Whaddaya lookin’ at? Masaccio’s The Trinity!

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The Trinity, Masaccio (c.1425)

Perspective, in art, is the system for representing three-dimensional space on a flat surface. It was first discovered in the Classical Period by artists in Ancient Greece. However, the fall of the Roman Empire in 500AD brought on a new era, the Middle Ages, where such knowledge and understanding of perspective was temporarily lost. It was not until the Florentine architect and theorist, Filippo Brunelleschi, made his findings on perspective that the old Medieval styles of painting were replaced by the new Linear Perspective in Renaissance art. Brunelleschi is credited with the rediscovery of the laws of linear/scientific perspective, however, he did not write any of his findings down but instead taught them directly to his acquaintances, in particular, Masaccio and Donatello. His rediscoveries of perspective inspired many artists, such as Masaccio, to create their own three-dimensional paintings, producing a more realistic and natural picture.

Masaccio was one of the first artists to rigorously use Brunelleschi’s findings on perspective in his work, particularly in his fresco painting, The Trinity. The use of linear perspective in this work emphasises the passion and emotion that the idea of Christ triggers within us, implying the powerful and monumental force of Christ. As was common belief in the previous Medieval Ages, the people saw God as three separate entities: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This idea of hierarchal levels was a common element in the International Gothic period, the time prior to the Renaissance. This is interesting as even though this work utilises New Linear Perspective, the theme of this painting is solely surrounding the threefold nature of God – hence its name as The Trinity. Because of this, it’s as if Masaccio is hinting at the timelessness and enduring concept of the Christian religion and its importance in the world.

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Vasari, Masaccio’s biographer, commented about the wall on which the fresco was painted as appearing “to have holes in it”. This illusion is produced by the use of linear perspective, as a real sense of depth and space is created. Masaccio divides his painting into two realms, that of the divine and sacred, seen in the vaulted chapel, and secondly, that of the ordinary space, presented with the kneeling figures and the tomb. To create this sense of depth, the squares on the ceiling of the vaulted chapel curve and diminish in size as they recede into the depth of the ‘hole’. As they curve and bend, orthogonal lines are constructed that steer the eye to the vanishing point of the painting, the base of what is believed to be Christ’s tomb. The viewpoint of this painting is very low and appropriate to the level at which the spectators stand. As part of the wall, the viewer is forced to look up at the painting and thus, the coffered ceiling is seen in perspective.

The position of the figures is significant as layers within the scene are created. For example, the two kneeling donors in the foreground of the picture create a triangle with the apex of Christ’s head. Not only is this shape symbolic of the Trinity, but also, different levels within the painting are produced and thus, so is a sense of depth and volume, emphasising the three-dimensional elements of this picture.

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