Comparison of Masaccio's The Holy Trinity and Grunewald's The Isenheim Altarpiece
The Holy Trinity by Masaccio was a painting done in approximately 1428. It is a
superb example of Masaccio's use of space and perspective. It consists of
two levels of unequal height. Christ is represented on the top half, in a
coffered, barrel-vaulted chapel. On one side of him is the Virgin Mary,
and on the other, St. John. Christ himself is supported by God the Father,
and the Dove of the Holy Spirit rests on Christ's halo. In front of the
pilasters that enframe the chapel kneel the donors (husband and wife).
Underneath the altar (a masonry insert in the painted composition) is a
tomb. Inside the tomb is a skeleton, which may represent Adam. The
vanishing point is at the center of the masonry altar, because this is the
eye level of the spectator, who looks up at the Trinity and down at the
tomb. The vanishing point, five feet above the floor level, pulls both
views together. By doing this, an illusion of an actual structure is
created. The interior volume of this 'structure' is an extension of the
space that the person looking at the work is standing in. The adjustment
of the spectator to the pictured space is one of the first steps in the
development of illusionistic painting. Illusionistic painting fascinated
many artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
The proportions in this painting are so numerically exact that one
can actually calculate the numerical dimensions of the chapel in the
background. The span of the painted vault is seven feet, and the depth is
nine feet. "Thus, he achieves not only successful illusion, but a rational,
metrical coherence that, by maintaining the mathematical proportions of the
surface design, is responsible for the unity and harmony of this monumental
composition." Two principal interests are summed up by The Holy Trinity:
Realism based on observation, and the application of mathematics to
All of the figures are fully clothed, except for that of Christ
himself. He is, however, wearing a robe around his waist. The figure is
"real"; it is a good example of a human body. The rest of the figures,
who are clothed, are wearing ro bes. The drapery contains heavy folds and
creases, which increases the effect of shadows. The human form in its
entirety is not seen under the drapery; only a vague representation of it
is seen. It is not at all like the 'wet-drapery' of Classica l antiquity.
Massacio places the forms symmetrically in the composition. Each
has its own weight and mass, unlike earlier Renaissance works. The fresco
is calm, and creates a sad mood. The mood is furthered by the darkness of
the work, and the heavy sh adows cast.
Grunewald's The Isenheim Altarpiece is an oil painting on wood,...