Masaccio’s ‘Holy Trinity’
Though I’m not religious, I do enjoy religious art. Such art is inescapable when viewing the western masterpieces of the last thousand years. In particular, I’ve always enjoyed Masaccio’s “Holy Trinity,” though perhaps for all the wrong reasons. Yes, the depiction of the trinity is nice. I am impressed with the use of perspective.
The use of the arch as a framing device really is clever. The artist’s use of the people in the fresco to form a pyramid is pleasing to the eye. But, these things aren’t what interest me. Mary’s eyes interest me, as does the tomb at the bottom of the work, an image rarely shown in art books. Here is a common art book image of the work:
The ‘Holy Trinity’ was painted on an inside wall of the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence in the year 1424. The central figure is of Christ on the cross, head still held up. Perhaps has not yet breathed his last, but his eyes are closed and the direction of his gaze, if he has just closed his eyes, is down and to his right, focused on his mother. Christ’s outstretched arms and, more specifically, the very visible nails, combine with the empty space behind and Christ’s legs and feet to form an inverted pyramid within the pyramid of the figures.
Above Christ looms the image of god the father. Between the two, a dove hovers, representing the holy spirit.
The two patrons of this fresco, a prominent married couple of Florence, are depicted and praying on the very outer corners of the images, looking at each other. It is interesting to note that they are stationed outside the inner building, framed by pillars, as if they reside outside of this sacred space.
Inside the sacred space, on Christ’s left, St. John looks at the trinity with hands clasped. On his right is Christ’s mother, Mary. And where is she looking?
She is the only person in the painting who is actually looking at us. She looks mournful, and resigned. Her right hand is outstretched toward her son on the cross. This is her sacrifice to the viewer as much as it is God’s sacrifice. In terms of Catholic theology, this is a display of Mary as a gateway between humans and the divine. She is inviting us in to partake of salvation. As a secular viewer, I find it a poignant image of a mother making sense of the loss of her son. Her eyes, at once sad, resigned, and yet self-assured, are haunting.
In 1860, the image was transferred to canvas during renovations and in the process, for mysterious reasons, a key part of the image was neglected.
At the bottom of the original fresco was the image of a tomb, and a skeleton inside. The inscription above the skeleton reads “IO FU[I] G[I]A QUEL CHE VOI S[I]ETE E QUEL CH['] I[O] SONO VO[I] A[N]C[OR] SARETE" (I once was what you are and what I am you also will be), the sentiments of a ‘memento mori’ tomb. It is unclear if the omission of this part of the fresco was intentional or not, but it was plastered over after the rest of the image was transferred and moved to another part of the church. I’ve found the idea of death comforting because it reminds us of how limited our time is, and how precious. I imagine this tomb at the bottom of the trinity also enforced the idea of life as a transitory enterprise for the renaissance viewer, even as it promised a salvation after death.