Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 16, 1999
Rona Goffen, ed. Masaccio’s Trinity New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 176 pp.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (0521467098)

Masaccio’s Trinity is part of a new series initiated last year by the Cambridge University Press, which recalls two high quality series of art history books from the 1970s. As in the Viking Press series, “Art in Context,” a single masterwork of Western European painting from the Renaissance through the twentieth century is examined in detail. Following a format similar to “The Artists in Perspective Series” (Prentice-Hall), each volume includes an introduction by the editor followed by a series of six essays by various authors, chosen to represent a variety of methodological perspectives.

In her introduction to Masaccio’s Trinity, Rona Goffen defines the meaning of humanism within the historical context of the fifteenth century and describes the psychological and physical verisimilitude of early Renaissance painting exemplified by the work of Masaccio. Further emphasizing the novelty of his art, she relies on the standard art-historical comparison of the Gothic International versus early Renaissance style: “In the 1420s, Masaccio and Gentile da Fabriano came head to head in an implicit competition or at least confrontation of their different styles in Santa Maria Novella, with the foreigner painting his Adoration of the Magi as the altarpiece of the Strozzi Chapel in the left, or north transept, and the Florentine his Trinity in the north aisle” (p. 9). The claim that Gentile’s Adoration was painted originally for Santa Maria Novella (instead of Santa Trinita) is reiterated twice on the following page. This egregious error aside, the remainder of the introductory essay provides an excellent overview of the many art-historical aspects of the Trinity, including its physical history, the documentary evidence for the work’s patronage, the fresco’s funerary function, the novel role of Mary in the painting, the image of the Trinity as the Throne of Grace, and the fictive architectural scheme. Reflecting more recent concerns in the field of art history, Goffen concludes by commenting on the viewer’s perception of the image: “The spatial unity of the Trinity’ s architectural setting implies temporal unity, but the beholder realizes that this simultaneity is illusory, despite the conviction of Masaccio’s perspective. Masaccio’s composition can be seen both to specify time and to deny it or to blur its boundaries, and in this way, while representing the Trinity as the object of immediate veneration in the here and now of Santa Maria Novella, the artist also achieves a kind of timelessness” (p. 26). All of the issues raised in the introduction are explored further in the six essays that follow.

“The Florentine Elite in the Early Fifteenth Century” is excerpted from Gene Brucker’s classic study, The Civic World of Early Renaissance Florence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977). Although the subject does not relate directly to the Trinity, the intention behind the choice is to provide insight into the world of the world of the fresco’s patrons–out whom very little is known–and that of its first viewers.

“Masaccio’s Trinity and the Letter to the Hebrews” is an amended version of Rona Goffen’s article of 1980 first published in Memorie Domenicane. She argues that the Letter to the Hebrews provides the key to understanding the spiritual meaning(s) of the fresco and its function as a devotional work in relation to the liturgy of the church. The imagery of the upper part of the fresco is intended to forcefully remind the worshipper-viewer, in a similar fashion to the text of the Epistle of Christ’s sacrifice and of the “heavenly gift” (Heb. 6:5) of mankind’s redemption. The skeleton depicted on the lower portion of the wall, in proximity with the (lost) tomb slab of Domenico di Lenzi and his family (the probable patron(s) of the fresco), serves several symbolic functions: as Death himself; as a reminder of the transience of life; and as Adam, who embodies the promise of salvation since he was the first man to be redeemed by Christ’s blood. The Virgin, Saint John the Baptist, and the praying donors serve as witnesses of Christ’s sacrifice and models of faith. As “the blood of Jesus makes us free to enter boldly into the sanctuary” (Heb. 9:19-20), so, too, does the astonishing illusionism of Masaccio’s fictive architecture make it seem as if one can enter the space occupied by the Trinity from the actual space of the church. Goffen concludes: “Thus Masaccio’s imagery of the Trinity has a twofold meaning. Just as Christ is both sacrifice and priest, enacting the heavenly Mass in the presence of Mary, John, and the donor-communicants, the Trinity is also the recipient of the Eucharistic sacrament offered by the mortal priest of an earthly Mass in the presence of living communicants” (p. 57). Although Goffen presents a well-argued case, her interpretation is flawed, because it is based on the questionable assumption that the fresco was originally intended as an altarpiece. It is advisable to supplement Goffen’s essay by consulting Paul Joannides’s sound discussion of the iconography and imagery of the Trinity in Masaccio and Masolino: A Complete Catalogue (London: Phaidon, 1993, pp. 357-60).

Ornella Casazza, in “Masaccio’s Fresco Technique and Problems of Conservation,” describes the methods she employed in the recently completed restoration of the Brancacci Chapel and summarizes the findings in regard to the artists’ techniques. Based on this experience, she outlines the procedures that would be followed in cleaning the Trinity (an undertaking that she hopes will ensue shortly). The remainder of the essay provides a comprehensive review of the physical history of the Trinity, including detailed information about the detachment and transfer of the fresco in 1858 and its restoration and reattachment a century later by Lionello Tintori. Regrettably, the photograph of Tintori’s diagram of the surface of the fresco is virtually useless because the color-coded notations of the presence of giornate, graffiti and spolveri cannot be deciphered in the black-and-white reproduction (fig. 18) accompanying the text. The glossary of technical terms relating to this essay should have been integrated with the endnotes, rather than being appended at the end of the volume.

No study of the Trinity would be complete without a discussion of Masaccio’s use of perspective. Jane Andrew Aiken’s essay on “The Perspective Construction of Masaccio’s Trinity Fresco and Medieval Astronomical Graphics,” builds on Joseph Polzer’s observations about the perspective projection and surface geometry of the Trinity (Joseph Polzer, “The Anatomy of Masaccio’s Holy Trinity,” Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen 93 1971: 18-59). Parts of Aiken’s chapter appeared in an earlier article in Artibus et Historiae.) She argues that Masaccio–or more likely Brunelleschi–was familiar with the tradition of astronomical graphics and utilized them in designing the fresco: “the projection of the semicircular ribs of the Trinity barrel vault is directly analogous to the astrolabist’s method of projecting almucantars (circles of celestial latitude) ranging above the observed horizon” (p. 99). The application of this system to the design of the Trinity was not only practical, but also appropriate, for Masaccio “applied to humankind and earthbound works the mathematical truths of a purposeful nature as he believed they existed and as they were presented to him by the ceaseless revolutions of the heavens” (p. 103). Aiken’s persuasive argumentation in favor of the influence of astronomical notation on Masaccio and Brunelleschi offers fresh insight into the somewhat stale discussion of perspective in early Renaissance art.

Yves Bonnefoy’s “Time and the Timeless in Quattrocento Painting,” is excerpted from an essay with the same title, published in Calligram: Essays in New Art History from France (ed., Norman Bryson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988). In this semiotic study, Bonnefoy focuses on the many ways in which art “contains time”: physical time, timelessness, and time expressed through perspectivally constructed depth. For Bonnefoy, the most significant aspect of linear perspective is not the depiction of space, but rather the effect of perspective on our perception of the object in space: “The effect of bringing precision to the category of space–or perhaps, simply the concern to think space, separating out spatial perception from our global intuition of reality–is to foster an equally futile precision in all aspects of external appearance. In a word, the analysis of sensory qualities replaces the intuition of a fundamental unity” (p. 114). However, when it originated in the fifteenth century, perspective offered “precision and harmony” and placed the spectator “at the center of all representations and meanings.” However, according to Bonnefoy, “Masaccio was not wholehearted enough a perspectivist to be well and truly caught in the conflict between the spatial and the temporal” (p. 115). Perspectivist Masaccio certainly was, but twentieth-century semiotician he was not!

The final chapter, “Masaccio’s Skeleton: Art and Anatomy in Early Renaissance Florence,” was written by Katharine Park especially for the book. In this fascinating essay, Park relates the skeleton of the Trinity to medieval and early Renaissance traditions of anatomical illustration and practices of human dissection. Masaccio’s skeleton is more accurate than illustrations of the human body that supplemented the text of contemporary anatomical handbooks. But in a similar fashion to these pictures, it functioned as a visually striking, and therefore highly effective, “memory image” complementing the inscription written above. Within the history of science, Masaccio lies “on the cusp of the slow transition from a memorial to a documentary culture–from a culture in which both artists and anatomists looked to the pictorial and textual tradition to one in which they privileged the dissected body itself” (p. 132).

Although Cambridge University Press intends Masaccio’s Trinity to serve as a textbook, presumably for classroom use, it is more likely that it will wind up on reserve for an advanced Renaissance art history course or a graduate-level seminar. For the price of the book, the press surely owes the reader at least one color plate of the Trinity.

Perri Lee Roberts
University of Miami