Today is Good Friday. It's an appropriate moment to reflect on who we are, where we come from, where we are heading and on the place we occupy in our universe in relation to others and to something or someone who is greater than we are.
I propose that we meditate on this capital work in Art from Florence, Trinita, by Masaccio. Because of this artist, pictoral Art achieved modern perspective, as established by Brunelleschi's principles when he built the cathedral in Florence. This work not only establishes a material perspective, it also establishes a spiritual perspective.
This fresco is a large funeral piece commissioned by the Lenzi family to ornament the wall behind which the donors are presumably entombed in Sta. Maria Novella.
The overall size of the fresco takes into account a corresponding scale between the donors' life-size figures and the viewer, the surrounding elements of the composition being arranged to create a rational whole, thus establishing the framework within which the viewer should approach the work.
The mid-point of the interstice between the kneeling donors situates the location from which the work should be viewed, this point being eye-level to the viewer: a correspondence is thus established by the scale between donors and viewer.
From this perspective, one can see that that the work is horizontally divided into three irregular structural planes that are assembled to represent an altar upon which the donors kneel at either extremity at the base of an upright rectangular building housing a niche. Within the inferior portion of the fresco, an altarpiece represents a sepulchre flanked on either side by double Doric columns supporting the altar's tabula. A skeleton rests upon the sepulchre and the following words, in Italian, are inscribed in the recess on the wall behind it: "What you are, I once was; what I am, you will become". The dialogue solicited by this inscription establishes an entry-point for the viewer into the work.
The top of the altar separates the donors from the inferior portion of the fresco and serves as a step up into the middle plane. The scale correspondence between donors and viewer locates the former in the hic et nunc. The donors' figures are positioned fully facing each other, thus excluding the viewer, on a slight angle within the columns on which the altar rests, the man on the left and the woman on the right. Directly behind the donors' figures and on the same plane, a set of Corinthian pilasters decorate the facade of the rectangular-shaped temple-like structure.
Slightly recessed and on a higher plane, at the base of the upper portion of the fresco, a set of corresponding Ionic columns flank and support the arched opening of the niche. Within it, Masaccio has concretized in pictorial art Brunelleschi's system of perspective, thus representing a recessed chamber with a vaulted ceiling. The back wall of the chamber supports a ledge flanked by a second set of Ionic columns supporting a corresponding arch. According to Janson, Masaccio has applied strict architectural scale in the spatial organization of the elements within the niche, enabling one to draw an accurate floor plan of the chamber.
Level to the entrance columns to the chamber, at a slight converging angle from either donors, stand the Virgin on the left and St. John on the right. Midway between their two figures, the foot of the cross upon which Christ is crucified.
Directly behind and on a slightly higher level than Christ's upper body, the artist has represented God the Father, standing on the ledge at the back of the chamber, arms extended to support the Cross on either side of its horizontal arms.
The human figures are thus grouped in a triangular manner, the donors at the base and God, with Christ's superimposed body on the Cross, at the top. Within this triangle various other triangles progress: Father and Son, Father, Virgin and St. John, Father and donors, Father and Son with Mother and Apostle, Christ and donors. The extension of Christ's arms on the Cross connecting with God's extended arms forms a losange which can be echoed by including the skeleton at the bottom of the fresco. These geometric formations establish additional points of orientation within the composition and find resonance, for a 20th century viewer, with contemporary abstraction elements.
Various paths are created by the repetition of the elements contained within the fresco: for example, the eye can travel upwards or down throughout the work by following the columnar assembly. The posture of the figures also creates paths, one of which might be the female donor's hand presenting the Virgin whose hand, in turn, either presents Christ to the viewer or
The constraints of length imposed on this paper preclude a detailed analysis of other arresting features and essential elements of The Holy Trinity such as the source of light projected by the artist as though emanating from the viewer into the inner sanctum, the symbolism of the arch within the temple structure alluding to Moses' construction of the Arc, the use of light and shadow to define the figures on the chamber's level by opposition to a certain flatness in the treatment of the donors, the alternance of colours for the figures according to gender.
The contemplative tone of the work is set by the positioning of Christ's head within the triangle of God's extended upper body, thus forming a circle within a triangle which strikes a similarity with the use of the eyes in the Icon tradition and also by the richness of detail present, which translates into a magnificent magnitude of execution.