Masaccio, The Tribute Money and Expulsion in the Brancacci Chapel

Masaccio, The Tribute Money, 1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] We’re in the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:09] Hence our hushed voices. We’re in a chapel decorated with frescoes by two artists in the early 15th century, Masaccio and Masolino.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] This is such a tour de force of the early Renaissance.

Dr. Harris: [0:23] These frescoes tell the story of the life of Saint Peter.

Dr. Zucker: [0:26] Peter was one of Christ’s apostles, but he also has the important distinction of being understood as the first pope. There are two especially important frescoes on the upper register on the left side of the chapel. Let’s look first at the fresco of the Tribute Money.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] Here we see a scene from the New Testament, from the Gospel of Matthew, where Christ and the apostles have entered the town of Capernium. They’re being asked to pay the temple tax.

Dr. Zucker: [0:53] Jesus seems to suggest that he doesn’t need to pay the tax, but in order to avoid controversy, they will. The problem is, they don’t have any money. Christ instructs Peter to go to the Sea of Galilee and open the mouth of the first fish that he catches. There he’ll find a coin to pay the tax collector.

Dr. Harris: [1:16] Here we see in the center the tax being demanded of Christ and the apostles, the tax collector with his arms outstretched demanding the payment of those taxes, and Christ instructing Peter to get the money miraculously to pay the tax collector.

[1:27] We see Saint Peter doing that on the far left, and on the far right, we see Peter paying the tax collector. Peter appears three times here. The tax collector appears twice. The whole story is unfolding within this one scene. This is called a continuous narrative.

Dr. Zucker: [1:45] What’s remarkable is the way that Masaccio has composed this. Christ is in the center of the composition. Even though Peter appears three times, our attention goes to Christ, because all of the apostles surround him in a semicircle, because the tax collector confronts him, and because the linear perspective in the painting draws our eye to Christ’s face.

Dr. Harris: [2:06] The orthogonals are visible in the architecture to the right, and if we were to follow those, we would end at a vanishing point at the head of Christ. So Masaccio is using Brunelleschi’s linear perspective, not only to create an illusion of recessionary space, but also to help draw our eye to the most important figure in the composition.

[0:00] Not only do we have linear perspective. We also have atmospheric perspective.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] Look, for example, at the mountains. The mountain that is closest to us, we can see some greenery, it’s darker, and they fade as we go back, mimicking the way in which as we look through more atmosphere, forms become paler.

Dr. Harris: [2:52] And less distinct. And so Masaccio’s using every means he can to create a convincing earthly setting for these figures. Masaccio is not only creating this space for the apostles to occupy, but he’s making the figures themselves occupy space. He’s using modeling — in other words, chiaroscuro, light and dark, to create figures who have mass and volume.

Dr. Zucker: [3:10] Look at the way that the feet seem squarely planted on the earth.

Dr. Harris: [3:14] The feet are wonderful, not only because of that sense of weightiness that it gives to the figures, but also it draws our attention to the remarkable shadows that Masaccio painted.

[3:30] We have a sense of the light coming from the right, the same direction as the real light would have entered the chapel, and the figures cast shadows to the left and we have a sense of the way that the figures block the light, the way the light comes through between the figures, and that alternation of light and dark also helps us read an illusion of space.

[3:48] My favorite part might be the tax collector, because the tax collector stands with his back to us in lovely contrapposto. This is a tour de force by Masaccio, this figure that suggests movement, contrapposto coming from ancient Greek and Rome and artists of the Renaissance looking back to classical antiquity, back to ancient Greece and Rome as a way of representing human figures naturally moving through space.

Dr. Zucker: [4:18] We see that contrapposto not once but twice. If you look at the second rendering of the tax collector, you see that his weight is now being borne on his other leg, and so Masaccio seems to be showing off.

Dr. Harris: [4:25] My favorite part though is the left foot of the tax collector, which is firmly planted on the ground, and you can see his toes are in the sunlight but the left side of his ankle is in shadow.

Dr. Zucker: [4:37] There’s also real attention to the emotions of the figures. Christ’s face is placid, he’s calm in the center, but just to his left, Peter looks put out. He looks upset at being accosted by the tax collector, and his knit brow is in such contrast to Saint John the Evangelist, whose face is placid like Christ’s. And so Masaccio is playing off these two apostles.

Dr. Harris: [5:01] We get a sense of a range of emotions. Some are concerned, some are watching what will unfold, but you’re right, we have this calm center in the figure of Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [5:11] This may be one of the first paintings in the history of Western art to have such a unified source of light that is so consistent and convincing. The painting is convincing because of a number of issues — its chiaroscuro, its understanding of the body, its contrapposto, its atmospheric perspective, the linear perspective, the shadows, the expressions.

[5:32] But it’s also another technique that we call foreshortening. You can see that in the face of Saint Peter as he’s pulling the coin out of the fish’s mouth. We’re looking across his face from his forehead towards his chin. Even the halos are shown as ellipses, even though the intention is that they’re round.

Dr. Harris: [5:54] So many of the feet, too, are foreshortened. It’s those foreshortened feet that convince us that the figures are actually standing on the ground and their feet also exist in space.

Dr. Zucker: [6:04] So we have this biblical story, but it was a biblical story that was relevant in 15th-century Florence. This was a period when the city of Florence was engaged in a long-running battle with the city of Milan. This cost the city a lot of money. As a result, the city had imposed a property tax. The pope in Rome insisted that the churches should be exempt.

[6:21] This seems to mirror the conflict that this scene represents.

Dr. Harris: [6:24] A conflict between state authority and religious authority.

Dr. Zucker: [6:28] Ultimately, a comprise was reached, just like in the scene that is before us.

Dr. Harris: [6:38] We should also remember that we’re standing in a burial chapel owned by the Brancacci family. Brancacci was a very devout man who gave the church money to endow this chapel and to have prayers said for his family so that his family would have the benefit of those prayers and perhaps sooner release from purgatory and a sooner arrival in heaven.

Dr. Zucker: [6:55] Just to the left of the Tribute Money is the Expulsion from Eden. We see Adam and Eve naked, and we see an angel armed with a sword who seems to be chasing them out of Eden, out of Paradise. It seems clear that Masaccio had access to an ancient Venus, what is known as a venus pudica. That is, a modest Venus.

Dr. Harris: [7:26] Masaccio has transformed a pagan figure of Venus into the figure of Eve here. Look, too, how the shadows function very much the same way that they did in “The Tribute Money.” The light is coming from the right. The figures cast shadows to the left. We could ask, “What would a scene of the expulsion from paradise be doing in a chapel that’s otherwise entirely about Saint Peter?”

[7:40] It’s Adam and Eve’s sin that causes the need for Christ’s sacrifice. Christ’s sacrifice makes possible mankind’s salvation. Peter is the instrument, the church through which that happens. In a way, it all begins with that original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

[8:04] So we have a foreshortened angel, an illusion of space created through that foreshortening. The angel comes toward us. And we have a sense of the terrible agony of Adam and Eve being forced to leave Paradise. The consequence of this is humanity’s fall from grace, illness, death, violence.

Dr. Zucker: [8:22] Look at the differences with which the two figures have been painted. Eve covers her body. She’s ashamed of her nakedness. Adam covers his face. He seems to have an internal guilt.

Dr. Harris: [8:36] Look at the muscles in Adam’s abdomen and the legs, this new interest in the Renaissance in human anatomy.

Dr. Zucker: [8:37] These frescoes will be tremendously influential.

Dr. Harris: [8:41] Well, Michelangelo will come here and sketch Masaccio’s work in the Brancacci chapel.

[0:00] [music]

Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence (Italy) (left); Brancacci Chapel, with frescoes by Masaccio and Masolino, c. 1424-7, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence (Italy) (right) (photos: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence (Italy) (left); Brancacci Chapel, with frescoes by Masaccio and Masolino, c. 1424-7, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence (Italy) (right) (photos: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Tribute Money is one of many frescoes painted by Masaccio (and another artist named Masolino (with later additions by Filippino Lippi) in the Brancacci chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence—when you walk into the chapel, the fresco is on your upper left. All of the frescoes in the chapel tell the story of the life of St. Peter. The story of the Tribute Money is told in three separate scenes within the same fresco. This way of telling an entire story in one painting is called a continuous narrative.

A story unfolds and a miracle is performed

Masaccio, Tribute Money, 1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Masaccio, Tribute Money, 1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Christ, apostles, and tax collector (detail), Masaccio, Tribute Money, c. 1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Christ, apostles, and tax collector (detail), Masaccio, Tribute Money, c. 1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

In the Tribute Money, a Roman tax collector (the figure in the foreground in a short orange tunic and no halo) demands tax money from Christ and the twelve apostles who don’t have the money to pay.

Christ (in the center, wearing a pinkish robe gathered in at the waist, with a blue toga-like wrap) points to the left, and says to Peter “so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours” (Matthew 17:27). Christ performed a miracle—and the apostles have the money to pay the tax collector.

In the center of the fresco (scene 1), we see the tax collector demanding the money, and Christ instructing Peter. On the far left (scene 2), we see Peter kneeling down and retrieving the money from the mouth of a fish, and on the far right (scene 3), St. Peter pays the tax collector. In the fresco, the tax collector appears twice, and St. Peter appears three times (you can find them easily if you look for their clothing).

Masaccio, Tribute Money, 1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Masaccio, Tribute Money, 1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

We are so used to one moment appearing in one frame (think of a comic book, for example) that the unfolding of the story within one image (and out of order!) seems very strange to us. But with this technique (a continuous narrative)—which was also used by the ancient Romans—Masaccio is able to make an entire drama unfold on the wall of the Brancacci chapel.

Peter (detail), Masaccio, Tribute Money, 1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence)

Peter (detail), Masaccio, Tribute Money, 1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence)

In the central, first scene, the tax collector points down with his right hand, and holds his left palm open, impatiently insisting on the money from Christ and the apostles. He stands with his back to us, which helps to create an illusion of three dimensional space in the image (a goal which was clearly important to Masaccio as he also employed both linear and atmospheric perspective to create an illusion of space). Like Donatello’s St. Mark from Orsanmichele in Florence, he stands naturally, in contrapposto, with his weight on his left leg, and his right knee bent. The apostles (Christ’s followers) look worried and anxiously watch to see what will happen. St. Peter (wearing a large deep orange colored toga draped over a blue shirt) is confused, as he seems to be questioning Christ and pointing over to the river, but he also looks like he is willing to believe Christ.

Linear perspective diagram, Masaccio, Tribute Money, c.1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Christ is the vanishing point. Note too, the use of atmospheric (aerial) perspective in the mountains in the distance. 

Linear perspective diagram, Masaccio, Tribute Money, c.1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Christ is the vanishing point. Note too, the use of atmospheric (aerial) perspective in the mountains in the distance.

The gestures and expressions help to tell the story. Peter seems confused and points to the lake—mirroring Christ’s gesture; the tax collector looks upset, and has his hand out insistently asking for the money—he stands in contrapposto with his back turned to us (contrapposto is a standing position, where the figure’s weight is shifted to one leg). Only Christ is completely calm because he is performing a miracle.

Feet (detail), Masaccio, Tribute Money, c. 1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Feet (detail), Masaccio, Tribute Money, c. 1427, fresco (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Look down at the feet—how the light travels through the figures, and is stopped when it encounters the figures. The figures cast shadows—Masaccio is perhaps the first artist since classical antiquity to paint cast shadows. What this does is make the fresco so much more real—it is as if the figures are truly standing out in a landscape, with the light coming from one direction, and the sun in the sky, hitting all the figures from the same side and casting shadows on the ground. For the first time since antiquity, there is almost a sense of weather.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”masolino,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Masaccio, The Tribute Money and Expulsion in the Brancacci Chapel," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed June 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/masaccio-the-tribute-money-in-the-brancacci-chapel/.