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Masaccio, Madonna with Child and Angels (detail), 1426, egg tempera on poplar, 136 x 73 cm, National Gallery, London

Masaccio, Madonna with Child and Angels (detail), 1426, egg tempera on poplar, 136 x 73 cm, National Gallery, London


Travel guide for Tuscany

Masaccio | The Pisa Altarpiece (1426)


Masaccio was the most revolutionary painter of the Early Renaissance. 'The Virgin and Child' in the National Gallery is the central fragment of one of his most important works, a polyptych made at the age of 25 for the church of the Carmine in Pisa.

The altar Masaccio painted for Santa Maria del Carmine, the Carmelite church in Pisa, is his best-documented work. All payments were recorded and his patron is known. Stylistically it is an early work, although the painter died at the age of twenty-seven, one year after the altarpiece was finished.

Masaccio's innovations were not technical, for his work on panel uses traditional materials and methods, as do his paintings in fresco. Inspired by the ideals of Giotto, by contemporary interest in ancient Roman remains, by the recent experiments of his friends the architect-sculptor Brunelleschi and the sculptor Donatello, he relied above all on observation of nature. His study of perspective was allied to an equally profound analysis of light. The lutes of the two angels at the Virgin's feet are demonstrations, obviously studied from the model, of the joint effect of foreshortening and directional illumination. The peg box of the instrument on the right faces inwards, the other is turned towards us. The strong light shining from the upper left helps define rounded and flat surfaces and right angles, and the shadows and penumbras cast by the angels' hands look so natural that we almost take them for granted.

Masaccio, The Pisa Altarpiece (1426), conjectural arrangement of the surviving panels

Conjectural arrangement of the surviving panels [2]

The painting is the central panel of a large, 19 pieces winged altar executed for a chapel of the Carmelite Church in Pisa. The panels of the altarpiece are in various museums. The painting has been cut down at the base, and has lost its original frame, although the arch at the top, firmly locating the throne behind it, is Masaccio's. The silver-leaf backing of the Virgin's red robe has tarnished, the red itself has darkened, and the paint surface is abraded and disfigured, revealing the green undermodelling of the Virgin's face. The original effect would have been much more decorative. Yet decoration could never have been Masaccio's main interest. The Virgin, as voluminous as a Roman statue, sits on a massive throne incorporating the three orders of columns of Roman architecture. The wavy pattern at the base is copied from Roman sarcophagi. The Child himself, naked and plump like a sculpted Roman putto, wears an elliptical halo on his head; its foreshortening defines his position on his mother's lap.

Masaccio's egg tempera medium is deficient, when compared to contemporary Netherlandish oil paintings, in its ability to differentiate texture and lustre. But his grave vision of the structure of things seems all the weightier for lacking surface blandishments.

The altarpiece was confined within an old-fashioned format: a richly carved, conservative Gothic retable, with little images of saints set into the frame, one on top of the other. Vasari gave a detailed description of the work which was the basis for art critics for the attempt at reconstruction and for the recovery and identification of the work which was dismantled and dispersed in the 18th century. Only eleven pieces have so far come to light and they are not sufficient to enable a reliable reconstruction of the whole work.
The great central Madonna and Child with Angels is in the National Gallery, London, the three predella panels and the four little saint from the frame are in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin. The panels from the top representing St Andrew and St Paul are in the Getty Museum, Malibu, and the in the Museo Nazionale, Pisa, respectively. The centrally placed, uppermost Crucifixion is in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.


Madonna with Child and Angels (detail), 1426, egg tempera on poplar, 136 x 73 cm, National Gallery, London

This is the centre of an altarpiece commissioned by a Pisan notary, Ser Giuliano degli Scarsi, for the chapel of Saint Julian in Santa Maria del Carmine, Pisa. The grapes the Child eats refer to the blood shed on the cross and the wine of the Last Supper. The surface is disfigured by losses and old retouchings and was originally more decorative: the Virgin's dress was a translucent red over silver leaf, which has now dulled.
The altarpiece is likely to have been designed as a polyptych. The rediscovery of this panel by BernardBerenson in an English private collection in 1907 was the culmination of a campaign of research that had occupied Masaccio scholars for decades. The format of this painting is unusually tall and narrow for the central composition of a polyptych of this date. [0]

Masaccio was an innovative artist, who influenced the course of the Renaissance in Italy. This altarpiece shows an early use of single-point linear perspective. Elements of the painting meet at a central vanishing-point and are foreshortened to accommodate the viewpoint of the spectator looking up. The figure of the Child is three-dimensional, emphasised by his elliptical halo. Masaccio may been influenced by the sculptor Donatello who is known to have collected payments for the altarpiece on Masaccio's behalf.

The painting contains six figures: the Madonna and Child and four angels. The Madonna is the centre figure and is larger than any of the others to signify her importance. Christ sits on her knees, eating grapes offered to him by his mother. Although he is an exceedingly babyish baby (in comparison to the babies of Masaccio's immediate predecessors, like Lorenzo Monaco or Gentile da Fabriano), the grapes are a symbol of his blood which indicates Christ's awareness of his eventual death.
The infant Christ is noticeably plump and childish except for his glance, which is profoundly reflective. His mother offers him the eucharistic grapes, fully cognizant of their portent. The child eats them unhesitatingly. His halo is oval in shape - a circle foreshortened in space. This rationalistic invention by Masaccio was first prominently used in the Brancacci Chapel.
The Madonna looks sorrowfully at her child, as she also realises his fate.

Art in Tuscany | Masaccio, Madonna and Child with Angels

On February 19th 1426 Masaccio agreed to paint an altarpiece for a chapel in the church of the Carmine in Pisa for the sum of 80 florins. On December 26th of that year the work must have been already completed since payment for it is recorded on this date. Vasari gave a detailed description of the work which was the basis for art critics for the attempt at reconstruction and for the recovery and identification of the work which was dismantled and dispersed in the 18th century. Only eleven pieces have so far come to light and they are not sufficient to enable a reliable reconstruction of the whole work. The Crucifixion is one of the eleven panels (one of the top panels) connected with the Pisa Polyptych.

As in the main panel, the Gothic arch determines the pictorial frame, the upward stress of which Masaccio modifies in his composition. To counter the vertical trust imposed by the arch, Masaccio creates a strong horizontal effect with the rather exaggerated extension of the arms of Christ on the cross. Although Masaccio still uses the gilt background for his representation, the atmospheric effects remain hauntingly convincing.




Masaccio, angel


Masaccio, Polyptych of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa, Crucifixion, Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte.
Piero della Francesca, Polyptych of Misericordia: Crucifixion, tempera and oil on panel, Sansepolcro, Museo Civico
This subject had presented difficulties for artists because St Peter, to avoid irreverent comparison with Christ, had insisted on being crucified upside down. Masaccio meets the problem by underscoring it, the diagonals of Peter's legs are repeated in the shapes of the two pylons, which are based on the ancient Roman Pyramid of Gaius Cestius. Between the pyramids, the cross is locked into the composition. Within the small remaining space the executioners loom toward us with tremendous force as they hammer in the nails. Peter's halo, upside down, is shown in perfect foreshortening.

Martyr of St Peter,
1426, Berlin, Staatliche Museen


Beheading of St John the Baptist,
1426, Berlin, Staatliche Museen

This painting is the central predella panel of the Pisa Altarpiece, directly beneath the enthroned Madonna and Child. Compared to Gentile da Fabriano's painting of the same subject done in Florence just a few years before, Masaccio's treatment is entirely new. Besides offering lifelike portraits of the patron and his nephew in contemporary dress at the middle right, he has given the entire scene a convincing atmosphere which surrounds the figures and the landscape. In the distance, the atmosphere breaks down the clarity of the forms resulting in an effect which is referred to as aerial perspective.

Adoration of the Magin 1426, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

The two scenes represented on this panel are St Julian Slaying His Parents, and St Nicholas saving Three Sisters from Prostitution.


Predella panel from the Pisa Altar, 1426, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Masaccio, Beheading of St John the Baptist, (detail), 1426, Berlin, Staatliche Museen


Tommaso di Mone Cassai was born in San Giovanni Valdarno on 21 December 1401. The origin of his nickname “Masaccio” (‘Messy Thomas’) is described by Vasari: “He was very absent-minded and unpredictable, like a man who has devoted his whole life and will only to the details of art, caring very little about himself and even about others. And because he never wanted to think in any way about worldly affairs or concerns, not even about how he dressed himself, he was unaccustomed to collecting anything from his debtors unless he was in dire straights. Instead of Tommaso, which was his real name, everyone called him Masaccio.”
Masaccio moved to Florence in 1417. In 1419 he is already documented as an active painter there. In the great city he was impressed by the recent revolutionary creations of Donatello and Brunelleschi, with whom he soon established strong bonds of friendship. On that day Masaccio enrolled in the Arte dei Medici e Speziali (the Guild of the Doctors and Pharmacists, to which painters also belonged). Masaccio’s first known work, the Trittico di San Giovenale (‘San Giovenale Triptych’), now at Cascia di Reggello, bears the date 23 April 1422 in humanistic-style script. The growing awareness and development of the artist are documented by the three panels of the triptych: the firm perspectival construction of Brunellesque limpidity, the rejection of Gentile da Fabriano’s calligraphic elegance, the pithy and sober gestural expressiveness which seems to have derived inspiration from Giotto’s Bardi and Peruzzi Chapel frescoes in S. Croce. From this time the two Valdarnese painters began a collaboration that lasted until Masaccio’s sudden and mysterious death. The first fruit of their collaboration dates from the end of 1424.
Masaccio and his brother Giovanni are documented in Pisa from 19 February to 26 December 1426. In this maritime city the great artist painted the well-known Polittico di Pisa (‘Pisa Polyptych’) for a chapel of the church of the Carmine. In the autumn of 1424 Felice Brancacci, a rich silk merchant, man of politics and son-in-law of Palla Strozzi, commissioned probably Masolino alone to decorate in fresco the Brancacci Chapel, in the Florentine church of the Carmine. Masolino, who had already collaborated with Masaccio on the Sant’Anna Metterza, had much to do and was about to leave on 1 September 1425 for Hungary, and so involved Masaccio in the commission.
Masaccio left for Rome at the end of 1427. Masaccio died, very soon afterwards, at the age of twenty six, in mysterious circumstances. The Libro di Antonio Billi states: “He died in Rome, allegedly poisoned, at the age of twenty six. He was much loved by Filippo Brunelleschi, who taught him many things. And when Filippo heard of his death he was clearly most upset and often used to say to his servants, ‘We have suffered a great loss.’”

Masolino was born in Panicale di Renacci in 1383. In September 1422 he is documented in Florence as a “painter”. In 1424 Masolino was engaged, alone, in the fresco decoration of the Brancacci chapel in the church of the Carmine in Florence, and of the chapel of the Brotherhood of S. Elena in the church of S. Stefano at Empoli. At the end of 1424 Masaccio joined Masolino at work on the Brancacci chapel. The two painters from San Giovanni worked there side by side until 1425. At the end of 1425 Masolino left for Hungary. Masolino was again in Florence on 11 May 1428. He worked together with Masaccio in Rome on the triptych for the church of S. Maria Maggiore. Between 1432 and 1433 Masolino’s presence in Todi is documented. Immediately afterwards Masolino went to Castiglione Olona, a town in Lombardy. Masolino died in Castiglione Olona in about 1440.[Source:]
[0] Berenson recognized Masaccio's hand in this Madonna and Child Enthroned with Four Angels and convincingly idenfied it as the central field of an altarpiece executed for the church of the Carmine, Pisa. Vasari's brief, but evocative, description of this panel had permitted its identification:

In the Carmelite church at Pisa inside a chapel in the rood screen there is a panel painting by Masaccio showing the Virgin and Child with some linle angels at their feet who are playing instruments, one of whom is sounding a lute and inclining his ear very attentively to listen to the music he is making.

[John T. Spike, Masaccio, 1996, Abbeville Press Inc, pp. 142.]
[1] In fifteenth-century Florence, many people believed themselves to be living in a new age. The term "Renaissance," already coined by the sixteenth century, describes the "rebirth" from the dark ages of intellectual decline that followed the brilliance of ancient civilization. In Italy, especially, the Renaissance was spurred by a revival of Greek and Roman learning. Works by classical authors, lost to the West for centuries, were rediscovered, and with them a new, humanistic outlook that placed man and human achievement at the center of all things. Masaccio is recognised as one of the founders of the Florentine school of art. His monumental figures are sculpted by light. This approach was first employed by the Florentine Giotto a century earlier. Masaccio combined it with a careful use of linear perspective to give an impression of believable forms in space. Masaccio was influenced by the advances in sculpture of his friend Donatello, which he then applied to painting. His greatest surviving works are the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel from Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. These recently restored masterpieces were made in the 1420s in collaboration with Masolino.
[2] Design by By Akiv - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
[3] John T. Spike, Masaccio, 1996, Abbeville Press Inc, pp. 142

Jill Dunkerton and Dillian Gordon, The Pisa Altarpiece, in Carl Brandon Strehlke, ed.The Panel Paintings of Masolino and Masaccio: The Role of Technique, Milan, 2002, 91-93.

Documents published in James Beck, Masaccio: The Documents, Locust Valley, NY, 1978, Appendix, 31-50.

Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architettori, ed. Gaetano Milanesi, Florence, 1906, II, 292.

Jill Dunkerton, Giotto to Dürer: Early Renaissance Painting in the National Gallery, New Haven, 1991, 248-251.

Art in Tuscany | Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists | Masaccio, painter of Florence

Art in Tuscany | Masaccio, Madonna and Child with Angels

Eliot Rowlands, Masaccio: Saint Andrew and The Pisa Altarpiece, J. Paul Getty Museum; 1 edition (September 25, 2003)

Giorgio Vasari | Le vite de' più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, da Cimabue insino a' tempi nostri | Masaccio | Pittore Fiorentino


This page uses material from the Wikipedia articles Masaccio and Madonna and Child, published under the GNU Free Documentation License.


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Santa Maria Novella a Firenze
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