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

Madonna with Child and Angels

Egg tempera on poplar, 136 x 73 cm
National Gallery, London

Vasari wrote: "Masaccio can be given the credit for originating a new style of painting ... he produced work that is living, realistic, and natural."

Masaccio's innovations were not technical, for his work on panel uses traditional materials and methods, as do his paintings in fresco. Inspired by the ideals of Giotto, by contemporary interest in ancient Roman remains, by the recent experiments of his friends the architect-sculptor Brunelleschi and the sculptor Donatello, he relied above all on observation of nature. His study of perspective was allied to an equally profound analysis of light. The lutes of the two angels at the Virgin's feet are demonstrations, obviously studied from the model, of the joint effect of foreshortening and directional illumination. The peg box of the instrument on the right faces inwards, the other is turned towards us. The strong light shining from the upper left helps define rounded and flat surfaces and right angles, and the shadows and penumbras cast by the angels' hands look so natural that we almost take them for granted.

The painting is the central panel of a large, 19 pieces winged altar executed for a chapel of the Carmelite Church in Pisa. Ten other panels of the altarpiece are in various museums. The painting has been cut down at the base, and has lost its original frame, although the arch at the top, firmly locating the throne behind it, is Masaccio's. The silver-leaf backing of the Virgin's red robe has tarnished, the red itself has darkened, and the paint surface is abraded and disfigured, revealing the green undermodelling of the Virgin's face; the original effect would have been much more decorative. Yet decoration could never have been Masaccio's main interest. The Virgin, as voluminous as a Roman statue, sits on a massive throne incorporating the three orders of columns of Roman architecture. The wavy pattern at the base is copied from Roman sarcophagi. The Child himself, naked and plump like a sculpted Roman putto, wears an elliptical halo on his head; its foreshortening defines his position on his mother's lap.

Masaccio's egg tempera medium is deficient, when compared to contemporary Netherlandish oil paintings, in its ability to differentiate texture and lustre. But his grave vision of the structure of things seems all the weightier for lacking surface blandishments.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.