Italian Renaissance Art an Analysis Essay

Pages: 5 (1677 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Mythology - Religion

Italian Renaissance Art

An Analysis of Three Paintings by Masaccio, Fra Angelico and Botticelli

This paper will examine three religious works by Masaccio, Fra Angelico, and Botticelli and show each works reveals its meaning through a complex formula of Renaissance religious symbolism and naturalistic beauty.

Religious symbolism in the Italian Renaissance was a didactic tool that could be used in painting to educate or inspire the viewer by connecting the subject of the artwork to underlying themes or overarching ideas. In Masaccio's Holy Trinity (c. 1425-28), religious symbolism takes the form of the Trinity, represented by God the Father, supporting God the Son, crucified on the cross, and the Holy Ghost symbolized by a dove perched upon Christ's halo. This rich symbol can be understood both by the background Masaccio has painted (the interior of a church) and the lower portion of the fresco which serves as a memento mori (reminder of death) -- an illustration of a sarcophagus with an inscription above it.

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The fact that Masaccio paints a realistic church interior as a backdrop (with its arches and pillars as a framing device for the subject of the painting, which is the Trinity) shows to what lengths Renaissance Italians were breaking the traditional iconographic boundaries and imbibing their works with realism. The realism is found not only in the vaulted ceiling of the church but in the naturalistic beauty of the crucified Savior flanked on both sides by St. John and the Virgin Mary (as well as two others who may be representations of the artist's patrons). The naturalism with which Masaccio gives his subjects creates a three-dimensional effect as though the persons in the painting were molded by the paint and breathed with life (Johnson 258). The church backdrop creates the illusion of depth.

Essay on Italian Renaissance Art an Analysis of Three Assignment

However the church backdrop is not merely to serve a visual effect. It is there to bolster the religious symbolism of the Trinity. Indeed, it serves as a key to the didactic artwork. To understand how it does so, one must first inspect the sarcophagus in the lower portion of the fresco (Schlegel 19). The sarcophagus is a tomb upon which a skeleton lies. Above the skeleton are Italian words, which translated mean "I once was what you are and what I am you also will be." This line is compatible with Christian eschatology, which deals with the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell. Masaccio reminds his audience through the realistic portrayal of a tomb that death awaits all, after which comes judgment and Heaven or Hell. The lesson that Masaccio imparts on the viewer, however, is that hope for salvation comes through the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Masaccio shows that the means of embracing this Trinity is through the Church, the interior of which is painted in the background and the pillars of which (guarded ostensibly by St. John and the Mother of God) frame and support the painting. The meaning is obvious: Salvation comes through God, Who gives his gifts of grace through the Church, especially the Eucharist, which is effected in the Sacrifice of the Mass on the very sort of altar depicted by Masaccio just behind the crucified Christ. The naturalistic beauty of the Christ gives a further lesson, which is that the Sacrament of the Eucharist is this same Christ, sacrificed during on the altar in an unbloody manner. The placement of each of these elements of religious symbology and naturalistic beauty tells all these things masterfully in Masaccio's Holy Trinity (McCarthy 48).

Fra Angelico's Scenes from the Lives of Saint Stephen and Saint Lawrence (1447-49) in the Vatican uses the same complex mix of religious symbolism and naturalistic beauty to effectively convey a lesson to the viewer. Front and center in the panel of the fresco cycle that depicts St. Lawrence distributing alms to the poor is the saint himself regaled in the fine altar cloths of his vocation. The gold embroidery represents his spiritual royalty (not quite as an Alter Christus, or another Christ, of the Church, since St. Lawrence was only a deacon) but it does not represent his worldly royalty or wealth. In fact, the act of distributing alms (for which he was known) shows the precise nature of the "wealth" he held. The essence of his sanctity is further pointed out by the presence of the Mother of God and the Christ-child on the left side of the painting.

The richness of St. Lawrence's costume is offset by the commonality and vulgarity of the poor, number ten in all (men, women and children) each of whom either has a hand extended in petition or palms together in prayer. The naturalistic beauty with which Fra Angelico paints the persons creates the same illusion of reality and three-dimensionality that Masaccio uses to give his persons depth, clarity, and vivacity. Fra Angelico's subjects are even more realistic and naturalistic because of their poses (some of the poor are hobbled, even lamed) and the sanctity of the deacon who took such good care of the poor. As the story goes, it was his love of the poor that led directly to his martyrdom (Kirsch).

The realism in this painting brings to life the story of the saint and makes it appear as fresh and viable as when the saint himself lived many centuries before. But the painting also uses religious symbolism to drive home the lesson of the narrative, which is that almsgiving is one of the ways for souls to come to holiness. The presence of the Blessed Virgin at St. Lawrence's doorstep, where the poor have gathered, may be understood as evidence of this very claim. Fra Angelico also uses the backdrop of the interior of the church behind the saint in the same way that Masaccio does -- to frame the subject and show how the Church is the house of such holiness.

As Paul Johnson asserts, Fra Angelico "achieved a new clarity and realism in telling a story" (263) and that is certainly the case in this painting, which combines religious symbolism (the Mother of God with the Christ-child among the beggars and the interior of the church as a symbol of the Church's ability to bring souls to God) with naturalistic beauty (the realistic poses and dirty clothing of the beggars contrasted with the sturdy confidence and refinement of the kindly deacon).

Of the three painters examined in This paper, Sandro Botticelli gives perhaps the most complex rendering of religious symbolism combined with naturalistic beauty with his Adoration of the Magi (1473-75). For this painting, Botticelli used "members of the Medici family as live models with a naturalistic setting" to depict the Scriptural scene (Johnson 269). The fact that he used live models illustrates the importance that realism and naturalism held for Botticelli. The painting is filled with persons of noble bearing and regalia -- too many in fact to count. On both sides of the painting, persons cram together to see the Magi making obeisance before the Christ-child, Who sits with His mother and foster-father above them all on a kind of make-shift, dilapidated throne, supported by crude beams on one side and a ruined wall on the other. Ancient Roman columns appear in the horizon over the heads of the crowd giving a great deal of depth and naturalistic realism to the scene. The light of the Holy Ghost shines in through the cracks of the roof overhead the Holy Family.

What Botticelli displays in this picture is the nobility not just of the Holy Family but also of the Medicis who served as the artist's patrons. In fact, St. Joseph, patriarch of the Holy Family is less immediate in the painting than those who have come bearing gifts. St. Joseph is almost secluded in… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Italian Renaissance Art an Analysis.  (2012, September 14).  Retrieved February 26, 2021, from

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"Italian Renaissance Art an Analysis."  September 14, 2012.  Accessed February 26, 2021.