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Information about MASACCIO

Published on September 23, 2008

Author: 1950




Early Renaissance Art There was a new emphasis on Humanist, secular thought which emphasized science, reason and the individual People never abandoned a religious mysticism. Multitudes of people moved into the cities. Cities competed with each other to make their cities the most beautiful. An intense spirituality, as well as a belief in things unseen continued to inspire European artists in spite of the intellectual, social and religious ferment sweeping the continent.

Early Renaissance Art

There was a new emphasis on Humanist, secular thought which emphasized science, reason and the individual

People never abandoned a religious mysticism.

Multitudes of people moved into the cities.

Cities competed with each other to make their cities the most beautiful.

An intense spirituality, as well as a belief in things unseen continued to inspire European artists in spite of the intellectual, social and religious ferment sweeping the continent.

The detailed realism, luminous colors and symbolic elements suggest Flemish Painting, but perspective rendering of the reading stand and arbor are Italian.

Renaissance scholars and artists tried to understand, describe and reproduce the natural world in a rational and scientific way. In Italy, the achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans were rediscovered. In Flanders, artists developed an intense interest in the natural world, developing art with breathtaking accuracy.

At the beginning of the 15 th century, the most famous illustrators were the brothers known as the Limbourg brothers. They had entered the service of the Duke of Berry and produced their major work, the Tr ès Riches Heures (Very Sumptuous Hours). This Book of Hours included a calendar section that had a full-page painting introducing each month.  April

The subjects alternated between peasants labors and aristocratic pleasures. In the February page, farm people relax before a fire. Although many people at this time lived in hovels, this farm looks comfortable and well maintained. This painting clearly shows some Gothic conventions including: The missing front wall of the house Attention to detail High placement of the horizon line.

The subjects alternated between peasants labors and aristocratic pleasures.

In the February page, farm people relax before a fire.

Although many people at this time lived in hovels, this farm looks comfortable and well maintained.

This painting clearly shows some Gothic conventions including:

The missing front wall of the house

Attention to detail

High placement of the horizon line.

Throughout the 15 th century, the artists of Flanders were considered to be the best in Europe. The art produced there is called Flemish. The major seaport and commercial center of Bruges was the commercial power of Northern Europe, rivaling the Italian city-states of Florence and Venice.

The artists who most closely followed the Flemish style were Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden. About 1425-1428, Campin painted an altapiece now known as the M érode Altarpiece after the name of the former owners. Because of its small size, it is believed it was painted for a private chapel.

Campin places Mary in a contemporary Flemish home. He has brought everyday items and used them as religious symbols. These symbols are often called “hidden” symbols because they are treated as a normal part of the scene. Their religious meanings would have been known by most of the viewers of the time.


In the left hand panel of the M érode Altarpiece , the donors kneel in front of the open door to the house where the Annunciation is taking place…suggestive of a vision induced by their prayers.

On the right hand-panel, the view out Joseph’s window shows a realistic Flemish street scene. The mousetraps Joseph is making are a reference to a passage written by Saint Augustine referring to Christ as the bait in a trap to catch Satan.

The illumination in the picture comes from an unseen source in the upper left. A few rays of light come from the round windows and are symbolic as a vehicle for the Christ Child’s descent. He seems to slide down the rays of light. The light falling on Mary’s lap emphasizes their connection.

Jan van Eyck was a court painter to Phillip the Good, uncle to the king of France and one of the wealthiest and most sophisticated men in Europe. Phillip was not van Eyck’s only patron. In the Low Countries-where cities were largely independent of the landed nobility-civic leaders, town councils, and rich merchants were also important patrons.

Van Eyck’s Annunciation is a small panel that may have been part of a large altarpiece. It is an excellent example of the Flemish desire to paint more than the eye can easily see and almost more than the mind can grasp. This Annunciation takes place in a church, not Mary’s house as we saw in Campin’s Annunciation. Golden letters spell out the angel’s greeting, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” and Mary’s response, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.” Mary’s words are upside down for God to read. Every detail in the painting has meaning.

Van Eyck’s best known painting today is an elaborate double portrait of a couple, traditionally identified as Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, Giovanna Cenami. The true meaning of the painting remains a mystery Early interpretations suggested that this was a wedding or a betrothal. Above the mirror on the back wall the artist signed the work with the words “Jan van Eyck was here” as if he were a witness.

The modern idea of a room serving a single function didn’t exist. Some of the elements in this painting that have a hidden meaning are: Reflection of two people The candle and mirror Crystal prayer beads The dog Shoes being off

Rogier van der Weyden, a little younger than van Eyck, had a large workshop in Brussels that attracted artist as far away as Italy. However, not one existing art work hears his name.

This Deposition was the center panel of an altarpiece commissioned by the Louvain Crossbowmen’s Guild . The altarpiece once included panels representing the Four Evangelists and Christ’s Resurrection.

The body of Jesus is arranged in a graceful curve, framed by jarringly angular arms. The curve of the body and the arm position are echoed in the fainting Virgin. These figures, set against a solid gilded background, allow the viewer no escape from their expressions of intense grief. Each person has their own personal reaction to grief, reflecting the new Humanistic concern for the individual.


This painting by Petrus Christus, of a goldsmith in his shop, provided the model for a long line of clearly secular pictures showing people doing business in their shops. These paintings provide a wealth of information about how people lived during this time.

Hugo van der Goes brought together the intellectual challenge of Jan van Eyck and the emotional intensity of Rogier van der Weyden in an entirely new style. Van der Goes major work was an altarpiece more than 8 feet tall. It was commissioned by the Portnari family for the family chapel in Florence

The Portinari family were from Florence, but living in Bruge. Mr Portinari worked in a bank that was owned by the Medici family. Mr. and Mrs. Portinari are shown in the side panels of the Altarpiece with their children.

The work of Hugo van der Goes and other Northern Renaissance painters was a startling contrast to contemporary Florentine art. Michelangelo criticized the detailed realism of Flemish art. But, Flemish art was so admired in the 15 th century that many artists went to Flanders to study Only at the end of the century did European patrons begin to favor the new styles of art and architecture developing in Italy.

` The Flemish style was influential in France in Manuscript Illustration. This painting shows the poet and scholar, Christine de Pisan, presenting an Illuminated Manuscript that she did to the queen.

The importance of textiles in the 15 th century can not be over emphasized. Flemish and French artists produced outstanding tapestries that served both as wall coverings, and as a form of portable wealth. One of the finest examples of Renaissance tapestry is a series of wall hangings called the Hunt of the Unicorn.

The religious meaning of this series of Unicorn wall hangings is that the Unicorn represents Jesus being captured by Mary. The secular meaning has more to do with romantic love, and the subject became suitable for wedding tapestries.

All of the figures, animals, and plants have a symbolic meaning. The lion represents valor and faith, the stag the Resurrection and protection against evil…rabbits, fertility and dogs fidelity.

The price of a tapestry depended on the materials used. Many were wool enhanced with colored silk and silk threads covered with gold. Many tapestries were burned to retrieve the gold, so few royal tapestries survive. Many of those who do survive show signs of metallic threads having been pulled out to preserve the tapestry as much as possible.

Renaissance Art in Italy By the end of the Middle Ages, the most important Italian cultural centers were north of Rome at Florence, Milan, Venice, and several smaller duchies. Much of the power and art patronage was in the hands of wealthy families.

The Medici family in Florence, the Visconti and Sforza in Milan Patronage of the arts was considered a civic duty with political overtones. As one man put it, he supported the arts because “because they serve the glory of God, the honor of the city, and the commemoration of myself.”

Whereas Flemish artists wanted to portray exacting detail, Italian artists were interested in an anatomically correct but idealized figure set within a rationally designed space organized through the use of linear perspective.

Towering figures of early Renaissance art-Brunelleschi (architect), Donatello (sculptor), and Masaccio (painter)-came from Florence, the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. They visited Rome to study the ruins of classical antiquity, and they used knowledge of the past in their own highly original works.

The dome of the Florence Cathedral was designed by a young sculptor turned architect named Brunelleschi. He invented a structural system by which the dome was built layer by layer, and required no external support.

Above the inner dome and view from inside the Duomo.


To build the home of the Medici family, Cosimo acquired and demolished 20 smaller homes. In Florence the house was more than just a dwelling place; it symbolized the family and established the family’s place in society. Originally, the ground floor opened onto the street and provided space for the family business. The arches were walled up in the 16 th century, and the windows were designed by Michelangelo

There are three distinct levels, each with its own cut to the stone. Stones on the ground floor are most rough, and on the top floor they are the most finished.

The center of the house is a courtyard open to the sky. Unlike the common design of houses in the Middle Ages, this house is balanced and symmetrical in the design of its rooms and the house itself.

Donatello executed every commission as if it were a new experiment…almost every work broke new ground. Donatello’s statue of David is the earliest known life-sized free standing bronze nude in Europe since antiquity.

When Donatello made the statue is unknown, but it was first recorded in 1469 in the Medici courtyard. Although the statue clearly draws on the classical tradition of heroic nudity, this adolescent boy is wavering between childish interests and adult responsibility which makes him seem all the more brave for having attacked Goliath. Donatello influenced artists both inside and outside of Florence.

Donatello recieved a commission in Padua to execute an equestrian statue of a Venetian general. Donatello was inspired by two equestrian statues from the Roman era. One of the statues is lost now, the other is Marcus Aurelius. This is the first bronze equestrian statue since antiquity.

Viewed from a distance, this combination of man and animal seems capable of thrusting forward at the first threat. Seen from close up, however, the man’s sunken cheeks, sagging jaw, and ropey neck suggest a war machine now grown old and tired.

While Donatello was working in Padua, his rival Ghilberti gained a commission from the Wool Manufacturer’s Guild to make new doors for the baptistery of the Florence Cathedral.

Michelangelo reportedly said the doors were worthy of being the Gates of Paradise, a name by which they are still known today.

Overall gilding unifies ten large square reliefs. The space in each square is organized with linear perspective. In some panels, the architecture suggests ancient Roman architecture. Overall, the low-relief settings seem closer to painting than to sculpture.

One of the major achievements of Italian Renaissance artists was to place human figures into believable architectural settings. This accomplishment can be seen early in the Italian Renaissance in the work of an artist known as Masaccio (“big, ugly Tom”) Masaccio’s career lasted less than a decade.

The Trinity fresco was meant to give the illusion of a stone funerary monument and altar table set in a deep niche in the wall. He accomplished this by using exacting linear perspective (see page 329) and having the vanishing point just at eye level of an adult viewer.

In Masacchio’s painting, God the Father holds the cross on which Jesus hangs, the dove of the Holy Spirit is above Jesus’ head, Mary and Saint John the Evangelist stand at the foot of the cross. The donors kneel just outside the niche

Masacchio’s brief career reached it’s height when he and another painter decorated the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. The chapel was originally dedicated to Saint Peter, and the frescoes illustrate events in Peters life.

Masacchio’s use of both linear and atmospheric perspective help the frescoes to be believable visually. The cleaning of these frescoes revealed that Tribute Money had been done in 32 sections.

The head of Jesus is placed where the vanishing point is in the linear perspective. The trees get smaller as they recede and Peter by the lake is smaller than Peter at the front of the painting. (continuous narrative) Atmospheric perspective is used on the mountains and in the sky. The colors are darker the closer they are to us (or earth) and fade as they recede into the distance.

Masaccio understands how a light source works. All of the figures cast dark shadows on the ground to the left, suggesting that the light source is the window in the chapel. He also used a sophisticated shading technique, using contrasting colors for shading. For example, Andrew’s green robe is shaded with red instead of darker green.

Fra Angelico (Angelic Brother) earned his nickname through his piety as well as his painting. He was a painter in Florence, and continued to be a very active painter after taking his vows as a Dominican monk. He and his fellow monks painted a scene for meditation in each monks cell…42 in all.

At the top of the stairs in the monastery, Fra Angelico painted a scene of the Annunciation. Here, the monks were to pause for prayer before going to their individual cells.

Careful linear perspective gives the illusion of space, and seems to extend the monks stairway into Mary’s home and garden. The natural light comes from the left, and models their forms, casting an almost supernatural glow over their faces and hands.

While Fra Angelico was working away, a new generation of artists emerged. Fluid, linear grace was the main characteristic of the work of Sandro Botticelli. His best known works are of mythological subjects, among them, the Birth of Venus .

This painting was probably done for the private collection of Lorenzo de Medici who had become ruler of Florence in 1469. The central image is a type known as the modest Venus, based on the antique statue in the Medici collection.


Birth of Venus is probably related to the Renaissance study of the works of Plato. Very complex, in the Neoplatonist philosophy, Venus was a classical equivalent of the Virgin Mary.

Piero della Francesca was one of the few practicing artists who also wrote his own theories of art. He was also influenced by Northern European artists. These portraits were commissioned by the man in the portrait. He and his recently deceased wife are portrayed in strict profile, as if on a coin. In the background, the use of atmospheric perspective makes the illusion of space believable.

A young generation of artists began turning the walls of chapels and palaces into brilliant displays of the good life as it was lived by the rich and powerful citizens of the city-states. This obsession with material possessions is apparent, even in scenes that are supposed to be religious.

One of the young artists working at this time was Andrea Mantegna. He pushed the system of linear perspective to its limits by his strongly foreshortened figures.

Mantegna’s mature style is demonstrated in the frescoes of the Camera Picta (Painted Room) in the Duke’s palace in Mantua. The room appears to be open to a cloud filled sky through an oculus. This style began a long tradition of illusionistic ceiling painting.


Looking up at the oculus is a viewpoint called di sotto in s ù (seen directly from below). On each side of a precariously balanced planter, three young women and and an exotically turbaned African man peer over a railing. A fourth woman looks dreamily upward.

The early Renaissance was a time when many things were changing. Most wealth was being earned, not inherited. Along with the desire for accurate depiction came a new interest in individual personalities and individuality became important in every sphere. More names of artists survive from the 15 th century than from the entire span from the beginning of the Common Era to the year 1400.

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