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							   A.P. Art History
# II: Masaccio: The Holy Trinity
     Grunewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece (closed)
The Holy Trinity by Masaccio was done approximately 1428. It is a superb
example of MasaccioÕs use of space and perspective. It consists of two
levels of unequal height. Christ is represented on the top half, in a
coffered, barrel-vaulted chapel. On one side of him is the Virgin Mary, and
on the other, St. John. Christ himself is supported by God the Father, and
the Dove of the Holy Spirit rests on ChristÕs halo. In front of the
pilasters that enframe the chapel kneel the donors (husband and wife).
Underneath the altar (a masonry insert in the painted composition) is a
tomb. Inside the tomb is a skeleton, which may represent Adam. The vanishing
point is at the center of the masonry altar, because this is the eye level
of the spectator, who looks up at the Trinity and down at the tomb. The
vanishing point, five feet above the floor level, pulls both views together.
By doing this, an illusion of an actual structure is created. The interior
volume of this ÔstructureÕ is an tension of the space that the person
looking at the work is standing in. The adjustment of the spectator to the
pictured space is one of the first steps in the development of illusionistic
painting. Illusionistic painting fascinated many artists of the Renaissance
and Baroque periods.
The proportions in this painting are so numerically exact that one can
actually calculate the numerical dimensions of the chapel in the background.
The span of the painted vault is seven feet, and the depth is nine feet.
"Thus, he achieves not only successful illusion, but a rational, metrical
coherence that, by maintaining the mathematical proportions of the surface
design, is responsible for the unity and harmony of this monumental
composition." Two principal interests are summed up by The Holy Trinity:
Realism based on observation, and the application of mathematics to
pictorial organization.
All of the figures are fully clothed, except for that of Christ himself. He
is, however, wearing a robe around his waist. The figure is "real"; it is a
good example of a human body. The rest of the figures, who are clothed, are
wearing robes. The drapery contains heavy folds and creases, which increases
the effect of shadows. The human form in its entirety is not seen under the
drapery; only a vague representation of it is seen. It is not at all like
the Ôwet-draperyÕ of Classical antiquity.
Massacio places the forms symmetrically in the composition. Each has its own
weight and mass, unlike earlier Renaissance works. The fresco is calm, and
creates a sad mood. The mood is furthered by the darkness of the work, and
the heavy shadows cast.
GrunewaldÕs The Isenheim Altarpiece is an oil painting on wood, completed in
1515. The altar is composed of a carved wooden shrine with two pairs of
movable panels, one directly in back of the other. The outermost scene is
the Crucifixion; on the inside there are two others. On the two sides, two
saints are represented (St. Sebastian on the left, and St. Anthony on the
right). Together, these saints established the theme of disease and healing
that is reinforced by the inner paintings. On the bottom of the panel, when
opened, it appears that ChristÕs legs were amputated; possibly an allusion
to ergotism, a disease treated in the hospital where the altarpiece was
An image of the terrible suffering of Christ is in the middle. The suffering
body hangs against the dark background, which falls all the way to the
earth. The flesh is discolored by decomposition and is studded with the
thorns of the lash. His blackening feet twist in agony, as do his arms. His
head is to one side, and his fingers appear as crooked spikes. The
shuddering tautness of ChristÕs nerves is expressed through the positions of
his fingers. Up to this point, no other artist has ever produced such an
image of pain. The sharp, angular shapes of anguish appear in the figures of
the swooning Virgin and St. John, and in the shrill delirium of the
Magdalene. On the other side, John the Baptist, a gaunt form, points a
finger at the body of the dead Christ. Even though death and suffering are
dominant in the altarpiece, there are symbols of hope: The river behind St.
John, which represents baptism, and the wine-red sky which symbolizes the
blood of Christ. Through these bols, a hope of salvation is offered to the
The use of space is ambiguous in some places: All of the forms are at the
same general depth in the painting. However, none of the forms are tangled,
or intertwining. Therefore, the space is not badly used.
Once again, all of the forms except for that of Christ are fully clothed.
Christ is again wearing a small robe around his waist. The other forms are
depicted superbly. Their bodies are not lost behind the drapery which they
wear, yet they are not seen exactly either. The folds are more delicate,
which create a calmer mood. (ChristÕs description was already given). The
forms are three dimensional, and also have weight. They clearly take up
space, and where they are is clearly defined.
As in The Holy Trinity, the composition is generally symmetrical, centered
around the body of Christ. It is a frightful composition, because of the
events taking place. Expression is shown on all of the figures, who grieve
ChristÕs death.
Overall, the two works are very similar. Masaccio, however, was more
interested in the mathematical aspects of painting than Grunewald. Both
works are superb, and have their own distinct qualities.
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