In Massaccio's "Holy Trinity," a convergence of faith and reason

Masaccio’s painting is unusual in combining the Trinity with a Crucifixion scene: The Virgin Mary and St. John stand under the cross, which is set on a mound of dirt that symbolizes Golgotha. Mary, in particular, lends a moving human element to this austere image. She is rendered as if clearly seen from below and in three-quarter view, which gives her greater physical presence than the other figures, who are depicted in profile or full-face and seen as if at eye level. The resigned, matter-of-fact gesture by which she invites us to contemplate her Son on the cross is not only profoundly moving but also emphasizes her role as an intercessor.

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Below the patrons who kneel just outside the sacred space is a skeleton laid out on a sarcophagus. Above it, an inscription reads: “I once was what you are now, and what I am you also will be.” This memento mori, placed under a symbol of Golgotha, suggests that the skeleton represents both Everyman and Adam, widely believed to have been buried under the place where Christ was later crucified. The reminder of physical death is contrasted with God the Father holding the cross, offering the promise of everlasting life.

The perspective construction plays a central role in creating levels of meaning. The vanishing point, and thereby the viewer’s eye-level, is just below the foot of the cross; this places us in a position of submission, below the donors but above the skeleton. The deep space described by the coffered vault relates the sanctity of the figures to how far away from us they seem to be. In earlier painting, the hierarchy of sanctity was expressed by the relative height of the figures within the composition. Here, for the first time, sanctity is also directly coordinated with depth: the patrons are lowest and closest, while God the Father is highest and farthest away.

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