The Italian Artistic Renaissance was a monumental movement that forever changed the western world. The ideas of the Renaissance demonstrate a significant cultural change from that of the middle ages, and it’s important to remember that of course it didn’t happen overnight. It began slowly and grew gradually in Florence from the late 12 hundreds with artists like Cimabue (pronounced Chi-ma-boy) and his pupil Giotto (widely considered the first great Renaissance master), and lasted until the mid 1550s with Michelangelo and Raphael as the greatest masters. That’s a period of 250+ years- longer than America has been a country. It seems everywhere you go in Italy (particularly in Florence and Rome) you are likely to find little churches that still contain the work of artists from this period. There are many artists who are not the household names today, but still were important artists that made advances in artistic thinking and passed those discoveries onto the next generation of artists. When you look at works of art and analyze their context and content, you can often spot similarities.
One of the most important painters of the Renaissance is Masaccio. He died at 26 years old and only 4 works of his survive, but in that time made huge advances in art that greatly impacted later artists. He is the first painter to use true linear perspective in a painting. For a century, artists had been trying to create a system for perspective without success. Masaccio established the use of a horizon line and vanishing point to create the illusion of 3-dimensional depth on a wall in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The work, made in 1427 and called “The Holy Trinity”, depicts God the Father and Christ directly above a skeleton, symbolic of Adam and the death of man being conquered by the Trinity. Setting the subject aside, the figures reside in a false room painted to match the vaults in the rest of the church. The bottom of the work is 6 feet off the ground- so standing below, the illusion of a real room is created. It was seen as a huge triumph.
Just across town is the Brancacci Chapel, just a block from the monastery we’ll be staying at. Inside are large frescos by Masaccio. They were recently cleaned in the last few decades, and are as bright and impressive as ever. One of the scenes in these paintings is Masaccio’s “Expulsion from the Garden”, a highly influential work that other artists no doubt knew about and learned from. In the work, Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and realized their nakedness. As a result, sin has entered the world and they are being escorted out of the garden of Eden by an angel wielding a large sword. Adam and Eve are naked and ashamed. Eve is trying to cover herself and crying and anguish, while Adam can only hide his face a weep. These figures are not the stiff and emotionless figures of paintings from the middle ages. Their pain is evident. In the painting, Masaccio has used some stunning lighting effects. The bodies of Adam and Eve are much more lifelike than those of previous painters.
How influential was Masaccio? We can tell by looking at other depictions of the “Expulsion” from other artists. It’s not at all unusual to see an artist pay homage to a previous one by borrowing the visual language of that artists interpretation. It’s not an act of copying, but rather a subtle gesture of gratitude. The first example is from Fra Angelico (which means “Angelic Friar”), a devout dominican monk who was also an astounding painter who lived in Florence the around same time as Masaccio but survived a while longer. We’ll learn lots more about him later and we’ll see many of his works at San Marco in Florence. Here’s his painting from 1430-32 called the “Annunciation”.
In the work, Mary receives word from the angel Gabriel that she will be giving birth to the Christ child. She also receives the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove). Through her son, God will redeem humanity from the sin of Adam and Eve. Fra Angelico strangely places Adam and Eve in the background to make the theological significance of the moment complete. His Adam and Eve are clothed, but also ashamed and bewildered as they are escorted by an angel in an orange robe with a sword.
The most fitting tribute to Masaccio and his far-reaching influence is on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. There, between 1508 and 1512 Michelangelo chose to borrow directly from the painting that was among his favorites in Florence. Have a look at his amazing “Expulsion” scene, one of 9 panels from the old testament on the ceiling:
Adam and Eve are shown in a before and after scene, reaching for the forbidden fruit and banished as a result. Michelangelo’s figures are large and exceedingly muscular, painted as a true sculptor might paint them. In the banishment, Michelangelo also portrays a humiliated and naked Adam and Eve, and an angel in orange with a sword, only this sword it at Adam’s throat, which really drives home the serious consequence of Adam’s action.
Part of what makes studying art so complicated is the vast reach of artistic influences and the way they manifest themselves in different work. It’s also what makes art history so insanely interesting if we’re willing to dig deeper and look for similarities like these… much more to come on Florentine painters and the Sistine Ceiling.