Renaissance and Rise of Humanism in Painting Essay

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Masaccio, Fra Angelico, and Filippino Lippi

The Renaissance was a dynamic time in which religion, artwork, and new styles, thoughts and concepts regarding perspective and expression intertwined and impacted one another. The effect was an explosion of new talent, new advancements in painting, and new horizons achieved. This paper will show how this was achieved by examining three works from three influential Renaissance painters -- Masaccio, Fra Angelico and Filippino Lippi.


Masaccio's The Tribute Money (ca. 1420) is a perfect illustration of the complex formula of Renaissance religious symbolism and naturalistic beauty that characterized the works of art at this time. It tells the narrative story found in Matthew 17:24-27 in which Jesus and His disciples come to Capernaum and are told that they must pay the tribute. Jesus asks Simon Peter whether the children of the king or strangers pay the tribute. Peter answers that strangers pay it. Christ then asserts that the children of the king are thus to be considered free and instructs Peter to catch a fish in the sea, open its mouth and take out the coin he finds therein and use it to pay the tribute. Peter does so. The entire story is depicted in the painting by Masaccio in a non-sequential order but in a manner that is still logical and easy to interpret ("The Tribute Money").

In the center of the scene is Christ along with the tax collectors of Capernaum (to the right of Christ) and the Apostles (to the left). Christ and Peter are both pointing to the left of the panel, where in the background, Peter is depicted taking the fish out of the sea and retrieving the tribute. To the right of the scene on the right side of the panel is Peter paying the tribute. Thus, in order of sequence from left to right, the second scene comes first but is pictured in the background, the first scene comes second but takes up the predominant portion of the foreground. The third scene comes last and is not out of place sequentially speaking. Looked on at whole, the depiction does not necessarily have to be viewed as non-sequential because the foreground representation of Christ consulting with the Apostles is the center image and catches the eye first. The hands of Christ and Peter then direct the eye to the left to the next scene that should be viewed -- thus it is logically constructed.

Christ's head is located at the vanishing point of the composition's lines. The lines of the architecture to the right of Christ (the facade and steps) and of the background hills and mountains all move towards the vanishing point: the lines to the left must pass directly through Christ's head to reach that point. Thus, he is the central point through which all the composition is moving: he is like the portal through which all life must pass in order to reach the ultimate destination or endpoint.

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He is the heart of the subject and the place where the eye should naturally move as a result of the built in perspective. Christ is therefore represented as the symbolic center of the universe -- the Logos from whom all life, wisdom, truth and goodness emanates. The simple construction of the composition and its emphasis on perspective allows this religious symbolic concept to be expressed.

The naturalistic beauty of the composition is underscored by the backdrop (the mountains, hills, trees, sea, and architecture) that locate the narrative in a specific real-world time and place. The architecture dates it, the natural landscape gives it an authentic feel, and the beauty of the composition -- its harmony in terms of color, perspective, line, tone, and balance -- all elevate the narrative to a level befitting the glory of the Godhead who stands at the front and center of the work. Christ is depicted as real human being and as real, true God: he ordains a miracle to take place, teaches the Apostles, and respects the earthly authority in Capernaum in a way that only deepens the mystery of the faith taught her by Masaccio. The image expertly shows that before Christ and his disciples are allowed to enter into the city, they must first make a show of respect to the city's rulers -- and this is what he does with the paying of the tribute. The meaning of finding the tribute in the fish's mouth can be ascertained by contemplating the meaning of Christ's submission to earthly authority. Essentially, all authority comes from God and therefore those who have authority over others in life should be respected. The tribute, which comes from God in this story, is a sign that God wants those to whom he has given authority to be respected -- thus, Christ teaches this lesson to his apostles. The lesson is visually expressed by the way in which the Apostles are kept standing outside the city walls -- until the third scene wherein Peter approaches the entrance to pay the tribute, allowing them all to be admitted. The metaphor connecting this narrative to the concept of being admitted into heaven through the gates upon paying divine tribute to God by keeping His commandments can also be interpreted here.

Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico similarly "rationalizes" space and makes it both logically representative of reality and symbolically and fundamentally religious (The Met). Just as Masaccio uses space to teach the lesson found in Matthew's gospel, Fran Angelico uses space, perspective, line and religious symbolism to construct a vision of orderliness, humanity and divinity in a complete and cohesive expression of one of the mysteries of the faith. In The Crucifixion (ca. 1420-1423), Angelico depicts in tempera on wood with gold ground, the crucifixion of Christ. At the foot of the cross, is the Virgin Mary, His mother, collapsed and supported by sainted mourners on the….....

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Works Cited

Khan Academy. "Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with two Angels."

KhanAcademy. Web. 19 Sep 2016.

The Met. "The Crucifixion." Web. 19 Sep 2016.

"The Tribute Money." Visual-Arts-Cork. Web. 19 Sep 2016.

Annotated Bibliography

Khan Academy. "Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with two Angels."

KhanAcademy. Web. 19 Sep 2016.

Khan Academy is a great site for researching works of art from the Renaissance. It uses Youtube videos to support the narration provided by two professors of the arts, who travel the world to look at and discuss works of fine art. Lippi's Madonna and Child with two Angels is one such work that the professors examine and discuss. They note the playful expression of the angel and contrast it with the somber tone of the medieval art and Byzantine era. They point out that Lippi is incorporate a humanist trend into the work by giving it this mirthful aspect. Yet at the same time they note that Lippi does not do away with the somber tone. It is still there, reflected in the thoughtful expression of the Madonna and in the stark backdrop. Nonetheless, the Madonna is beautifully painted and looks like a real woman -- she has none of the iconographic qualities of the Byzantine era. Likewise, the angel is very humanistic in its representation. The Khan Academy website overall is a very useful tool for exploring this and many other works. The site is easy to navigate and has a left-hand scroll option for the viewer to use to link to other artists and works of art that the professors discuss. I would highly recommend this site for anyone looking for information on artists and artworks.

The Met. "The Crucifixion." Web. 19 Sep 2016.

This link is a very useful one, as it is organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The link takes one to a page which describes Fra Angelico's The Crucifixion and provides background information on it. The page also provides several links that the user can take to essays about the artist, the painting or the Renaissance. It is a very well-organized site and is just as effective as the Khan Academy site. Between the two, one cannot go wrong when searching for information on these artists' works. The Met's site is very helpful because it provides an image of the painting alongside the background information. On the right side of the page are the many links to other pages that can be helpful too. I would recommend the Met's website for anyone seeking information and images related to art, as it is very authoritative, comprehensive and chock-full of information and tidbits that can be used in research. Overall, the link is very successful because it allows one to read about the work while viewing the actual image. It is like doing a side-by-side comparison of the visual work with the textual interpretation. This format really supports a deepening of one's understanding of the subject.

"The Tribute Money." Visual-Arts-Cork. Web. 19 Sep 2016.

This link is a helpful one for gathering information about Masaccio's painting The Tribute Money. The image that is used on the site is rather small and does not adequately convey that greatness of the picture. It does not expand when clicked on. It is merely a close-up of Christ's exchange with Peter. For a fuller sense of the composition one must go to another site -- to the Khan Academy site or to the Met site, for example. Thus, this is not a strong link as far as getting an image to look at goes. However in terms of having a one-stop spot for an interpretation and analysis of the image, this is a good link. The page provides text that gives a thorough discussion of the work's merits, how it is put together, how perspective and symbolism play a part and what it all means in the context of the Renaissance and classical design. The text refers to Greek sculpture, to other artists and works of the time (providing in-text links that can take one to various other areas and pages of the website). Thus, it is a solid link in terms of gaining information on the subject and the numerous link embedded in the page's text make it a good place to visit for anyone who wants to understand more about Masaccio's world.

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