I confess that as art goes I come from the “I know what I like” school. One artist whose works I genuinely like is the early Italian Renaissance painter Masaccio (1401-1428). In part this is because he was the first Italian artist whose works break completely from the stiffness of late medieval art, using perspective to give his paintings an almost three dimensional depth and shading to suggest heavenly gradations of light. Mostly though it stems from the fact that we know almost nothing about him outside of his art.
Born Tomasso Cassai (for his grandfather’s profession of cabinetmaker) or, in other accounts, di Ser Giovanni di Mone, in 1401, he lost his father at the age of five. His mother remarried, but the next fact we know for certain is that he joined one of the seven main crafts guilds in Tuscany’s capital city of Florence in 1422. It was members of this guild who gave him the nickname that has overshadowed his birth name: in English, “Masaccio” means something like “big, ugly Tom.” He apparently was a big goodnatured lug of a man; the only image we have in paint of him is a self-portrait contained in one of his surviving frescoes. We also have no idea where he learned to paint, a very strange circumstance in an era when the great artists of the day ran workshops and schools and younger painters were apprenticed to them.
His career lasted a bare five years. In those five years he completed a number of paintings, many of them lost in the centuries after his death. The most famous of his surviving works grace the walls of the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, painted for a patron named Felice Brancacci for his family’s private chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Other works can be found in such far-flung locations as Berlin’s Staatliche Museen, Florence’s fabled Uffizi Gallery, and London’s National Gallery.
In late 1427, Masaccio left some of the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel unfinished and relocated to Rome. We do not know why he moved; we only know that by the autumn of 1428, he was dead, two months short of his twenty-seventh birthday. One lurid account claims he was poisoned by a jealous fellow artist; another says he died “of grief and want” which suggests that, unable to get commissions in the highly competitive art community in Rome, he fell ill from malnutrition and was carried off by disease or outright starvation.
His influence can be seen in particular in the paintings of the late Renaissance painter and sculptor Michelangelo. I see a lot of Masaccio in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, especially in the size and musculature of the figures.
At left is his painting of the Holy Trinity (1425), in Florence’s church of Santa Maria Novella. The figures depicted here include the Virgin Mary and a “donor”–i.e. the patron who commissioned the painting. The Trinity is depicted as God tenderly supporting a cross on which hangs the dead Christ, with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovering between them. The whole scene is given perspective by a spatial structure in the form of a barrel vault, giving the impression that the whole painting is set into a hole in the wall, as art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote.
Masaccio painted exclusively on biblical themes. This one has brought the story of the Fall and Adam and Eve’s punishment by being banned from Eden alive for me in a way the words on the page cannot. In her book SISTER WENDY’S 1000 MASTERPIECES, Sister Wendy Beckett, Carmelite nun and art historian, pinpoints its emotional impact: “No artist has entered more deeply into the horror of the expulsion from Paradise than Masaccio. It is a refugee situation that he portrays: home and happiness swiftly turned into loss and misery. It is this position of exile, so painfully familiar to our own times, that we can well appreciate.” I’ve never been to Florence, but the first time I saw a picture of this painting my breath literally caught in my throat.
Worth noting that Masaccio apparently painted his figures of Adam and Eve nude, and some later painter–possibly Filippino Lippi, who completed some of the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel some six decades after Masaccio abandoned them–added fig leaves to them. In the late twentieth century, a cleaning removed the fig leaves. In any case, there is no eroticism implicit in the painting–only grief and contrition and fear. The great brooding swordwielding angel who blocks the way back in to Eden has a look of such sympathy and sorrow on its face as to move me to tears.
So Eden sank to grief–as Robert Frost wrote in another context.
One day I hope to get to Florence. And the first place I’m going to sightsee (after a good authentic Tuscan meal, of course) will be the Brancacci Chapel. Surely I won’t be the only overawed slackjawed tourist standing gawking before the majesty and genius of a man who gave us more beauty in five short years than most artists do in a lifetime.