classicism and certainly we see that in a number of direct ways. But more than that, it's this ennobling of the human experience that I think is so central to the license that Masaccio is taking here.