Masaccio’s Tribute Money (1425): The World Comes Into Focus

It’s like a painting has, for the first time since the ancients, brought the world into focus. I remember thinking this when I first came across Masaccio and his Tribute Money in particular, as a teenage student of Art History. Vasari, a 16th Century art historian, put it much more eloquently than I could, when he wrote of a debt we owe “above all” to Masaccio, who:

can be numbered among the first who cleared away, in a great measure, the hardness, the imperfections, and the difficulties of the art and … gave a beginning to beautiful attitudes, movements, liveliness, and vivacity, and to a certain relief truly characteristic and natural.

Vasari, Lives of the Artists, Vol II (translated from the Italian)

Something radical was going on in early 15th Century Florence. Something turned painting output typically like this:

Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423,
Tempera on panel, 300 cm × 282 cm (120 in × 111 in), Uffizi Gallery, Florence

into this:

Adoration of the Magi, Masaccio, circa 1425-1428,
21 cm (8.2 in); Width: 61 cm (24 in)

No one can deny the beauty and power of Gentile da Fabriano’s version of the Adoration of the Magi. Even da Fabriano was showing signs of a growing naturalism. But Masaccio just blows him out of the water. His subjects have a presence, a dignity, an individual identity. His painted world appears to exist in a real space and the figures are like actors on a stage. Even more so in his Tribute Money, where thanks to the artist, we see the full drama of the moment our Lord outwits the Pharisees by instructing the payment of tribute to Caesar.

So what was going on? Well, the powers that be (or were) in Florence were starting to take a serious look back at Italy’s ancient past. This might sound a retrograde step but at the time, this was the fuel of the Renaissance, the re-birth of European culture. After what were called the Dark Ages, civilisation was supposed to have retreated following the fall of the Roman Empire.

We now know that the Dark Ages weren’t so dark thanks to scholarly work in this area; the term itself is now widely denigrated and abandoned. That said, it is no accident that Mediaeval art has a very particular view of man’s place in the world. In the vacuum left by the demise of the Roman Empire was filled another: the Church. All creativity was channeled to the glory of God. Earthly matters, the physical world, and our physical bodies were in some senses not only irrelevant: come too close to depicting a naturalistic view of the world and you were skating close to heresy.

The practical consequences for art are seen in the iconic, stylised representations in manuscripts, triptychs, paintings and murals all across Europe prior to Masaccio. This is why Masaccio truly takes us a tangible step towards modernity. At the heart of the change is one of philosophy. The hugely wealthy Medici family and in particular one Cosimo de Medici and great Florentine families like his, started the process of bringing man closer to the centre of the art in the pieces they commissioned. He still trod a fine line and this drawing from the past wasn’t without resistance: Rome and Greece were Pagan, with a pantheon of Gods and had any number of heretical beliefs and practices. But the ancients had undoubtedly a far superior grasp of the human form, to which Masaccio has added perspective, foreshortening and a single source and direction of light, to create a believable field of action.

I was privileged enough to see the Tribute Money in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence in 2006. Sadly my own snaps of it are lost but the memory lingers. I was stood in front of a mural which not only represented my Lord, but was also by the hand of a true great artist who turned a corner in Western art. The combined effect for me was exhilarating. Masaccio’s life was one of those brief lives that gifted so much in such a short time.

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