Brancacci Chapel Frescoes by Masaccio
Interpretation of Early Renaissance Mural Paintings

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Brancacci Chapel Frescoes by Masaccio
Brancacci Chapel Frescoes
By Masaccio.
Seen as one of the great
works of Renaissance art
of the early phase of the
Italian Renaissance.

Brancacci Chapel Frescoes (1424-8)


Interpretation/Meaning of Brancacci Chapel Frecoes
Further Resources


Artist: Tommaso Masaccio (1401-28)
Medium: Fresco
Genre: Religious history painting
Movement: Early Renaissance art
Location: Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

For other important pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Education
To understand paintings
by quattrocento artists
like Masaccio, see our
educational essays:
Art Evaluation:
How to Appreciate Art

and also:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis and Interpretation

The series of murals known as the Brancacci Chapel frescoes (1424-8) are regarded as a key expression of Early Renaissance painting. Begun by the 23-year old Masaccio (1401-28), and the 41-year old Masolino da Panicale (c.1383-1435), the murals exemplify the unique combination of science, humanism and painterly skills that characterize the Renaissance in Florence. In particular, the fresco cycle is acclaimed for Masaccio's revolutionary use of linear perspective and chiaroscuro. The Brancacci, sometimes called the "Sistine Chapel of the Early Renaissance" was built in the late 1380s and is situated in the right-hand section of the transept in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. It was consecrated to Saint Peter. From roughly 1360 to 1780, its patrons were the Brancacci family. In 1423, the head of the family was the wealthy silk merchant Felice Brancacci, who had just returned from a stint as Florentine Ambassador to Cairo. Later that year he awarded the prestigious commission for a series of religious paintings for the chapel to Masolino da Panicale and his precocious young assistant Masaccio. They began work in 1424, but in 1425 Masolino left for Hungary, where he was official painter to the king, and Masaccio was awarded the commission. After about 18 months, Masolino returned but by then he had already been eclipsed by his former pupil. Masaccio however departed abruptly for Rome in late 1427 or early 1428. Left unfinished, the project was only completed in 1485, by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504).




In the changing political climate of the early 1430s, Felice Brancacci fell from grace and in 1435 was exiled from Florence. As a further penalty, at least one of the Brancacci frescoes (The Crucifixion of St Peter) was destroyed, while another (The Raising of the Son of Theophilus) had all pictorial references to the Brancacci family removed. (These were reinstated during the completion of the decorations in 1485.) The chapel was then reconsecrated to the Madonna del Popolo. Following the reconsecration, a set of commemorative lamps were installed. Unfortunately, residue from the lampblack they emitted found its way onto the surface of the frescoes, causing such deterioration that by 1560 they required extensive cleaning. Around 1670 Cosimo III de' Medici (1642-1723) responded to changing public taste by adding fig leaves to conceal the nudity of the male nudes like Adam and female nudes like Eve, that were portrayed in the paintings. In 1771, the church and its mural painting were damaged by fire. Fortunately, during the period 1981-1990, a detailed program of scientific analysis coupled with a full-scale restoration has restored the frescoes to something approaching their original state.

The Brancacci Frescoes

Most of the surviving paintings (6) in the chapel were painted by Masaccio. They include:

- The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
- The Tribute Money
- The Baptism of the Neophytes
- St Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow
- The Distribution of Alms and Death of Ananias
- The Raising of the Son of Theophilus and St Peter Enthroned

Three have been attributed to Masolino:

- The Temptation of Adam and Eve
- The Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha
- St Peter Preaching

Three were painted or wholly restored by Filippino Lippi.

- St Paul Visiting St Peter in Prison
- Peter Being Freed from Prison
- The Disputation with Simon Magus and Crucifixion of St Peter

Analysis of Iconography

The theme of all but two of the Brancacci frescoes is the Life of St. Peter. The other two depict scenes from Genesis, The Temptation and The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Even so, the unifying narrative is human sin, and its ensuing redemption through the intercession and actions of Saint Peter, the first Bishop of Rome. For details of Masaccio's two acknowledged masterpieces from the fresco cycle, see: The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1424-6) and The Tribute Money (1425-7).

Like most of his Florentine contemporaries, Masaccio was strongly influenced by the humanism and three-dimensionality of the great 14th century Florentine painter Giotto. Thus his figures are imbued by a strong sense of naturalism and solidity (see The Expulsion). However, Masaccio went considerably further than his 14th century predecessor. First, under the influence of Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), he demonstrated a complete mastery of single-point linear perspective, augmented by a deep understanding of atmospheric perspective (see The Tribute Money). Second, he was the first of the early Renaissance artists to employ a single light source, whose chiaroscuro effects gave his figures far greater three-dimensionality. Third, instead of outlines he used light to define his bodies and draperies. It was this combination of individual characters, mathematical perspective, single-source lighting, chiaroscuro and three-dimensionality in his paintings that led Masaccio to forge a new style of painting during the early Renaissance in Florence.

Influential Figure

Regarded - despite his incredibly young age of 27 - as the foremost figure in Early Renaissance painting, Masaccio is ranked alongside the architect Brunelleschi, and the sculptors Donatello (1386-1466) and Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), in his contribution to the flowering of the Florentine Renaissance during the 1420s. Most Florentine painters came to study and copy his paintings in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, including the young Michelangelo who would produce two immortal fresco cycles of his own: the Genesis Fresco on the ceiling and the Last Judgment Fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Other Works By Masaccio

In addition to the Brancacci frescoes, only three paintings - all religious art - have been attributed to Masaccio. The Madonna with St. Anne (c.1423, Uffizi, Florence), in which the influence of the sculptor Donatello is clearly visible; The Holy Trinity (c.1425, Santa Maria Novella, Florence) noted for its complete perspective; and the Pisa Altarpiece Polyptych (c.1426) for Santa Maria del Carmine, Pisa - now in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, and the National Gallery, London.



Further Resources

For more information on Early Renaissance paintings, try these resources:

Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427)
Fra Angelico (c.1400-55)
The Annunciation (1450)

• For more about fine art painting, see our main index: Homepage.

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