(b. 1401, San Giovanni Valdarno, d. 1428, Roma)

The Distribution of Alms and the Death of Ananias

Fresco, 230 x 162 cm
Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

This episode is taken from the account in the Acts of the Apostles (4: 32-37 and 5:1-11) : "For as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need....But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?. . . why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost."

Masaccio brings together the two moments of the story: Peter distributing the donations that have been presented to the Apostles and the death of Ananias, whose body lies on the ground at his feet. The scene takes place in a setting of great solemnity, and the classical composition is constructed around opposing groups of characters.

No scholar has ever doubted that the entire scene is by Masaccio, except for minor cases of details having been retouched, such as certain parts of Ananias's body, small sections to the far left where the colour had come off, and even tiny areas on St Peter himself.

The recent restoration has provided us with interesting information: for example, we can now see that there are several details that are not the work of Masaccio, such as St John's pink cloak and his tunic, and Ananias's hands. It was suggested that all these elements were repainted by Filippino Lippi, all in one day's work, over Masaccio's original fresco.

As well as a reference to salvation through the faith, this fresco has also been interpretedas another statement in favour of the institution of the Catasto, for the scene describes both a new measure guaranteeing greater equality among the population and the divine punishment of those who make false declarations. And it has also been suggested that the fresco contains a reference to the family who commissioned the cycle: the man kneeling behind St Peter's arm has been identified as Cardinal Rinaldo Brancacci, or alternatively as Cardinal Tommaso Brancacci.

Due to the interference of the altar and marble balustrade set up in the l8th century, no scholar had been able to notice that the two episodes on the end wall are ideally part of a single composition, although they are intended to be seen from different viewpoints: the Distribution of Alms along the corner axis of the building in the centre, from a position to the right of the entrance, while the scene of Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow is intended to be viewed from the middle of the chapel, from fairly close up. The connection between the two scenes is further emphasized by the fact that on the window side neither has pilaster strips framing the outer edge. The original two-light window, so narrow and tall, did not really interrupt the continuity of the wall space: on the contrary, its concave surface provided an ideal connection with the space outside, not as a further background element, but rather as a real source of light, enhancing the three-dimensional features of the characters and contributing to the contrast between light and dark areas.

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