Between 1425 and 1426, the renowned Italian painter and one of the most prominent Renaissance artists, Masaccio, painted several frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence (Adams). On the upper right wall of the Chapel, Masaccio painted The Tribute Money that not only became his but even the Chapel’s most famous painting. Masaccio has used an old narrative format such that the same fresco depicts three consecutive events. This technique had probably not been used for hundreds of years of years before Masaccio and he most likely picked it up when studying classicism in Rome. Although frescoes are normally read from left to right, Masaccio painted the first event in the middle of the painting, second event at the left, and the final event at the right side of the painting. In contrast to the symbolic manner in which Gothic artists portrayed Christ in their paintings, by using this type of narrative, Masaccio goes back to classicism and logic.
It is not quite apparent Masaccio specifically chose to depict the Biblical story from Matthew 17:24-27 (“biblegateway.com”). In 1423, Pope Martin V had agreed with secular authorities regarding the imposition of unpopular tax on the Florentine Church. So, perhaps Masaccio was commissioned to paint the fresco depicting this Biblical story to show the Florentines that if Christ can pay tax, they can pay tax too (artble.com). Perhaps, by depicting this Biblical story in his fresco, Masaccio is implying to maritime trade was the source of Florence’s wealth. Of course, the political situation of the period in which this fresco was painted is also noteworthy. At the time Masaccio painted the Brancacci frescoes, the Wars in Lombardy were taking place, and Florence was heavily dependent on the Pope for support. Perhaps the paintings in the Brancacci Chapel, including The Tribute Money, were intended to promote the status of the Roman Catholic Church that regarded Saint Peter as the first pope.
Although the aesthetic beauty of The Tribute Money is apparent, the fresco also clearly reflects the cultural context of the era and also elucidates the artistic techniques that artists of the era used in their paintings. During the Medieval Ages, artworks were sole commissioned by the church and so they controlled the content as well. This is why the sole purpose of art during the era was spiritual, and mostly Christian beliefs and virtues were the only things that paintings of the era symbolized. Moreover, many of the artworks from the era did not have original characters and settings, since the same characters and settings were being depicted over and over again. For instance, an infant Christ was depicted in many artworks. However, as the outlook on life became more secular with the onset of the Renaissance, private commissioners decide to permit artists to include worldly content in their artworks as well.
Nonetheless, Early Renaissance artists like Masaccio continued to depict classical religious themes in their artworks. However, at the same time, this introduced artists to an entirely new artistic realm where they no longer had to adhere to the mundane and strict medieval rules. They were now able to choose from a myriad of subjects to paint. Masaccio’s The Tribute Money elucidates this concept quite clearly by depicting Christ’s confrontation with the tax collectors from Matthew 17:24-27. For instance, the fresco is a perfect example of Early Renaissance artwork with its classical religious theme and portrayal of Christ and his apostles. However, the painting also depicts a confrontation between the spiritual world and the secular world (Ames-Lewis). Within this context, the portrayal of an adult Christ also clearly indicated that the painting is a work from the Early Renaissance era. Additionally, Masaccio’s The Tribute Money also represents very specific artistic aspects of Early Renaissance artwork.
The Early Renaissance also marked the onset of Humanism, and perhaps this is why Masaccio tried to reproduce the Biblical scene with such accurate details. Although the fresco is two dimensional, it appears three dimensional because of the details expressed and the use of shadows. Another aspect that makes this fresco an example of Early Renaissance is the use of perspective Masaccio adds further depth to the flat painting by using imaginary orthogonal lines that recede into the distance from Christ’s head. For instance, the building on the right side of the painting vanishes off into the background. Moreover, the way perspective has been used in this painting, the viewer’s eyes are unconditionally drawn to the vanishing point on Christ’s forehead, drawing the viewer’s attention to the first event depicted in the painting. Masaccio has specifically placed all actions around Christ to emphasize on the narrative content of the painting.
Naturalistic Representation is another trait of Early Renaissance era. Therefore, Masaccio made use of stark details to depict the facial expressions and the proportions of the bodies of Christ and his apostles. Not only are Christ and his apostles’ bodies in good proportion, but also reflect their sense of honor and monumentality. Apart from the stark realistic portrayal of the figures, Masaccio has placed them in a remarkably realistic setting rather some imaginary place, which was normal for Florentine artwork. The setting in the fresco looks like a city streets of Florence, or perhaps a countryside of Tuscany. Masaccio manages to consecrate and elevate the viewer’s world by using scenes of such specificity as the setting for his characters. In conclusion, Masaccio’s portrayal of the heroic individual in a certain fixed place, combined with all of the abovementioned aspects of Early Renaissance art, in The Tribute Money thoroughly reflects the humanistic culture and thought in contemporary Florence.
“Matthew 17:24-27 (King James Version).”biblegateway.com. Bible Gateway. Web. 1 Feb 2013.
Adams, Laurie. Italian Renaissance Art. Boulder: Westview Pr, 2001. Print.
Ames-Lewis, Francis. The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist. Yale University Press, 2002. Print.
Lubbock, Jules. Storytelling in Christian Art from Giotto to Donatello. Yale University Press, 2006. Print.
“Tribute Money Story-Theme.” artble.com. Artble. Web. 1 Feb 2013.