Updated: May 7, 2021
If two chefs can't get along in the same kitchen, how can three artists get along painting the same chapel? In addition, the master artist who gained the commission wound up becoming the student of his own pupil; the whole project halted because of a murder; the patron who commissioned it was exiled; and a painter two generations younger finished it some 50 years later. What? Well, just look above at the Brancacci Chapel, one of the wonders of Florence, Italy, called the Sistine Chapel of the Early Renaissance, in the church Santa Maria del Carmine. What wonderful cohesion in the storytelling around the walls, synchronized colors, and detailed figures. On top of all that, this chapel holds the painting heralded as announcing the Renaissance.
It would be nice to think that periods in art history had clear beginnings and endings with universally accepted start and ending dates. However, art like life is messy. Yet every now and then the historians agree that a certain event or work really moved things forward. So it is with this painting by Masaccio (Tommasso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, 1401 - 1428).
We've seen the figures of the Middle Ages, with long faces and short bodies. With Masaccio (Big Thomas), the classics began their return. The wealth of Florence was growing; the antiquities of ancient Rome and Greece were known in Italy; and the medieval desire to push aside the body, so prone to early death, gave way to a return to real physicality. Thus appeared Masaccio's very real Adam and Eve, full bodied, properly sexed, and howling like animals in their disgrace. WOW! This had not been seen, so everyone, especially the artists took note. In particular, Masolino da Panicale (1383-1447), who had been commissioned by Felice di Michele Brancacci to paint the chapel, was particularly amazed when he returned from a visit to one of his patrons, the King of Hungary, to find what his assistant, Masaccio, had wrought during his absence. It is fair to say, that though Masolino (Little Thomas) painted panels on the right side of the chapel, including his Adam and Eve (The Original Sin), his work became influenced by Masaccio. Some even speculated that Masolino's Adam and Eve were a young work by Masaccio, though the static quality and lack of expression would indicate that it was Masolino, who did not seem to have the psychological insight of his pupil. Here you can see Adam about to be tempted by Eve as painted by Masolino. Adam looks rather uninterested.
And here is the revolutionary, Masaccio, as seen by himself. We see his big bold face and can imagine a bold character to match. Masaccio, besides The Expulsion, painted The Payment of Tribute, The Baptism of the Neophytes, and sketched out the designs of many of the rest of the scenes, like the Crucifixion of St. Peter. Then he did what many 28-year-old geniuses do, he went off to the big city to seek his fortune. "I'll be back," he assured everyone and off he went to Rome around 1428. His reputation as the "hot new property" preceded him as well as rumor of a great secret he had. Masaccio seemingly had developed a special formula for creating red, and it was secret, secret, secret. Needless to say other artists wanted it, and one night in a dark Roman alley, one of them, jealous of that red, stabbed Masaccio to death.
Masolino then went off to Hungary again, where surely he was well-received and not second fiddle to anyone. Work on the chapel stopped, and it stayed that way when the patron Felice di Michele Brancacci was exiled in 1435 and then declared a rebel in 1458. Various parts of the rear wall were destroyed by the placement of a statue of the Madonna de Populo, and the rest was just the rest.
Then along came Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). Yes, about 50 years later, the Carmine decided to finish this chapel, and who better to do it but the talented son of a Carmelite monk, Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), and his lady love, a nun. Let me explain. Fra Filippo was a talented orphan taken into the Carmelite Order, who became a monk out of gratitude rather than temperament. He was a great painter, coddled by the Carmelites largely because he was protected by Cosimo de Medici. It was when he was painting a Virgin Mary for a church in Prato that he met a nun, Lucrezia Buti, who had chosen the convent instead of a dreadful marriage. They lived quite happily there in Prato for some seven years, and the lovely Lucrezia gave birth to a equally handsome son, Filippino. Filippino first trained with his father, and when his father died in 1469, Filippino went to the studio of Botticelli, himself a former student of Fra Filippo Lippi. Filippino's first works show the influence of Botticelli, which may indicate a great skill he brought to the Brancacci Chapel, the ability to mesh his painting with the style of another painter. He restored some of Masaccio's originals and painted scenes that had been sketched out by Masaccio in the 1420s. What is wonderful to see is how the later paintings fit into the earlier works, yet show an certain update in terms of how the figures are painted. We can see the difference between early Renaissance and the full-blown Renaissance of the 1480s in the examples below.
One look at these two paintings shows both the cohesion created by the use of color, but at the same time, one sees how different the figures look, especially the faces of the figures, which in Lippi's painting are actual portraits. The man facing out is another Lippi self portrait. One of the other men is Botticelli, though there is dispute about which one. However, these faces are more true to life and less hard looking than the ones done by Masaccio.
The Brancacci Chapel was Filippino Lippi's first major commission (1481-1485), and he did not let his Carmelite patrons down. He went on to have a very successful career and was even called by Lorenzo de Medici a painter "superior to Apelle," the famous painter much praised by Alexander the Great. Botticelli, Filippino's master, fell out of fashion and spend the last 15 years or so of his life in difficulties. However, in the late 19th century, Botticelli was rediscovered. Filippino, however, though famous in his lifetime, was surpassed by Raphael and Michelangelo, and unfortunately has not been much recognized, though his work shows exceptional psychological sensitivity in capturing emotion (see his work in the Strozzi Chapel). So three artists and one chapel, yes, Masaccio took the lead and set the standard. Masolino was much influenced by his student, and his work changed to meet the challenge. However, it was Filippino who could change his work enough to make it fit with Masaccio's and yet show his great ability to capture the moment. I leave you now with a final picture by Filippino. It is a sleeping guard from The Liberation of Saint Peter in the Brancacci Chapel and shows how Lippi could so simply and clearly capture the guard's figure and his angelically induced sleep.
Note: The vault of the chapel was originally painted by Masolino. However, in the 1700s it was repainted to show the Ascension of the Virgin and done in the 18th century manner.
What is your reaction to the figures in the Brancacci Chapel and how the artists' styles work together? Log in and tell us about it.
Sources for this article come from my own visit to the chapel with my art history class and our art historian instructor, Mme. Chantal Duqueroux, as well as the publication, Masaccio et la chapelle Brancacci by Scala.
The paintings are in public domain.
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© Marjorie Vernelle 2019