(b. 1401, San Giovanni Valdarno, d. 1428, Roma)
Fresco, 640 x 317 cm
Santa Maria Novella, Florence
This is the most famous work of Masaccio beside the frescoes in the Cappelle Brancacci. There are various opinions as to exactly when this fresco was painted between 1425 and 1428. It was described in detail by Vasari in 1568, who emphasized the virtuosity of the "trompe l'oeil" in the architectural structure of the painting: "a barrel vault drawn in perspective, and divided into squares with rosettes which diminish and are foreshortened so well that there seems to be a hole in the wall."
Only two years after Vasari's book was published, the erection of a stone altar caused the fresco to be covered up by a panel of the Madonna of the Rosary painted by Vasari himself. Thus the fresco remained unknown for further generations from 1570 to 1861 when owing to the removal of the 16th century altar it was again uncovered. After being removed and placed on the internal facade of the church between the left and the central doors, it was put back in its original position in 1952, as a result of the discovery, beneath the 19th century neo-Gothic altar, of the lower section of the fresco with Adam's skeleton and the painted altar table, once part of the whole work.
The reconstructed work was taken up by critics as the symbol and revelation of Brunelleschi's principles in architecture and the use of perspective, to the point that some believed Brunelleschi to have had a direct hand in the work.
The most likely interpretation of the Trinity is that the painting alludes to the traditional medieval double chapel of Golgotha, with Adam's tomb in the lower part (the skeleton) and the Crucifixion in the upper part. But it can also assume the significance of the journey the human spirit must undertake to reach salvation, rising from the earthly life (the corruptible body) through prayer (the two petitioners) and the intercession of the Virgin and saints (John the Evangelist) to the Trinity.
A close-up view of the skeleton in the sarcophagus also revealed the ancient warning, in clear letters: I WAS WHAT YOU ARE AND WHAT I AM YOU SHALL BE.