On the southern side of the Arno stands Santa Maria del Carmine. This church, though unassuming from the outside, is home to the famously beautiful Brancacci Chapel, where vibrant frescoes by renaissance masters Masolino da Panicale, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi have survived for centuries. In 1771, a massive fire destroyed most of the church in less than 4 hours but somehow the Brancacci and Corsini chapels managed to survive. Many people consider it a miracle, which I personally find highly unlikely. Anyways, whether it was a miracle or not, it is still incredibly lucky that we are able to observe the magnificent artwork that survived. I had the pleasure of getting a private tour of the Brancacci chapel from Professor Marc Mannheimer, as I had to miss the scheduled tour due to an FUA class trip.
Below is a photograph of the Brancacci Chapel.
Masaccio’s Tribute Money was my favorite fresco in the Brancacci Chapel. The scene in the fresco is taken directly from the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, when Jesus directs Peter to go to the sea and take a coin from a fish’s mouth in order to pay the temple tax. I found it interesting that the fresco was meant to make a political statement, not just a religious one. This particular story was commonly used as Christian justification for the legitimacy of secular authority (the Papacy, for example, who Masaccio was trying to honor through this fresco).
Painted in the 1420’s, the beginning of the Renaissance, it was revolutionary in multiple ways; for Masaccio’s use of linear perspective, chiaroscuro, as well as the anatomically correct rendering of the human figures. Below is an image of Masaccio’s Tribute Money.
The discovery of linear perspective came about during the birth of the Renaissance. It made it easier for artists to create the illusion of depth in their work as well as more compellingly complex scenes. It was used as a tool to draw one’s eye to the key figure or action in the scene, by having the figure where the vanishing point supposedly would be. If you examine the fresco, you can see that the head of Jesus is situated directly on top of the vanishing point, and all of the orthogonal lines of the architecture are converging in that direction, leading the viewers eye right to Jesus, who is meant to be the central figure in the scene. Jesus is pointing his figure directly at another one of his disciples who is simultaneously pointing toward Peter, who is kneeling by the sea, taking a coin out of a fish’s mouth, creating an imaginary line that connects the two subjects together by drawing the viewer’s eye
Masaccio’s figures are very realistic, especially by the standards of the 15th century. Not only do the figures appear less cartoonish than prior works; they are depicted in contrapposto, where they are not standing rigidly, but with their weight on one side, a far more realistic stance. He also used chiaroscuro to make his figures appear more realistic, but portraying light and shadow in a convincing manner.
Every single one of the frescos in the Brancacci Chapel is beautiful and worth taking a look at. Below is a diagram of the fresco placement within the Chapel. The abbreviations tell you who painted what. MI stands for Masolino, MC stand for Masaccio and F stands for Filippino.