The Florentine artist Masaccio lived a short life and painted some of the most innovative paintings that mark the beginning of the Italian Renaissance
. One of these is the Brancacci Chapel
, a chapel inside the church of the Carmine in the Oltrarno district of the city of Florence. This fresco series boasts a number of possible "firsts" - first use of scientific perspective, first use of shadows, first attempt at showing strong emotions in facial expressions.
The small chapel contains frescoes that tell the story of the life of Saint Peter, divided into large and small areas. It was begun by Masaccio's friend and master Masolino
in 1424, but he left for a job in Hungary after completing the vault (now destroyed) and some of the paintings on the upper level. Masaccio continued the fresco but he also left the chapel unfinished for jobs in Pisa and Rome, and then he died in 1427. The frescoes were completed only in the 1480s with some parts done by the artist Filippino Lippi.
Reading the Brancacci chapel
The iconography, or subject matter, of the chapel is the life of Saint Peter - he's the guy who in all the scenes is wearing a yellow robe. Most of the scenes show miracles or other parts of the saint's life. An exception to this is the Temptation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve
that you see on the entry wall - we're not really sure what this has to do with the rest of it all. Below those scenes are two scenes painted by Lippi of Saint Peter in Prison
and Saint Peter being Liberated from Prison
; these were probably not part of the original plan but as the artist was working almost 60 years after the chapel was begun, probably nobody knew what was supposed to go there.
The paintings of Adam and Eve are the classic comparison that we use to teach the difference between Renaissance painting and the International Gothic period that came before it, of which Masolino was a major exponent. I think if I put the photos up, you can work much of it out for yourself. Look at the body type, the facial expression, the use of light and shadow, the type of background, the way hair is rendered...
Let's figure out what each scene is about
. Here is a useful diagram (I got it from wikipedia
, it's better than the ugly one I made years back!) It really helps to know the basic subject you're looking at, after which it's a lot easier to talk about it and to see how the artist tells the story through pictures.
The left wall of the chapel is dedicated to issues of church and state. The most famous image is The Tribute Money
; there's also the Raising of the son of Theophilus
, and St. Peter Enthroned
. The story of the Tribute Money is as follows. Christ and his apostles arrive in a place called Capharnum, and the tax collector comes round to ask for money. Christ says "sure, I’ll pay!". He turns to Peter and says: "Peter, head over to that stream there, and take a coin out of the fish’s mouth, and then pay it to this guy." This is a three part narrative that is brilliantly communicated in one horizontally-oriented image. The central group is Christ and the Apostles, and to the left and right we see Peter getting the coin from the fish, and then giving it to the tax collector.
If you look at the ground beneath the apostles, you actually see shadows on the ground! This is a totally new concept and these may be the first shadows in art history
. On the other hand the face of Christ looks rather static and almost like a Russian icon - it's likely that while Masaccio painted most of this fresco, Masolino, being the master who got the commission for the work, painted the most imporant face.
The right wall's narrative is dedicated to the biography of Saint Peter and we're mainly interested in the top fresco that shows two miracles, since the bottom scene was done by Lippi and is in a different style. This scene is called Peter healing a cripple and Raising of Tabitha
and it also is a collaboration between Masaccio and Masolino. Can you figure out which parts are done by the younger, more innovative artist?
My favourite scene in the Brancacci chapel is on the right side of the altar wall: the Death of Ananias.
I like the baby's bum and the poor woman's face, but best of all I just like the story. This is a moralizing anecdote about the position of the church to distribute wealth according to needs and it essentially backs up the reason why people had to pay taxes to the church. In the early christian church, proceeds were held in common, much like in communism! A man named Annanias sold his house, but instead of donating all the money to the church, he kept a PART of the proceeds to himself. He went to Peter and gave him the money, and he lied, saying it was the whole amount. Peter says, "Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost?" Ananias then falls to the ground dead. Three hours later, his wife enters and tells the same lie, suffering the same fate. In the picture we see the rightful distribution of the money to the poor woman, baby with no pants, and cripple in the picture.
Information for visiting the Brancacci Chapel
Located in Piazza del Carmine in the Oltrarno, entrance to the right of church.
Open Monday to Saturday 10-5, Sundays 1-5, closed on Tuesdays. Tickets 4 euros. At the ticket desk you will be assigned an entry time; during high season it may be necessary to wait up to an hour if not more. If you're a group of people (more than say, 4 people), it's best to phone ahead and reserve. Your ticket gives you access also to a film about the chapel that is worth watching for the history and context of the work.
Photos are allowed without flash (last I went).