The Holy Trinity, with the Virgin and Saint John, was completed in the year 1427 by an Early Renaissance artist, Masaccio. The title of the painting comes from the three key figures of the scene. Christ on the cross, God the Father standing on a step behind Christ, and the Holy Spirit represented as a white dove. Mary and St. John are also present at the sight of Crucifixion just below the cross, and one step down from them are the artist’s donors on either side.
The Subject of the Fresco
The Holy trinity fresco depicts what is called the ‘Throne of Mercy’ or the ‘Throne of Justice’ according the Catholic doctrine. The event taking place symbolizes that God’s sacrifice can save humankind. On the left side of the Holy Trinity, we may see Mary. She acts as an intercessor, an intermediary between us and the divine world, and points to Christ and God. Opposite her stands St. John. All of these divine figures occupy the same space.
There are two kneeling figures in front of the divine space, a man on the left and 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, and slightly up. They’re in a position of worshipping, not a part of the Holy Trinity.
About a fourth of this piece is taken up by the “Momento Mori”. A momento mori is a reminder of how death is inevitable. We see a tomb, two ornated columns on either side and between them is a stone tomb also known as a sarcophagus. Laid on top of it is a skeleton. As if carved into stone, in the back of it is an inscription. This is written in Italian, not in Latin so that the lay people of Florence can understand it. The tomb and the inscription remind us that our time on earth is short and death is inevitable, imminent. One is expected to spend their time in the world preparing for salvation.
History of the Holy Trinity
The Holy Trinity is housed in Florence’s beautiful white marbled Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella. The perspective and depth of this masterpiece make it look as if it’s a doorway where we could just step in and see the event taking place in front of our eyes.
Since the time of its establishment, there have been several structural changes in the basilica where the fresco has been constructed. There used to be a shelf-like altar at the band dividing the lower and the upper sections of the fresco. This gave it a more realistic, three-dimensional effect. The pillared shelf was estimated to be about 60 centimeters wide and 5 feet above the floor. The altar was seamlessly integrated with the fresco’s steps. Combined with the supporting pillars it created a crypt-like effect for the tomb below it. It is interesting to note that the upper section of the work still has evidence of candle smoke created from the use of this altar.
Over the centuries this masterpiece has been damaged and restored. Much of the structural architecture on the boundaries have been replaced and retouched. We can also see an attempt of restoration in the several cracks which have been painted with a slightly different shade and texture. In certain areas, the original surface has been damaged completely and has been repainted, thus creating a different texture.
The lower section of the painting, about 5 feet in length depicts a memento mori. In this work of art, the memento mori has been shown in the form of a cadaver tomb.
The Math Behind the Art
The artwork has been placed in harmony with the configuration of the space. All the six figures in the fresco are close to life-size. The only figure that does not occupy a three-dimensional space is God. This contrast shows that God is an immeasurable being. By looking at the composition of the figures, we see that they are pyramidal.
The Holy Trinity depicts a very significant event and has been depicted in many artworks over the years. In most representations of this scene, Christ and God are placed in a “Mandorla“. A mandorla is an enormous halo that encompasses both figures in a way that shows them in a heavenly space. Masaccio has presented the halo in form of ancient Roman architecture
This arch is carried by two attached columns with very intricately designed tops. Behind the arch, a beautiful series of squares or coffers with alternating colors. The shading along with the texture five the background the appearance of barrel vault. The barrel vault is an extending arch that makes a half cylinder.
A Linear Perspective
At the very back of the space, there is also a secondary arch. Therefore what we see is a measurable space, a perspective that makes you want to step into it. The fresco is one of the earliest representations of a linear perspective that creates a convincing illusion that it is not flat, but a vaulted space in the chapel.
This linear perspective has three important components that make it so realistic. The first is the placement on a vanishing point at the audience’s eye level. This point is at the center of the composition. From this point, a series of orthogonal lines radiate that are the main agents for creating depth in the fresco. These lines fan geometrically upward and outward into what becomes the angles and dimensions of the square coffers on the arch.
Masaccio’s tromp l’oeil
The large size of the fresco, almost 22 feet by 10.5 feet enhances the realism and makes the event more life-like. This creates a “tromp l’oeil” setting, which is an optical illusion that represents two-dimensional planes in three-dimensions. The third component is the horizon line, also at the viewer’s eye level, defined by the bottom step in the scene. Masaccio has placed the horizon line at the floor where the donors are kneeling.
The donors in a kneeling position have been drawn at our level. These figures occupy the audience’s own space, appearing in front of the remaining scene. It is believed that the great early Renaissance architect, Brunelleschi helped him design the architectural frame of this fresco. On either side of the fresco, there are fluted pilasters. A pilaster is a flattened column that can be attached to a wall.
The Holy Trinity is one of the most notable examples of the French art style trompe–l’œil, which directly translates as “misleads the sight”. Masaccio succeeds in deceiving the eyes of the audience, by giving his fresco such depth that it seems as if there is a hole in the wall.
Masaccio extensively uses the chiaroscuro art style. ‘Chiaroscuro’ is an Italian term. “Chiaro” means bright whereas “oscuro” means obscure or hidden. The contrasts in the lights and shadows show the volume and contours of the subjects in this artwork.
In the Holy Trinity, the effect of this art style can be seen evidently in the shadows of Christ’s ribs, the abdominal muscles, and the muscles of his arms. One may also sense the gravitational pull of weight from the nails on the cross. Masaccio depicts his interest and knowledge in naturalistic human anatomy and reminds us that here, Christ is present in flesh and blood. His suffering, sacrifice, and ultimate death are all real and painful.
Another remarkable detail is God’s foot. Keeping in mind the viewer’s vantage point, the foot has been perfectly placed, showing that God is standing. What is striking here is that God has also been depicted in his human form. In medieval art, God and higher beings are represented in an abstract form, usually as elements of nature like the sky or a light among other things. This Humanism is what sets the Renaissance apart from the art styles that existed before its existence. Through the Holy Trinity Massacio gives a remarkable example of realism and humanism in the Early Renaissance.
In the lower portion of the fresco, we see a skeleton in a tomb. It was only recently that this part of the fresco was exposed, as it had been covered for many years. The cadaver tomb consists of a sarcophagus on which lies a skeleton. “Carved” in the wall above the skeleton is an inscription:
“IO FU GA QUEL CHE VOI SETE E QUEL CHI SONO VOACO SARETE”.Inscription on the Holy Trinity by Masaccio
This inscription directly translates to “What you are, I once was; what I am, you will be.” So it’s as if the skeleton is talking to the viewer from another realm. It signifies that the skeleton was once alive like us, and that death is inevitable. This message reminds us of our mortality and future death. This morbid message projects out into the viewer’s space, however when we look above there is a message of hope in the Crucifixion, which implies freedom from death for those who pray.
Just outside the church, there is a cemetery where people would come to visit their loved ones, who have passed away. On entering this section of the church, one would see this image and instantly connect the death of their loved ones and their mortality.
Repairs and Appreciation
According to the ecclesiastical politics of the time, Cosimo I, Duke of Florence, instructed Giorgio Vasari to make substantial repairs to Santa Maria Novella in approximately 1568. A major part of this restoration involved rearranging and redecorating the chapel area where Masaccio’s painting is located.
The Donors in the fresco are usually attributed to either the Lenzi family or the Berti family of Florentine Santa Maria Novella. Viewers look up to them as models of devotion, but since they are situated closer to the sacred figures than the viewers, they have a special status.
The fresco, with its terrible logic, is like a proof in philosophy or mathematics, God the Father, with His unrelenting eyes, being the axiom from which everything else irrevocably flows.American art historian Mary McCarthy
Even if you’re an atheist, there’s some undeniable truth in this masterpiece. Knowing that mortality is real, it is the presence of hope that keeps us going. Many consider Masaccio to be the first true Renaissance artist. Even though he lived a short life, the remarkable work he produced changed the course of western art.
Using concepts of viewpoint and lighting analysis from architecture and adapting them to paintings and frescos like The Holy Trinity, Masaccio’s paintings displayed incredible realism unlike any other artwork of the time.