Masaccio: the Holy Trinity
Grunewald: the isenheim Altarpiece
The Holy Trinity by Masaccio was done approximately 1428.
It is a superb example of Masaccio's 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 Christ's 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 'structure' is an extension 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
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 'wet-drapery' 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.
Grunewald's 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 Christ's legs were
amputated; possibly an allusion to ergotism, a disease
treated in the hospital where the altarpiece was kept.
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
Christ's 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 symbols, a hope of
salvation is offered to the viewer.
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. (Christ's 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
Christ's 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.