The Tribute Money by Masaccio
Interpretation of Early Renaissance Brancacci Chapel Fresco Mural

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The Tribute Money by Masaccio
The Tribute Money
By Masaccio.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Tribute Money (1425-7)


Further Resources


Painting: The Tribute Money
Date: 1425-7
Artist: Masaccio (1401-28)
Medium: Fresco
Genre: Religious art
Period: Early Renaissance
Location: Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

For explanations of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Appreciation
To enjoy Renaissance art
by painters like Masaccio,
see our educational essay:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Interpretation of The Tribute Money by Masaccio

One of the important works of Biblical art from the Renaissance in Florence, The Tribute Money is part of the series of religious paintings in the Brancacci Chapel of the Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. This cycle of Christian art, depicting scenes from the life of Saint Peter, was painted between 1425 and 1427 by Tommaso di Giovanni Masaccio (1401-28), assisted by the elder artist Masolino (1383-1440). Left uncompleted, it was later finished by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). Masaccio's Brancacci Chapel frescoes are seen as a hallmark of the Florentine Renaissance, for their combination of scientific linear perspective, humanistic aesthetics and three-dimensional figure painting. According to the 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), the chapel became the spiritual home of Florentine painters, many of whom came to study its paintings.



The Tribute Money mural painting portrays a composite scene from the Gospel of Matthew (the tax-collector) 17:24–27, in which Jesus tells Peter to find a coin in the mouth of a fish in order to satisfy a demand for tribute money (tax). In fact, the painting contains three different scenes from the story. (1) Shown in the central area of the picture: the tax collector asks for payment, and Christ directs Peter what to do in order to get the money. (2) On the left: Peter is seen kneeling by the edge of Lake Genezaret removing the coin from the moth of a fish he has just caught. (3) On the right: Peter pays the tribute money to the tax collector in front of the latter's house.


The figures in the central picture seem to be structured on horizontal lines, but when we look carefully, they are actually arranged in a semi-circular composition, with Jesus, Peter and the tax collector forming the focal point. (Analysis demonstrates that the single-point perspective converges on the head of Jesus.) This compositional device was popular in Classical antiquity, before being revived in the architectural designs of Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446).

The dress and posture of the characters are uniformly classical. Tunics are worn in the Greek fashion: tied at the waist with outer cloaks wrapped over the left shoulder. The drapery is almost certainly derived from classical statuary, while the pose adopted by Peter at the lakeside, is also taken directly from Greek sculpture, as is the stance of both Peter and the tax-collector on the right-hand side of the picture. The taxman is marked out in several ways: first, he is the only character wearing a short robe; second, he is making a bold gesture towards Christ; third, he carries a stick (as a threat or for support?) when receiving payment; lastly, he is the only one standing outside the semi-circular arrangement of Jesus and the Apostles.

The Tribute Money also exemplifies Masaccio's signature use of atmospheric, or aerial perspective. Note, for instance, how the hills and mountains in the background - even the crouching figure of Peter by the lake - are painted in paler colours than figures and objects in the foreground, thus creating the illusion of depth. In addition, his use of light was also seen as revolutionary compared to the more Gothic-oriented style of Giotto. Instead of employing a neutral shadowless light, Masaccio's illumination comes from one source outside the picture frame, thus creating a chiaroscuro effect, which adds to the three-dimensional shape of the figures. In a sense therefore, Masaccio is the pivotal figure of Early Renaissance painting - standing between Giotto on the one hand, and later masters such as Michelangelo (1475-1564) on the other.

Political Background

It is not clear why Masaccio selected this particular Biblical story. One plausible explanation is that it reflected the 1423 agreement between Pope Martin V and the secular authorities that the Florentine church could be taxed. The fact that payment was obtained from money in a fish's mouth may have been an allusion to the maritime trade which was the source of the city's wealth. Felice Brancacci, the owner of the chapel who commissioned the fresco, was himself a member of the city's Board of Maritime Consuls.

In addition, one should note the political situation of the day. At the time, Florence was at war with the city state of Milan, and depended heavily on the support of the Pope. The Brancacci frescoes should therefore be interpreted in this context. In other words, by commissioning a fresco cycle that commemorated the life of Saint Peter, Brancacci was promoting the status of the Church in Rome - which was itself based historically on Saint Peter – the first pope.


Art experts have managed to identify conclusively only two of the disciples: Peter, due to his characteristic grey hair and beard, and marked blue and yellow robes; and John, due to his youthful appearance and position close to his master Christ. Strangely, John's face is almost identical to the face of another disciple immediately to the right of the taxman. According to Vasari, the face on the extreme right of the group is a self-portrait of Masaccio himself, in the role of Thomas. Experts remain divided about which figure is Judas.

Note the inherent dynamism of the central scene, and the charged atmosphere created by the glances cast by Jesus and his companions. Part of the success of the painting is the range of human emotions with which Masaccio imbues his characters. At the same time, he also manages to find time for meticulous details, such as Peter's fishing rod, the large open mouth of the fish he has just caught, the intricate facial features of many of the disciples, and the ripples on the surface of the lake.

Condition of the Mural

In later years, several of the Brancacci frescoes including The Tribute Money suffered major damage. In 1771, for instance, the church was ruined by fire, which caused severe problems for the Brancacci Chapel murals. It was not until the chapel underwent a full-scale restoration, during the period 1981-1990 that the frescoes were restored to something approaching their original state. Even then, Jesus's blue robe had lost most of its original dazzle. Although not as famous as Masaccio's Holy Trinity (c.1428) or as iconic as The Expulsion From the Garden of Eden (c.1425-6), The Tribute Money remains one of the greatest Renaissance paintings of the early quattrocento.



Further Resources

If you're interested in Early Renaissance pictures, look for works by these painters:

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)
Fra Angelico (c.1400-55)
The Annunciation (1450)
Early Renaissance Artists (1400-90)

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

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