It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


The Index is found here

Thursday, September 22, 2011

John White : Masaccio

(this is chapter 9
of John White's "Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

Masaccio, "The Tribute Money" 1427

Ten years before Alberti’s book was written, the ideas which Brunelleschi first translated into paint were given monumental form in fresco by Masaccio. Yet, as the spectator stands in the Brancacci Chapel and looks out on the pictorial world beyond the window of the wall, there may come the sudden feeling that although this world has grown a mightier race of men, who walk in their majestic certainty upon a freer, wider, and a firmer earth, his own relation to it has not changed as much as might have been expected. This realization calls to mind the slow, century long preparatory process by which the whole meaning of the picture surface was seen to be transformed. Once again the past gives scale and meaning to the present.

I also get that feeling from this painting - but linear perspective is only part of the story.

Here, the architecture is gone -- but the same feeling that "the world has grown a mightier race of men, who walk in their majestic certainty upon a freer, wider, and a firmer earth" is still there, isn't it?

White also notes that
"slow, century-long preparatory process by which the whole meaning of the picture surface was seen to be transformed" so that "once again, the past gives scale and meaning to the present"

Just as it does in the history of any other technology, like what occurred between Kitty Hawk and the Houston Space Center.

But can religious imagery be studied as a history of technology?

The Wright Bros. would have used 21st C. technology if they had it - but I'm not sure that Giotto, Maso, Duccio etc wanted to make their paintings feel like windows onto an ordinary, non-sacred world.

There is nothing in between this architectural frame and the pictorial world which it encloses. Equally, nothing intervenes between the architecture and the onlooker, now firmly placed in the middle of the chapel, his position determined with new emphasis by the central focus of the unified vanishing points in all the compositions on the side walls. This stationing is further reinforced in the Shadow Healing and Almsgiving scenes on the end wall by the recession of the orthogonals towards the centre of the altar which divides them. These two external vanishing points, without actually coinciding, give sufficient emphasis to the spectator’s central placing as he stands, enclosed by the framework of the architecture, and looks out into the depths beyond. The wall has melted, and reality and picture are one world to the imaginative eye.

Of Masaccio’s own beginnings little enough is known. It seems probable that Brunelleschi’s famous panels had a considerable, direct influence upon his earliest productions. The reconstruction of the view of the Piazza della Signoria adds to the significance of a passage in which Vasari, having emphasized the artist’s close relationships with Donatello and Brunelleschi, says, in addition, that:
‘He diligently studied methods of work and perspective, in which he displayed wonderful ingenuity, as is shown in a scene of small figures now in the house of Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, in which besides Christ releasing the man possessed there are some very fine buildings so drawn in perspective that the interior and the exterior are shown at the same time, as he took for the point of view, not the front, but the corner for its greater difficulty.’

The probable accuracy of Vasari’s description is supported by the existence of the panel in the Johnson Collection which, if it is not actually the picture that is mentioned, must be very closely associated with it. The added difficulty of the viewpoint is naturally present only in Vasari’s eye, conditioned as he was by the then century-old dominance of the foreshortened frontal patterns fostered by Alberti’s pictorial method. The obliquely set representation of the Florentine Duomo in the Johnson panel is not an accurate bifocal structure. Only the main architectural lines receding to the left run to a single point, and there is a similar uncertainty in the perspective of the arches. The picture does, however, prove that in the circle of Masaccio, as well as amongst artists such as Lorenzo Monaco, the interest in the patterns of the previous century survived, although, as was suggested earlier, the immediate impetus in the former case was probably provided by Brunelleschi.

Smith and I discussed this painting here . I speculated that as a processional banner, it was designed to be seen from either side but not from the front. Which would account for the oblique setting which White finds so important.

This is confirmed by the predella of the Pisa altarpiece which is Masaccio’s one remaining documented work. Here the strongly oblique setting of the righthand panel with the story of St. Nicholas, of which the execution by Masaccio has been doubted, is balanced by the softer, but quite definite recession in the opposite sense that is apparent in ‘The Crucifixion of St. Peter’. In this scene the forward surface of the left-hand pyramid is in recession, and its base lies in a slightly deeper plane than that of its counterpart upon the right. There is therefore a soft slipping backwards into space upon both wings of the predella, in conformity with the Florentine empirical tradition that had also influenced Brunelleschi’s compositions.

The development of Masaccio’s figure style, which is evident in the various panels of the altarpiece, is reflected in perspective by the accurate vanishing point construction of the monumental throne. The same interest in spatial problems is also revealed by the foreshortened halo of the Christ Child, and in the bold attempt to foreshorten both the cross and the figure of Christ Crucified in the panel which surmounted the whole altarpiece.

White tells us that this attempt was "bold", rather than successful, because it does seem that Christ's arms would reach down to his knees.

But it's a powerfully compelling scene, none the less.

In the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel the fundamental idea of the new perspective is expressed by the architectural framing. In the scenes themselves the compositional patterns indicate something of the potentialities of the system, and are, in their turn, influenced by it in a way that is characteristic of its effect on pictorial decoration throughout the fifteenth century.

In all the scenes containing architecture, the horizon line, marked by the vanishing point, is at the same height as the general level of the heads of the participants. In this way the onlooker is placed on the same level as the figures, precisely as Alberti later recommended. In each scene the frontal surfaces of the houses all lie undistorted in the plane, expressing the underlying ideas of artificial perspective which were crystallized in the rectangularity of Alberti’s foreshortened pavement. The single vanishing point reveals itself not only as a symptom of the new spatial unity, knitting together all the contents of the scene—landscape, houses, figures, every detail—but also as a powerful compositional weapon.

In ‘The Shadow Healing’ and ‘The Almsgiving’ it is used, as has been noted, to express the relation of all the frescoes to the observer at the centre of the chapel. The simplicity and unity of the composition needs no further emphasis in either case, and the external vanishing point is used to great advantage in ‘The Shadow Healing’ to increase the sense of movement. In the companion scene the figure design is stressed in Giottesque fashion by the ‘verticals of the architectural setting. A very different problem is posed, however, by the three large frescoes on the side walls. Each is made up either of a complex of several episodes within a single story, or else of a single episode in time involving several centres of attention.

One of these three scenes, namely ‘The Healing of the Lame Man, and the Resurrection of Tabitha", is distinguished by the structural peculiarity that the vanishing point expresses nothing but the unity of the space in which the separate incidents take place. It enhances neither narrative. Even the attempt to strengthen the connection across the central void by associating it with a pair of youths, who walk diagonally from the background past one episode in the direction of the other, is largely foiled. They themselves are so engrossed in conversation that they seem to be oblivious of the miracles of resurrection on the one side and of healing on the other. Only the mechanical qualities of the spatial unity are recogmzed. This essentially non-dramatic use of artificial perspective does nothing to detract from the exploitation of its depth creating qualities. The eye is swept straight into the pictorial space, and the abrupt change of architectural and figure scale gives instantaneous expression to the distance travelled. The very drama of the change of scale itself reveals, however, that the journey has no close connection with the action concentrated in the foreground. Here is the joy of space creation largely for itself— exuberant exploitation of a new-found power.

This scene is now attributed to Masaccio's senior colleague, Masolino da Panicale, who doesn't quite share his gritty sense of reality.

‘The Tribute Money’ on the opposite wall betrays a striking difference in emphasis. Nothing is for itself alone, and everything for the story told in terms of monumental human figures. The threefold action weaves the composition. The receding lines of the perspective hold the eye within the circling stillness of the central galaxy. Christ, the source of action and the centre of the composition, is the focus of the spatial unity. Trees recede into the distance, and the mountains loom and fade into a landscape at once closer and more spacious than any in the art of the preceding centuries. The forms of nature give expression to the monumental calm of the majestic figures. Space surrounds them like the heavy-folded cloak of the apostle on the right. It has its own reality, its own existence. Yet its meaning lies within the figures it contains. So cloak and body, individual and group; so man and architecture, house and landscape, space itself; each, gaining independence and reality, gains new power which may be harnessed in the service of the story.

Smith discusses that story here

As with the text quoted at the beginning of this post, this seems like a good description - but how relevant is it to White's topic, i.e. the treatment of rectangular shapes ?

The space we enjoy seeing is more the result of Masaccio's feeling for it rather than some kind of geometric program.

The architecture in ‘The Tribute Money’, owing its new independence of the figures to its increased structural certainty, takes on fresh importance, both in terms of spatial definition and of compositional control, through its single focus in the head of Christ. At the same time, both in this scene and in that of ‘The Raising of the King’s Son’, it shows its clear subordination to the action by its scale. Masaccio exercises similar control of its extension into depth.

The simple, shallow, firmly limited space in the scene of ‘The Raising of the King’s Son’ is the monumental counterpart of the carefully controlled complexity of the architecture in the small tondo of the Birth Plate in Berlin.

These are also good examples, as Smith has suggested, of architecture providing a rational regulation of human activity, quite distinct from the mystical settings that came earlier or the turbulent settings that would follow.

The "Raising of the Son of Theophilus" (as it is also called) is a bit cluttered, but that's only because other artists worked on it after Masaccio's death.

The role of the architecture on the walls of the Brancacci Chapel is not confined to its effect upon the composition of a single fresco. It also plays a new part in relation to the spatial content and essential function of the chapel as a whole. The house on the right of ‘The Tribute Money’, framing a separate incident in the action, is beside the altar. In ‘The Healing of the King’s Son’, immediately below, a similar architectural division again enframes a separate action. The enthroned figure of St. Peter praying, with the kneeling circle at his feet, in fact underlines Masaccio’s compositional creation of a sort of choir, or alcove for the altar. Only in ‘The Healing of the Lame Man, and the Resurrection of Tabitha’ does the pattern falter. But in this case the design, and to a great extent the execution, are attributed by many to Masolino rather than to Masaccio.

It is solely through the power of the new perspective, carefully controlled at every stage, that Masaccio is able, at one stroke, to use the architectural features of his compositions as individual frames for the separate elements of a complex action, and as a means for the articulation of the space in which the observer stands, so that its ritual significance and functional divisions gain new emphasis, whilst actually reinforcing the pictorial unity of each composition as a whole.

I'll have to remember to look for this if I ever visit Florence again.

In what is probably the latest of Masaccio’s works in Florence, the fresco of ‘The Trinity’ in Sta. Maria Novella, architecture and perspective play not merely an important, but almost a dominant role in the design. The casual quality of the Brancacci architecture, despite its intricate compositional function, the seemingly effortless relation of the figures to the space surrounding them, give way to something more ambitious. The grandeur of the massive barrel vault, and of the Ionic and Corinthian columns and pilasters, is a new departure. The architectural majesty of the design is only equaled by the calm ability of the figures to retain their rightful mastery. The interaction of the two creates dramatic tension.

The foreshortening of the architecture, in accordance with the principles of artificial perspective, is accurate both in the diminution of the coffering and in the single vanishing point which lies slightly below the plane on which the donors kneel. The space in which the figures stand is rectangular, and the precise depth at which they are placed cannot be determined. The sarcophagus-like platform upon which the figure of God the Father stands is not to be placed against the back wall, or supported upon consoles that project from it. Its upper surface is about four-fifths of the height of the furthest columns from the ground. This, in terms of the foreground columns, is on a level with the chest of the figure of Christ upon the cross. Such a position would, apart from anything else, leave insufficient head-room to contain the figure of God the Father. The considerable masking of the inner columns must therefore be attributed to the low viewpoint in conjunction with the placing of the sarcophagus well forwards in the vaulted space, the ends of its supports being hidden by the standing figures. How far forwards it is impossible to tell exactly. It is equally impossible to say precisely how far back the figures of the Virgin and St. John, and indeed the cross itself, are placed. From the way in which the front line of the floor cuts off the feet of the two standing figures, and the fact that St. John turns sideways, and not backwards, to look at Christ upon the cross, the whole group seems to be at least within the first half of the chapel space, and probably in the first third. There is no reason, on grounds of perspective, for thinking that the relation of the figure of God the Father to the cross he holds is, in any way, either impossible or improbable. The fact that these two figures of the Trinity are approximately the same height would seem to show that they are indeed as closely related as they appear to be, and there is nothing in the fresco to contradict this supposition.

In his footnotes, White alludes to various attempts at reconstructing the space behind the altar as if it were real. How far back are the figures standing? How far is God standing in front of the back wall? White proposes that such questions cannot be answered, though I would suggest that there's no good reason to ask them.

Though he does not mention that the columns on either side remain parallel even as recede into the distance above, and regarding the heads of the figures, there even seems to be a reverse perspective in the vertical axis, as they increase in size in proportion to their distance from the floor, pulling the viewer up into their midst.

Indeed, the figure of God seems to be ominously looming over all - which is, I suppose, what he is supposed to be doing.

As quoted below, White agrees that "foreshortening that would do nothing to enhance the intrinsic value of the central figures is avoided."

But why is he raising this issue at all, if his purpose is only to discuss how artists have depicted geometric shapes ?

Isn't "spiritual quality" outside his area of concern ?

The general accuracy of construction does not mean that Masaccio was prepared to follow rules beyond the limits of their usefulness. This is shown by the varied handling of the foreshortening of the figures. Those of the Virgin and St. John are seen from the low viewpoint of the architecture, greatly adding to the realism of the composition. The undersides of both arms of the cross are likewise visible. But the experiment of ‘The Crucifixion’ in the Pisa Altarpiece is not repeated as a whole. Here there is no foreshortening of the figure of Christ or of that of God the Father. The previous example of the altarpiece proves that this is no error, but a definite intention. The reasons for it are not far to seek. The general foreshortening, consistent with the placing of the fresco, gives a strong impression of reality to the spectator looking upwards at the scene. The unforeshortened setting of the principal figures, on the other hand, has the effect of raising him to their own level, bringing them closer, and, in this particular case, increasing their emotional and apparitional impact. At the same time a foreshortening that would do nothing to enhance the intrinsic value of the central figures is avoided. Here, where a low viewpoint is combined with a relatively high positioning of the figures in question, the distortion involved would have resulted in a bold theatricality which might detract from, rather than intensify the spiritual quality of the scene. The shifting of the viewpoint is a device often used, in various forms, throughout the fifieertth ceitury. The added power to control the onlooker’s attention gained through the use of several points of view within a single composition was of more importance to the artist than the mathematical implications of his action.

In Masaccio’s fresco this controlled manipulation of the new perspective plays an essential role in making it possible for the Eternal, at the apex of the great sloping triangle of figures, to dominate the monumental, architectural space created with the aid of that same science. As soon as this is realized, the analytic mind is able suddenly to comprehend the full artistic value of a thing which the inarticulate eye accepted from the first. It is precisely because the entire central group is not irrevocably anchored to a single, sharply indicated point in space that it can take its place either within the spatial pyramid of figures running into that great cavity which Vasari so admired, or as part of a triangle piling up the surface of the wall. The sloping arms of this plane- stressing triangle continue through the capitals of column and pilaster, forming a St. Andrew’s cross, which ties the massive verticals together and builds up a surface pattern of a strength and severity that is equal to the task of balancing the thrust of mathematically determined, space.

This structural pattern seems to echo the work of Brunelleschi both as an architect, and as the creator of perspective. How much it may also reflect the vision of the sculptor Donatello, whose influence is so evident in the figures, will, perhaps, appear in the discussion of that artist’s revolution of the art of the pictorial relief.

White has discussed this painting as if it were a geo-form abstraction from the 1950's.

What about the figures?

What about the compelling face of Mary as shown above?

Doesn't that fit somehow into the "structural pattern" of the space?

This area of detail would command attention even if, heaven forbid, it were cut off the wall with a chain saw and shipped to an American museum (just like the heads of Boddhisatvas that were cut from shrines in Asia)

But without it, this painting is hardly worth seeing.


BTW - since the vanishing point for all those lines in the vault was placed upon the altar, Here's a book that proposes that: "the invention of one-point perspective is inextricably tied up with the promotion of the Eucharist and belief in transubstantiation during the Renaissance. "

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