|Wealth, Gender, and Civic Humanism in Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel
Associate Professor of Art History
New London, CT 06320
(This essay was written in the early 1990s.)
1. Masaccio (and Masolino), Life of St. Peter, fresco cycle in Brancacci Chapel, Carmelite Church, Florence, c. 1425
Expulsion Adam & Eve / Tribute Money / Peter Preaching
Peter in Jail / Son of Theofilus Raised / Peter Healing
RIGHT WALL (by Masolino or Filippino Lippi)
Peter Baptizing / Peter Healing & Raising Dead / Fall Adam & Eve
Death of Ananias / Crucifixion of Peter / Peter Debating Simon Magus/ Peter Freed
1a. Masaccio, Expulsion of Adam and Eve, left wall, upper,
1b. Masaccio, Miracle of the Tribute Money, left wall, upper register
1c. Masolino, St. Peter Preaching, left wall, upper register
1d. Masaccio, St. Peter Raising the Son of Theofilus / Peter Enthroned as Bishop, left wall, lower register
1e. Masaccio, St. Peter Healing with His Shadow, left wall, lower register
1f. Masaccio, St. Peter Distributing Alms / Death of Ananias, right wall, lower register
-- Masaccio, St. Peter Baptizing, right wall, upper register
-- Masolino, Temptation of Adam and Eve, right wall, upper register
Aesthetic Innovations and Personal Style
In the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel, Masaccio synthesized the best of Giotto's monumental, focused style and the descriptive tradition of late medieval artists such as Lorenzetti and Gentile. Here were massive, highly simplified human forms arranged in clear, easily grasped geometrical patterns with a more complex anatomy and shading simulating the close observation of nature. Compare this to Gentile's Adoration of the Magi. Going beyond Giotto, Masaccio used dramatic forms to heighten emotional life and to open and control space. Note how the tax collector at the center of the Tribute Money walks out of the viewer's world into the picture or how the rhythmically linked gestures of Christ and Peter lead the eye to the far left where Peter finds the coin for the tax collector in the mouth of a fish.
Whereas Gentile's Adoration reflected late Gothic craftsmanship, lavish materiality, and an all-over descriptiveness, Masaccio's Tribute Money developed a more dramatic, narrative art based on grand forms skillfully arranged in coherent groups. With this skill at subordinating individual forms to a larger composition, Masaccio could introduce a new sense of detailed "observation" without swamping narrative with description as seen in Gentile.
The Expulsion of Adam and Eve and Peter Baptizing show the increasing importance of anatomical study to Renaissance art. Just as many fifteenth-century Italian artists proudly displayed their handling of a new perspectival space, a few artists began to favor subjects allowing them to show off a new understanding of anatomy and its possibilities for heightened drama and emotion. (While this was rare in the first two thirds of the fifteenth century, it became common in the last three decades with artists like Botticelli, Pollaiuolo, Signorelli, and Antico. In contrast, Northern European artists avoided the nude until the early sixteenth century when Renaissance humanism and the revival of classical forms spread beyond Italy.) By the later fifteenth century, mathematical space and carefully studied anatomy became two ways in which Renaissance artists flaunted a new, intellectual stature and helped redefine art as a liberal rather than mechanical art, a product of mind soaring above the menial world of craftsmanship.
Biographical Information on the Patron, Antonio Brancacci
This series of frescoes was commissioned by the Florentine merchant, Felice Brancacci for his private family chapel in the Carmelite church of S. Carmine in Florence. Brancacci was a successful Florentine merchant, soldier, diplomat, and city official. Like others in his class, Brancacci cultivated social and business relations with the more powerful banking families in Florence, including the Strozzi and their mortal enemies, the Medicis. In 1431, the newly widowed Brancacci cemented ties with Strozzi (patrons of Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration) by marrying a Strozzi daughter in 1431 and marrying three of his four daughters into families known for their anti-Medicean politics. At the same time he hedged his bets by doing business and forging ties with Cosimo de’ Medici. In one glorious moment, Brancacci led a group of soldiers in a victorious battle charge which proved decisive. The peak of his diplomatic career was his successful mission to Cairo in 1422 to secure commercial concessions for Florentine merchants. Such service led to a year-long appointment to the post of cashier of the city fiscal chamber in 1424. It was this success and his new income stream which probably prompted the decision to invest grandly in a private chapel in a major church in Florence and to have it lavishly decorated with frescoes. The fact that work stopped before the frescoes were complete in late 1425 suggests Brancacci had mounted a grand, public display of his religious, civic, and political values which was beyond his means. Documents indicate he borrowed heavily in the later 1420s, especially from one of his own patrons, Cosimo de' Medici.
In late 1431, city auditors discovered Brancacci had embezzled 2,900 florins while serving as city treasurer in 1424. While Brancacci eventually managed to have his fine of 5,800 florins rescinded in 1434, his conviction was not overturned. Since Masaccio and his colleague, Masolino, worked on the Brancacci Chapel in 1424-5, it is likely Brancacci paid for the frescoes in part with money stolen from the public purse. Ironically, two of the frescoes in the chapel extolled the godly virtues of paying taxes and one depicted the severe punishment of death imposed by God on tax cheats. Brancacci's embezzlement as city treasurer shows a certain distance between the lofty civic virtues and tax messages of Masaccio's frescoes and the gritty realities of the day. So too does his later history in Florence.
In 1433, the Strozzi and other families hostile to the Medici rose up in unison and banished Cosimo de’ Medici and his family from the city. Medici property was confiscated and debts cancelled. As a Strozzi in-law and supporter and a man heavily indebted to Cosmo de’ Medici, Felipe Brancacci’s fortunes improved considerably with the destruction of the Medici. Unfortunately, Strozzi triumph was short-lived. Cosimo de' Medici rallied his supporters and returned to Florence in 1434, crushed all of the major families allied against him. Brancacci fled into exile along with many of the Strozzi and Albizzi families and remained there until his death (sometime between 1449-1455). All his city property was confiscated and sold to pay off his numerous creditors, the largest of whom was Cosimo de' Medici. Thus the Brancacci Chapel passed into the hands of another family and never became the private burial chapel for the Brancacci family.
As discussed below, the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel uphold a stable world of authority overlapping papal and republican politics, church and state. Seen historically within the highly unstable world of Florentine republican politics and papal maneuvering, the Brancacci Chapel emerges as a poignant testament to the many contradictions, instabilities and conflicts of the early fifteenth century as rival factions within the church and within local civil governments jockeyed for political and economic position. The stable, orderly world imaged in Masaccio’s public frescoes needs to be seen more as an imaginary world, a projection of republican religious, economic, social and political ideals by a man whose real life was anything but orderly, virtuous, and secure. As always, art is less a mirror of life than an imaginary universe where real conflicts, tensions, and contradictions can be negotiated and resolved.
Carmelite Monastic Agendas
The Brancacci Chapel is located in a Carmelite monastic compound. Unlike some of the older, more established orders such as the Benedictines or Cistercians, the Carmelite order dated back only to the twelfth century. Like most of the newer orders, it had to defend itself against attacks by older religious orders who claimed greater importance and authority. The simplest response was to rewrite history and project Carmelite origins further back in time. By having Masaccio include Carmelite monks and nuns in scenes of the life of Peter, the Carlemites placed their origins in the very beginnings of Christian history. Beyond legitimizing Carmelite history, Masaccio's frescoes passed over monastic values and practices such retreat, prayer, or fasting. Masaccio's primary concern lay with the values of his patron, Antonio Brancacci who used his frescos to support an official church culture tied to the papacy and an emerging civic culture typical of Florentine burgher humanism.
Papal Politics in the Brancacci Chapel
Almost all of the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel celebrated major events in the life and legend of St. Peter, one of Christ's disciples. Indeed, the frescoes gave new dramatic, compositional, and theological prominence to Peter in comparison to earlier representations of these Biblical narratives where Peter was not singled out from the other disciples or invested with special powers and status. A brief digression on the history of St. Peter will help here.
Some five hundred years after Christ, the bishops of Rome began claiming special authority over all other bishops and callings themselves "popes". To defend this new and hotly contested claim, these Roman bishops or popes invented and circulated mythical histories projecting their special preeminence in church matters back to the time of Christ and onto the person of St. Peter. As one of Christ's apostles and the first bishop of Rome, Peter was transformed into a figure legitimizing the institutional claims of these later Roman bishops or popes. While Peter himself never claimed any special power over other bishops, later Roman bishops began doing this in the sixth century. To carry this off, they reinterpreted the life of Peter to lay claim to a supposedly unique and historic tie with Christ, playing up Biblical passages where Christ speaks favorably of Peter and ignoring other passages where Christ rebukes Peter for his weak faith and where Peter denies knowing Christ and deserts him at the crucifixion. And they developed an elaborate discussion of Peter in religious festivals, rituals, prayers, hymns, proclamations, works of art, and churches dedicated to Peter’s special status and power.
While the eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed a wave of papalist imagery as popes fought against powerful European emperors, papalist imagery declined somewhat in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. From 1309-1377, the papacy moved to Avignon in Southern France and its power in Italy all but collapsed. Though the pope returned to Rome in 1377, he was challenged by two rival popes in Avignon until 1408. Each of these three popes claimed to be the true head of the Catholic church. Each excommunicated the other two and all of his followers. This crisis was only resolved in 1408 when the two Avignon popes were forced out of office and the Catholic Church returned to a single pope living in Rome. To some extent, all fifteenth-century cultural proclamations of papal authority participated in a century-long process of reconsolidating papal power in Italy, especially central Italy. These include the Brancacci Chapel and the Sistine Chapel frescoes commissioned by Sixtus IV in 1481 from Perugino and others.
Papal Politics in Florence
While cycles of papalist frescoes were not uncommon in earlier papal chapels and churches, their appearance in a burgher family chapel in a Carmelite church in Florence was unusual. As it turns out, both the Carmelites and the Brancacci were firm allies of the papalist cause in the 1420s at a time when papal power was still challenged on a number of fronts. These included "heretics" denying papal powers, the revolt of local church authorities and councils against papal absolutism, and the periodic rebellion of cities reluctant to pay papal taxes. The rebellion of local church authorities - all those other bishops - against the papacy was known as the "conciliar" movement" and it drew strength in part from the corruption, laxity, and arrogance of many popes in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. Some Italian cities distant from Rome such as Venice retained considerable autonomy in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and were famous as centers of anti-papal propaganda through the 1530s.
Other cities closer to Rome and more susceptible to papal influence such as Florence were divided into pro- and anti-papal factions. Fluctuating papal agendas were thus entangled in local Florentine factions, shifting alliances, and conflicts. Brancacci himself had significant kinship ties to the papalist cause. One of his distant cousins served as the pope's chief Inquisitor for Italy and presided over the burning of three heretics in Florence in 1424 at the very moment when Brancacci was planning a fresco cycle extolling papal power. Two other cousins were high ranking church officials - one a cardinal - and both allied to the papalist cause.
Papal Values in Masaccio's St. Peter Raising the Son of Theophilus
The power of Peter and the Renaissance papacy is important for all of the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. Even the framing scenes of Adam and Eve reminded the viewer that redemption from original sin depended on participating in a Roman Catholic church headed by Christ and his later, papal successors beginning with Peter. Even in scenes which don't focus on Peter such as the Miracle of the Tribute Money, Masaccio singled out Peter from the other disciples as the primary agent of divine will and Christ's chosen representative.
If the Tribute Money shows us the source of Peter's special authority, Masaccio's St. Peter Raising the Son of Theophilus (just below the Tribute Money) offers the most elaborate expression of papal power in the chapel. Part of the fresco relates to the Catholic feast day honoring the Throne of Peter at Antioch, an annual festival falling on February 22.
This story of the Raising comes from the Golden Legend, a popular, late medieval collection of biographies of the saints. After being imprisoned by Theophilus, ruler of the Greek city of Antioch, St. Peter was released after agreeing to demonstrate the superior power of the Christian God. Peter offered to raise the son of Theofilus who had been dead fourteen years. As the Golden Legend recounts,
Theophilus and the entire populace of Antioch were finally converted to the Lord, and erected a magnificent church, in the middle of which they raised a high throne for Peter, whence he could be seen and heard by all. He held this see [position of authority] for seven years before going on to Rome, where he occupied the Chair of Rome for twenty-five years. In memory of this event, therefore, the Church celebrates this feast, because on this day, for the first time, the head of the Church was lifted up in name and in power. ... It is well known that this feast is the third of those in which the Church pays honor to the glorious successor of Christ. ... Saint Peter was the ruler of the whole Church, which extends over the three parts of the world, Asia, Africa, and Europe ...
In part, the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel offered an early history of the church from its origins in the disciples gathered around Christ seen in the Tribute Money to the spread of Christianity westward into Greece as seen in St. Peter Raising the Son of Theophilus where the whole city is converted and a Christian church erected at right. The spread of Christianity continues in the other scenes of Peter baptizing, preaching, and working miracles. Yet all such ecclesiastical history works to underscore the power of Peter and of the papacy as the chief terrestrial agency of divine will through time.
As a representation of papal power, Masaccio's fresco worked on a number of levels. First, Peter's power to raise the dead repeated the famous raising of Lazarus performed earlier by Christ and reinforced Peter's special powers as Christ's successor. Second, the raising symbolized the larger redemption of mankind made available through faith in a Roman Catholic papal church. Death may have been the primary punishment for original sin but Peter and the later popes presided over an institution capable of replacing sin and death with sanctity and eternal life. Peter also had the power to punish Adam and Eve-like transgressors with death, as seen in Masaccio's Death of Ananais where Peter struck down a married couple cheating on their taxes. Here, coded in Scriptural narrative, the modern papacy displayed its divine power to destroy enemies of the church.
The right side of the Raising showed Peter as head of the new church where he was symbolically installed on a great throne. By depicting an ancient papal church within a modern Florentine church allied to the papacy, Masaccio invited viewers to see the two as continuous and to view Peter and the modern papacy as presiding over all Christian churches, throughout time and space, from ancient Antioch to modern Florence. As noted in the Golden Legend,
"Saint Peter was the ruler of the whole Church, which extends over the three parts of the world, Asia, Africa, and Europe".
And by showing the enthroned Peter on a banner hung outside the church with both pagan converts and Carmelite monks kneeling in obedient homage, Masaccio made explicit the power of Peter (and all popes) over the faithful. Indeed, this section of the fresco verges on papal worship.
While throne metaphors were central to the story here, and to the Catholic feast of The Throne of St Peter in Antioch, Masaccio's enthroned Peter played on a larger papal culture of throne metaphors. Renaissance and Baroque portraits of popes usually show them sitting in thrones. In the seventeenth century, the papal sculptor, Bernini, even made a gigantic, allegorically ornate Throne of St. Peter (Cathedra Petri) for the altar end of St. Peters. And from the early Christian period to the present, popes have issued many of their most important pronouncements ex cathedra, that is, "from the throne".
Masaccio further integrated the Raising with modern Florence by placing the church directly below the painted, Florentine buildings in the Tribute Money. Obedience to civic authorities (taxation) was placed in visual tandem with obedience to religious authorities and the worship of an enthroned St. Peter. More importantly, Masaccio flanked the raising with an extensive series of contemporary Florentine dignitaries. Though the exact identity of each figure remains disputed, they are clearly members of the city government or leading citizens. At the far right, Masaccio also added portraits of contemporary artist. According to mid-sixteenth-century observers, the men at the right were (right to left) Brunelleschi, Alberti, Masaccio, and Masolino, Masaccio's collaborator.
Since this large group of stern, reverential onlookers mingled with the pagan community of Antioch during its dramatic conversion to Christianity, Masaccio made Florentine officials into a modern congregation of papal admirers and supporters. In blending Antioch with modern Florence, Masaccio created an imaginary, papalist Florence, united in spiritual obedience to a single ruler whose power descended directly from Christ. Masaccio made this still more explicit by giving Antioch the latest Florentine Renaissance architecture derived from Brunelleschi and Alberti.
To strengthen the ties between the authority of Christ and that of St. Peter, the composition of the Raising of the Son repeated that of the Tribute Money above. In both scenes, a group of disciples or followers gathers around a single, all powerful figure. As Christ used dramatic miracles to rule in the upper zone, so his successor, Peter, used miracles to rule over an equally unified society. The original Christian community of the twelve disciples thus worked compositionally and theologically as the model for all later communities from Antioch to Florence.
The Renaissance architecture of the Raising continues into the smaller, vertical fresco at the end wall of Peter Healing with His Shadow. Here the passing shadow of St. Peter miraculously heals the lame and the sick. By setting this event in a typical fifteenth-century Florentine street, Masaccio moved Peter from nearby Antioch in the adjoining fresco to modern Florence. This fresco also plays cleverly on the beholder's memories of walking down similar streets to reach the Brancacci Chapel where Peter comes alive through the "miraculous" power of Masaccio's naturalistic art. The memories of a visionary Peter walking through Florentine streets linger on when the viewer leaves and heads down the same streets again. Through such architectural rhetoric, Masaccio affirms a papalist St. Peter endowed with a universal, miraculous, living presence in every Christian city and church. Through each successive pope, Peter's special powers live on until the end of time.
In the significant play of forms between the frescoes, both vertically and horizontally, we can also see Masaccio's composing mind working across the whole chapel, making structural and thematic comparisons. Nothing could be more indicative of the new self-consciousness of the Renaissance artist and the way images are carefully selected, composed, and arranged to set up larger structures of meaning.
Civic Humanism, Economic Justice, and the Republican Commonwealth: Masaccio's "Tribute Money" and "Death of Ananais and Distribution of Alms"
The selection of the "tribute money" episode from Peter's life – an unusual subject in papalist cycles on Peter - fused religious and civic obedience in modern republican terms. When the Pharisees (strictly observant Jews determined to preserve traditional Jewish identity against foreign values and customs) asked Christ whether it was proper for Jews to pay taxes to the Roman empire which had conquered Judaea, Christ replied, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's". (Matt. 22:21) While distinguishing between political and religious obligations, Christ affirms obedience in the secular sphere, even to the foreign rule of the Romans. In Masaccio's fresco, the tax collector asks for money in the center. On the far left, Peter follows Christ's instructions and finds a coin in the mouth of a fish. Peter then pays the tax collector on the right in front of an architectural backdrop symbolizing Florentine civic obligations and social unity.
Brancacci's choice of the episode of the "tribute money" from the life of Peter was part of a larger discussion in the fresco cycle of contemporary Florentine civic virtues tied to tax obligations and a larger public good of charity, hospital care, and public preaching. At a time when Florence had emerged as one of the wealthiest mercantile centers for international banking and trade, the growing economic disparities of a new market economy generated a humanist discourse on economic justice and virtue. In court society, wealth flowed properly to the top with charity appearing as more of an individual obligation tied to church piety. In a burgher republic like Siena or Florence, the ideal city or state was described as a place of civic taxes and shared wealth which alleviated the worst hardship, reduced social unrest, and redefined Christian charity in civic rather than ecclesiastical terms. While business, private wealth, and even money lending were sanctioned in new ways, so was a new culture of economic obligations through tax laws - the Cadastre - and civic charity.
Tax obligations were also crucial to the survival of the Italian republics and the political freedom of its citizens by funding the mercenary armies needed to fend off larger, more powerful feudal rulers like the Dukes of Milan. Since Brancacci served as city treasurer in the very year he commissioned the frescoes, it is easy to see why he made a public display of civic virtues in his family chapel. Here, in a Biblical imagery of tax duties, civic obedience, charity, medical care, and civic preaching, Brancacci stressed the new active, urban piety of Renaissance civic humanism.
Although sanctified by Biblical imagery, the economic values of the Brancacci Chapel were more closely tied to the secular humanism of the modern, burgher republic. The Tribute Money offered the perfect subject to express the new humanistic sense of the harmony between piety and worldly obligations. Instead of choosing between heaven and earth, the humanist vision redefined both realms and created a new harmony between them. Civic duties received divine and ecclesiastical blessing in Masaccio's frescoes. Framed by two scenes of Adam and Eve, the frescoes of Peter focusing on civic virtues redefined the traditional path toward salvation from monastic terms of retreat, inwardness, prayer, poverty, and chastity to a new humanist world of active virtue in the world – the vita activa rather than the monastic vita contemplativa, a new Renaissance world of civic virtue, work, taxation, marriage. Church values continued here but in the more worldly form of preaching and civic instruction, miracle-working, tax collecting, and papal authority.
One of the smaller frescoes to the right of the altar elaborated this theme by showing Peter's own efforts at collecting taxes and distributing the proceeds to the needy as described in the Bible (Acts IV: 34-37; V: 1-5). After Peter exposed and condemned a tax cheat named Ananias for lying "unto God", the man dropped dead at Peter's feet. The Bible continues with the sudden death of his wife for failing to report and pay her taxes. In Masaccio's fresco, Peter stands over the body of Ananias and gives money to a poor mother and child and a cripple in a modern urban setting. The implicit warning to viewers was clear enough. Those who disobeyed the Florentine (and papal) tax laws were also disobeying God and Peter and risked divine wrath. The cripple and mother receiving Peter’s charity also reflects new humanist distinctions between the deserving poor – mothers, children, the sick, the lame, and the elderly – and the undeserving poor, namely all able-bodied persons who could work and contribute to the larger commonwealth of the city.
By choosing a series of Biblical stories about civic obligations and by setting them within a powerful vision of divine, papal, and civic authority, Brancacci and the Carmelites called for the obedience of all mankind to higher authorities in church and in state. While church culture and questions of papal authority were important, the selection and interpretation of these papalist images suggest the quiet rise of humanist civic values and a partial redefinition of piety in civic rather than ecclesiastical terms. The appearance of civic humanist values in church art (and a monastic church at that) shows how burgher republican humanist culture spread directly into church culture. In this, Masaccio’s fresco cycle parallels Brunelleschi’s transformation of medieval Christian architecture by designing a Roman republic temple – the Pazzi Chapel - in the midst of a Franciscan monastery.
If the Brancacci Chapel shows how burgher humanist civic culture of the Renaissance transformed traditional church culture, it also shows how church culture modified aspects of burgher culture in ways which were favorable to papal agendas. As always, works of art show ongoing dialogues between social groups and a mutual transformation across group boundaries. At the end of the day, burgher, church, and court culture are not separate entities. They emerge out of ongoing social interactions and have a dynamic quality where individuals play important, creative roles as agents of discussion and change.
Architectural Rhetoric and the Politics of Perspective
By placing these Biblical stories in carefully painted, contemporary Florentine setting dominated by large, beautiful buildings, Masaccio and Brancacci gave voice to the architecturally self-conscious, civic pride of Florentine elites. We can better understand the complex meaning of Masaccio's painted architecture by listening to the Panegyric to the City of Florence written by the city's humanist chancellor, Leonardo Bruni, around 1404.
"Almighty God, what wealth of buildings, what distinguished architecture there is in Florence! ... ... just as blood is spread throughout the entire body, so fine architecture and decoration are diffused throughout the whole city. ... [turns to Florence's military greatness and to those who doubt her power] ... As soon as they have seen the city and inspected with their own eyes its great mass of architecture and the grandeur of its buildings, its splendor and magnificence, the lofty towers, the marble churches, the domes of its basilicas, the splendid palaces, the turreted walls, and the numerous villas, its charm, beauty, and decor, instantly everyone's mind and thought change so that they are no longer amazed by the greatest and most important exploits accomplished by Florence. Rather, everyone immediately comes to believe that Florence is indeed worthy of achieving dominion and rule over the entire world.