The Holy Trinity and The Isenheim Altarpiece A.P. Art History # II: Masaccio: The Holy Trinity Grunewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece (closed) 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 tension 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 pictorial organization. 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 bols, 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.