1400 – 1500
Renaissance in Italy & the North

Masaccio's Holy Trinity

Masaccio, Holy Trinity, c. 1427, Fresco, 667 x 317 cm, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Masaccio was the first painter in the Renaissance to incorporate Brunelleschi's discovery in his art. He did this in his fresco called the Holy Trinity, in Santa Maria Novella, in Florence.

Masaccio, Holy Trinity, 1425-28, Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Have a close look at the painting and at this perspective diagram. You see the orthogonals in the lines that form the coffers in the ceiling of the barrel vault (look for diagonal lines that appear to recede into the distance). Because Masaccio painted from a low viewpoint, as though we were looking up at Christ, we see the orthogonals in the ceiling, and if we traced all of the orthogonals the vanishing point would be below the base of the cross.

Perspective diagram of Masaccio's Holy Trinity, in Santa Maria Novella, Florence

My favorite part of this fresco is God's feet. Actually, you can only really see one of them. 

Think about this for a moment. God is standing in this painting. Doesn't that strike you as odd just a little bit? This may not strike you all that much when you first think about it because our idea of God, our picture of God in our minds eye—as an old man with a beard—is very much based on Renaissance images of God. So, here Masaccio imagines God as a man. Not a force or a power, or something abstract, but as a man. A man who stands -- his feet are foreshortened, and he weighs something and is capable of walking! In medieval art, God was often represented by a hand, just a hand, as though God was an abstract force or power in our lives, but here he seems so much like a flesh and blood man. This is a good indication of Humanism in the Renaissance.

Masaccio's contemporaries were struck by the palpable realism of this fresco, as was Vasari who lived over one hundred years later. Vasari wrote that "the most beautiful thing, apart from the figures, is the barrel-vaulted ceiling drawn in perspective and divided into square compartments containing rosettes foreshortened and made to recede so skilfully that the surface looks as if it is indented."

The Architecture 
One of the other amazing things about this painting is the use of classical architecture (from ancient Greece and Rome). Masaccio borrowed much of what we see from ancient Romanarchitecture, and may have been helped by Brunelleschi. Study thediagram below and make sure you can identify the differentarchitectural elements. If you want to read more about these terms lookin the glossary in the back of your book.

Coffers - the indented squares that decorate the ceiling
- a round, supporting element in architecture. In this painting we see an attached column.
- a shallow, flattened out columns attached to a wall -- it is only decorative, and has no supporting function
Barrel Vault
- vault means ceiling, and a barrel vault is a ceiling in the shape of a round arch
Iconic and Corinthian Capitals
- a capital is the decorated top of a column or pilaster. An ionic capital has a scroll shape (like the ones on the attached columns in the painting), and a Corinthian capital has leaf shapes.
Fluting -
the vertical, idented lines or grooves that decorated the pilasters in the painting. Fluting could also be used on a column

Elements of ancient architecture in Masaccio's Holy Trinity




Your Comments (4)

Previous Comments

Natasha Hope wrote on Friday, February 25, 2011

this is an incredible page. I'm studying history of art for A level, and am currently revising.. I was so confused

Mary Ciani Saslow wrote on Saturday, September 17, 2011

This is an excellent oveview of perspective in Masaccio's Trinity. However, you overlook an important point. The location of the vanishing point on the compsition is not arbitrary: it is exactly at the eye-level of a Rennaisance man. This was the intellectual decision that created the perceived magic. An adult of that time, coming into the church and turning to stand directlyin front of the painting on the side wall, would have had his horizon line perfectly matched to the one in the painting; and as he stood at the foot of Jesus on the cross the observer's vanishing point would perfectly match that chosen by the artist! Thus the magic: It would appear to a Florentine in 1427 - and still now to us - as if a room has been cut into the wall, and Jesus and God the Father share a continuous space with us. This explains why the painting looks a bit weird when reproduced. Why do we see so much of the ceiling? Why are we looking under the chins of the two standing figures? In other words, why would an artist put the horizon line at the bottom of a picture, at a worm's eye vew? This is only understandable if the scale and location of the work is made even more clear. This is not a tiny easel painting but a life-size mural. In addition, the bottom of the painting is above a sarcophagus carving on the wall of the church (not usually shown), so the painting's bottom edge is around 5' 4

Debbie Graham wrote on Sunday, September 25, 2011

I agree with Ms. Saslow. I would also point out the effect that this has on the underpinning worldview. Standing at the foot of the cross one is forced to look up through Christ and the Holy Spirit to God the Father. This is the route of the devotees' prayers and the path to salvation. Mary and John emphasis this point. The tomb at the bottom reminds us the the dead were once like us and we will be like them but for the death of Christ. I very powerful comment on the common worldview of the day!

Rebekah Smith wrote on Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Enjoyable introduction to the painting, thank you. The inscription is Italian (with abbreviations), not Latin.

Add Comments

We think Smarthistory works best when it prompts discussion. Please post (on-topic) comments.*

*All comments are moderated

To post a comment, you need the Adobe Flash Plugin. Download it from here.
This work is an open educational resource and This work is licensed under a Creative Common Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license.