O MYSTIC MARVEL: The ‘Holy Trinity’ by Masaccio (1425)
Masaccio (1401 – 1428), born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, was one of the greatest artist of the proto Renaissance period. He was nicknamed Masaccio (short for Tommaso). According to the art historian Vasari, his name recalled his eccentricity and his manner of thought for ‘having fixed his whole mind and will on the matters of art, (he) cared less about himself, and still less about others.’ His brief career drew to a sharp end when in 1428 he died (allegedly) on being poisoned by a jealous rival artist.
In spite of his short life-span Masaccio was an artist of a kind. He rescued art of its artificiality and its ‘other-worldliness’, capturing majestic moments with a sense of naturalism and ease. He cleared away in great measure the rigidness of art and added life to art and art to life. His dynamic reason, vivacity, mysticism and grace eventually laid the scientific and stylistic foundations of Western painting.
Masaccio’s ground-breaking innovations in the field of art is best expressed by the painting in consideration. One of his greatest achievements, the ‘Holy Trinity’ is found at the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Masaccio executed this piece in 1425, at the age of 25, just 3 years before his death.
Breathing life, the painting displays the significance of a material world suffused by metaphysical attributes. It dwells on the essence of being ‘in the world but not of the world.’ The principal subject, as the title suggest, is the ‘Throne of Grace’ depicted in the form of the Triune Godhead. The Father holds His crucified Son while the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ in the form of a dove. The theme is scripturally derived from the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 4, verse 16. It reads: ‘Let us, then, with confidence approach the throne of grace, so that we will obtain mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’
Undoubtedly, the most interesting character in this painting is God the Father. Notice His feet on the ledge. Unlike traditional iconography, God the Father is presented to us not as an abstract force or power, nor is He set against a gold background. Rather God is portrayed as an elderly man, with human feet and hands. He stands a testimony to the lingering spirit of Humanism during the Renaissance. As He gazes at us, He presents to us the Body of His Son, as a way to salvation. Does not the image evoke the celebration of the Holy Eucharist? Is it not reminiscent of the priest elevating the Sacred Host and proclaiming the words, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, Behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. ?’
Right below the image of the Father is an attribute that appears to be His collar. However, at a closer glance we soon discover the image of a haloed bird with two wings and a tail, implicative of the dove and symbolizing the Holy Spirit. At the centre of the composition is the enthralling figure of Christ, executed with extra-ordinary rendering. Notice the antagonism of his anatomical features such as the exposed rib cage, the contouring of the muscles and the harrowing of the sucked in stomach. The pathos of Christ feels real, His sacrifice tangible!
Below this mystic marvel stand two intercessors. The forlorn Virgin gestures her hand towards Christ. She invites us into the cardinal mystery of Christian faith and the path to salvation. On the other side is present John the Evangelist. He joins his hands in awe and prayer, accepting the beauty of his creed and the affectionate love of his gentle mother.
As we move outwards, towards our space, we notice two figures kneeling on either side of the archway. These persons are contemporary Florentines who funded or commissioned the painting. We join them in adoration and in solidarity witnessing the communion of sacred love which is at the heart of the Trinity.
The heart of Masaccio however sought something more than the sacred. He directs our attention not only towards the Divine but also towards the environment in which they have been depicted. The triumphal arch borrows much from the ancient Roman and Greek architecture. Look at the coffered ceiling, the barrel vaults, the pillars, the pilasters, the columns, the Iconic and the Corinthian capitals! They allure us into the recesses of the room in delight of the vision. The technique of creating this optical illusion is called ‘Trompe-l’oeil’ which can be translated as ‘deceive the eye’.
Heeding history and time, we realise that we are in 15th century Florence where the growing economic trade is underlined by a robust network of banking and mathematics. Masaccio wanted to use geometry and perspective so as to synthesize Christian theology and faith with academic knowledge and proficiency. He therefore used formulas in order to set a low vanishing point which would create an incredibly deep space. The technique he used was termed one-point linear perspective and it was this approach that set the bench mark for the artist of the Renaissance to explore the intermarriage of science, art and faith.
As our eyes traverse down the fresco, we encounter a skeleton. Who could it be? Is it Adam, who was believed to be buried below the cross of Christ? Or does it signify something more than that? The answer to our enquiry lies right above the sarcophagus. It can be translated as ‘What you are, I once was; what I am, you will be.’ The skeleton therefore serves as a memento mori intending to remind us of the fickleness of life and the reality of death. Above all it announces the message of hope, indicated by the Virgin Mary. The way to eternal life lies in the suffering of the Cross and the saving love of the Holy Trinity!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
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