Probably my favourite church; Santa Maria Novella (detailed post here) is home to one of the best examples of the early Renaissance art, showing a scientific approach of creating the illusion of space in a painting. The Holy Trinity, painted by Masaccio sometime between 1425 – 1427 depicts the three key figures of Christ, God and the Holy Spirit. With the artists early death in 1428 (at the age of 26), this was one of his last major commissions and is considered one of his best masterpieces.
The fresco is found on the wall of the churches left aisle – immediately in front of you when you enter the church from the side entrance.
There isn’t much known about the piece, even the donors who commissioned the piece are unknown, despite being depicted kneeling either side of the archway. The main assumption is that they are two local families, rumoured to be the Lenzi family or the Berti family (or one of each), who were local to the Santa Maria Novella quarter of Florence.
The fresco depicts the iconography of the Trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost) with Mary and John either side, as well as the two donors who not only serve as models of religious devotion for us as the viewer, but as they are located close to the sacred figures than the viewer, they also lay claim to special status. The fresco is also of interest for its inspiration from ancient Rome; a large Roman triumphal arch, a coffered ceiling, barrel vault, columns and pilasters which all show the artists interest in antique construction. Along with use of the recently developed perspective techniques and a vanishing point, this piece is truly revolutionary for its time.
The lower section of a cadaver tomb previously mentioned depicts a memento mori with the quote “IO FU[I] G[I]A QUEL CHE VOI S[I]ETE E QUEL CH[‘] I[O] SONO VO[I] A[N]C[OR] SARETE” (I once was what you are and what I am you also will be). This underlines that the painting was intended to serve as a lesson to us – not something I would personally expect from the time, but gives the viewer something to think about nonetheless.
It’s also been rumoured that Filippo Brunelleschi may have been involved with the completion of the Trinity, due to his work on linear perspective and artichecture, so maybe Masaccio was inspired by his work. Another reasoning is the figures make a pyramidal shape, similar to works by Brunelleschi.
Around the year 1568, Cosimo I commissioned Vasari to renovate the church, in keeping up the fashions of the time, which luckily kept this particular piece intact but instead constructed a new altar and screen in from of the Trinity, thus concealing/protecing the painting.
In the 20th century, the cadaver tomb section was rediscovered, and the two halves were reunited back to their original location in 1952, by Leonetto Tintori.
This is just one example of the many reasons why I absolutely love the Church of Santa Maria Novella! It’s jammed packed with stuff to see, with works by Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Bronzino, Duccio, Brunelleschi, Lippi, Uccello, Vasari and so much more! If you want to find out more, see my in-depth blog post on the church here.