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The Holy Family

The Virgin with Child and Saint Anne

Masaccio (1401-1428) and Masolino (1387-1447). Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence. 1425.

Many paintings took up as a subject the very young Jesus, still a baby, together with his family. Jesus is often shown together with Mary and Joseph in their home in Nazareth. The Virgin may be feeding the child, or Jesus may be in the house of his grandmother Anne. Scenes of domestic life around the baby Jesus were popular in the Flemish sixteenth century for instance. This was the case especially for scenes of the Virgin Mary feeding the child, while giving him milk or food. Other paintings show Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist. Sometimes also John’s mother Elisabeth enters the pictures. This was a favourite theme of the Renaissance. Finally, also pictures of the three generations together with Anne, Mary and Jesus were well in demand.

One such painting of the three generations is a monument of art history. It is a work at which two giants of the very beginning of the Italian Renaissance worked together: Masolino and Masaccio. The painting is called the ‘Sant’Anna Metterza’. The panel presents Saint Anne, Mary and Jesus. ‘Metterza’ was a word of Medieval Latin meaning ‘the same ‘ for ‘met’ and ‘the third’ for ‘tertius’ I13 . Originally the painting stood in the church of Sant’Ambrogio in Florence, a church in which also the Immaculate Conception was venerated. Masaccio and Masolino were Florentines. Masaccio probably painted Mary and Jesus, while Saint Anne is attributed to Masolino, as well as most of the angels I6 . The ‘Sant’Anna Metterza’ dates from 1425. This was two years earlier than the date at which Masaccio made the fresco of the Holy Trinity in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, which is often considered as being the first Renaissance image of history. This Holy Trinity, famous also for its use of one-point perspective, was probably the last fresco Masaccio made in Florence before his early death. The ‘Sant’Anna Metterza’ would then be the first tempera painting of the Renaissance, tempera being the old technique of panel painting in which pigments were mixed with egg-yolk as dilution.

The new style that Masaccio imagined shows in Jesus. He is painted nude, as a well muscled human, well in flesh, not idealised as in earlier Gothic era pictures, and with the blonde curls of a prince of antiquity. Mary holds Jesus in her lap and she still looks solemnly, somewhat dreamy, conscious of her maternity. The pyramid form made by the Virgin’s blue maphorion robe is sculptural, splendid in its solidity and monumentality. This is how solid and protective motherhood should be. Yet, the solidity does not diminish the noble grace of the Virgin, but more underscores it. The elegant headdress and shawl, gently laid around her head and shoulders indicate the grace of Mary. The general composition of the panel was decided by Masolino, one can only wonder whether it was Masaccio’s idea to thus picture the Virgin or Masolino’s.

Behind Mary all is painted in subdued colours, in red, brown, and yellow tones. Saint Anne wears a cloak in these tones. Saint Anne is usually figured in a red robe with a green cloak; the red represented then love and the green represented spring. Spring meant new life and birth. But Masolino inverted these colours to better suit the general hues of the background, thus recognising the force of Masaccio’s representation of the Virgin and Child. Mary is seated very statically, while Anne is more energetic. Anne has an elder, more severe face and her gestures are also protective. She has one hand on Mary’s shoulder; she keeps one hand over Jesus’s head. Life sprang from Anne, out of her womb came Mary. Out of Mary’s womb then followed Jesus. This close intimacy is the whole meaning of the painting; it is protection within protection, womb within womb. And Anne looks as if she had planned it all. She is the most imposing figure here, even though she remains in the background. Masolino, the elder painter of the two, supported Masaccio.

The strong image of Saint Anne was supported by the early generations of painters. Saint Anne was even sometimes depicted in the role of the Madonna. She is then seated not unlike in pictures of the Virgin Mary on a throne holding a child in her lap. This child would be Mary instead of Jesus. One of these rare, very early paintings made by a Tuscan artist can be found in the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo of Pisa.

The ‘Sant’Anna Metterza’ is to be compared with the three Maestà’s made by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Cimabue and Giotto. In these panels, Jesus is fully clad and always somewhat strained. These portraits of Jesus are far from the confident, satisfied, forceful Jesus of Masaccio. Masaccio’s Jesus was painted anatomically exact and Masaccio opened with other similar paintings of nudes the new style of the Renaissance. Yet, after having absorbed the style of Giotto as for instance in his frescoes of the Arena Chapel of Padua, one can feel the same monumentality in the Virgin and Child of Masaccio. Masaccio owed Giotto and took history a step further.

The angels in the ‘Sant’Anna Metterza’ are also far more natural, gentle, and sweet. The two angels on each side of the throne are in movement: they bring smells of perfume to the panel. Four angels are in yellow and ochre, but one of them to the left is in green. This angel looks finer, more elegant than the other ones. It is believed that this angel was also of the hand of Masaccio. The angels are still standing, but some of them hold the flowered curtain, which is likewise a cloak of protection for Anne. This is the cloak of revelation, the protection from Heaven. The Divine hands that open the curtain reveal the scene to us. This revelation enhances the viewer’s curiosity. This effect also is absent in the three great Maestà’s. In the Maestà the throne takes an important place. Masolino and Masaccio have also entirely made the throne disappear behind the figures and they made the seat much wider, to enhance the impression of solidity we perceive of the Virgin.

Masolino and Masaccio were working here together probably for the first time. So, the ‘Sant’Anna Metterza’ became an example of the transition from the late International Gothic style, impersonified by Masolino, and the newer Renaissance started by Masaccio. But the two painters had not worked together for the last time. They collaborated almost at the same time for the frescoes of the life of Saint Peter in the Brancacci chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine of Florence.

Masolino was the elder painter. He was born around 1383 in Panicale near Perugia as Tommaso di Cristofano Fini, and then called Masolino da Panicale. He died around 1447. Masolino had worked with Lorenzo Ghiberti on the bronze doors of the Baptisterium of Florence. It may be because of this that Felipe Brancacci, a rich merchant and diplomat who had been the ambassador of the Republic of Florence to the Sultan of Egypt, gave the commission for the chapel to Masolino. Masolino started to work in 1424 or 1425, but interrupted the frescoes to work in Budapest where he became a painter of the King of Hungary. In 1427 he returned to Florence and continued the Brancacci chapel, this time accompanied by Masaccio. Masaccio was still young then, born at the end of 1401, but he took prominence over Masolino in the Brancacci frescoes. Masolino abandoned quickly and Masaccio did the major work.

Masaccio was born as Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Guidi in Castel San Giovanni, now San Giovanni Valdarno, in the Tuscan province of Arezzo, then also of the Papal States. ‘Masaccio’ meant something like ‘Clumsy Tommaso’ because he looked quite careless and absent-minded. Nothing is known of where he learned to paint, but he entered the guild of Florentine painters in 1422. He worked in Florence but also in Pisa. Giorgio Vasari wrote of Masaccio that he perceived as one of the first that the best painters should follow nature as closely as possible, since painting was simply the imitation of all the living things of nature. G46 . Thus, it was primarily Masaccio who would have introduced liveliness, human nudity in splendour and emotions, movements and vivacity. But we know that these elements were the culmination of a long evolution that started before Masaccio. The collaboration with Masolino da Panicale started around 1424, probably first with the ‘Sant’Anna Metterza’. Masaccio had a more powerful character than Masolino and in the end it was Masaccio who would shape art history.

In 1428, the works in the Brancacci Chapel were stopped again when Masolino and Masaccio left for Rome. Masaccio died there so very young in that same year 1428. Filippino Lippi finished the series of the Brancacci chapel only much later from 1480 to 1485. So many famous names worked in this chapel, that it became one of the main pilgrimage places for Renaissance art lovers.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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