We’re in the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Hence our hushed voices and we’re in the chapel decorated with frescoes by two artists in the early 15th century, Masaccio and Masolino.
And this is such a tour de force of the early Renaissance. These frescoes tell the story of the life of Saint Peter. Peter was one of Christ’s apostles, but he also has the important distinction of being understood as the first Pope. There are two especially important frescoes on the upper register on the left side of the chapel. Let’s look first at the fresco, The Tribute Money.
Here we see a scene from the New Testament, from the Gospel of Matthew where Christ and the apostles have entered the town of Capernaum. They’re being asked to pay the temple tax. Jesus seems to suggest that he doesn’t need to pay the tax but in order to avoid controversy, they will. The problem is they don’t have any money and so Christ instructs Peter to go to the Sea of Galilee and open the mouth of the first fish he catches. There, he’ll find a coin to pay the tax collector.
So here we see in the center the tax being demanded of Christ and the apostles, the tax collector with his arms outstretched, sort of demanding the payment of those taxes, and Christ instructing Peter to get the money miraculously to pay the tax collector. We see Saint Peter doing that on the far left and the on the far right we see Peter paying the tax collector. So Peter appears three times here. The tax collector appears twice. So the whole story is unfolding within this one scene. This is called the continuous narrative.
What’s remarkable is the way that Masaccio has composed this. Christ is in the center of the composition. Even though Peter appears three times, our attention goes to Christ because all the apostles surround him in a semicircle because the tax collector confronts him, and because the linear perspective in the painting draws our eye to Christ’s face.
The orthogonals are visible in the architecture to the right, and if we were to follow those, we would end at a vanishing point at the head of Christ. So Masaccio is using Brunelleschi’s linear perspective not only to create an illusion of recessionary space, but also to help draw our eye to the most important figure in the composition. And not only do we have linear perspective, we also have atmospheric perspective.
Look, for example at the mountains. The mountain that is closest to us, we can see some greenery, it’s darker, and they fade as we go back, mimicking the way in which as we look through more atmosphere, forms become paler and less distinct. And so Masaccio is using every means he can to create a convincing earthly setting for these figures. And Masaccio is not only creating this space for the apostles to occupy, but he’s making the figures themselves occupy space. He’s using modelling, in other words, chiaroscuro, light and dark, to create figures who have mass and volume.
Look at the way the feet seem squarely planted on the earth. The feet are wonderful not only because of that sense of weightiness that it gives to the figures, but also it draws our attention to the remarkable shadows that Masaccio painted. So we have sense of the light coming from the right, the same direction as the real light would have entered the chapel and the figures cast shadows to the left. And we have a sense of the way that the figures block the light, the way the light comes through between the figures, and that alternation of light and dark also helps us read an illusion of space.
My favorite part might be the tax collector because the tax collector stands with his back to us in lovely contrapposto. This is a tour de force by Masaccio, this figure that suggests movement contrapposto coming from ancient Greek and Roman art. Artists of the Renaissance looking back to classical antiquity, back to Ancient Greece and Rome as a way of representing human figures, naturally moving through space. And we see that contrapposto not once, but twice. If you look at the second rendering of the tax collector, you see that his weight is now being born on his other leg. And so Masaccio seems to be showing off. My favorite part though, is the left foot of the tax collector, which is firmly planted on the ground. And you can see his toes are in the sunlight, but the left side on his ankle is in shadow.
There’s also real attention to the emotions of the figures. Christ’s face is placid. He’s calm in the center, but just to his left, Peter looks put out, he looks upset at being accosted by the tax collector. And his knit brow is in such contrast to Saint John the Evangelist, whose face is placid like Christ’s. And so Masaccio was playing off these two apostles.
We sense a range of emotions. Some are concerned, some are watching what will unfold, but you’re right. We have this calm center in the figure of Christ. This may be one of the first paintings in the history of Western art to have such unified source of light that is so consistent and convincing. So the painting is convincing because of a number of issues. It’s chiaroscuro, it’s understanding of the body, its contrapposto, its atmospheric perspective, the linear perspective, the shadows, the expressions, but it’s also another technique that we call foreshortening. And you see that in the face of Saint Peter, as he’s pulling the coin out of the fish’s mouth. We’re looking across his face from his forehead towards his chin. And even the halos are shown as ellipses, even though the intention is that they’re round. And so many of the feet, too, are foreshortened. And it’s those foreshortened feet that convince us that the figures are actually standing on the ground and their feet also exist in space.
So we have this biblical story, but it was a biblical story that was relevant in 15th century Florence. This was a period when the city of Florence was engaged in a long running battle with the city of Milan. And this cost the city a lot of money. As a result, the city had imposed a property tax. The Pope in Rome insisted that the churches should be exempt. And this seems to mirror the conflict that this scene represents. A conflict between state authority and religious authority. Ultimately, a compromise was reached, just like in the scene that is before us.
So we should also remember that we’re standing in the burial chapel owned by the Brancacci family. Brancacci was a very devout man who gave the church money to endow this chapel and the have prayer said for his family so that his family would have a benefit of those prayers and perhaps sooner release from purgatory and a sooner arrival in heaven.
Just to the left of The Tribute Money is expulsion from Eden. We see Adam and Eve naked, and we see an angel armed with a sword who seems to be chasing them out of Eden, out of paradise. It seems clear that Masaccio had access to an ancient Venus, what is known as Venus podia, that is a modest Venus. So Masaccio had transformed a pagan figure of Venus into the figure of Eve. And look, too, how the shadows function very much the same way that they did in The Tribute Money. The light is coming from the right, the figures cast shadows to the left, but we could ask what would the scene of the expulsion from paradise be doing in a chapel that’s otherwise entirely about Saint Peter.
It’s Adam and Eve’s sin that causes the need for Christ’s sacrifice. Christ’s sacrifice makes possible mankind’s salvation. Peter is the instrument, the church through which that happens. And so, in a way, it all begins with that original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. So we have a foreshortened angel, an illusion of space created through that foreshortening. The angel comes toward us and we have a sense of the terrible agony of Adam and Eve being forced to leave paradise. And the consequence of this is humanity’s fall from grace, illness, death, violence.
But look at the differences with the two figures have been painted. Eve covers her body. She’s ashamed of her nakedness. Adam covers his face. He seems to have an internal guilt. But look at the muscles in Adam’s abdomen and legs. This new interest in the Renaissance in human anatomy. These frescoes will be tremendously influential. Well, Michelangelo will come here and sketch Masaccio’s work in the Brancacci chapel.