Masaccio, Virgin and Child Enthroned

Masaccio (Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone), Virgin and Child Enthroned, 1426, tempera on panel (National Gallery, London)

Ser Giuliano degli Scarsi, a notary from Pisa, commissioned this altarpiece for the chapel of Saint Julian in Santa Maria del Carmine, Pisa.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the National Gallery in London, looking at Masaccio’s “The Virgin and Child.” When we’re looking at paintings that are centuries old, a lot can have changed.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:16] In the case of so many paintings from the Middle Ages and from the Renaissance, we’re looking at paintings that were parts of altarpieces that had often many, many panels.

Dr. Zucker: [0:26] You can have a single-panel painting. If you have two panels that are hinged together at the middle, we call it a diptych. If you have three panels, it’s a triptych. Anything more than that, we give up, and we simply call it a polyptych.

Dr. Harris: [0:38] That’s because the prefix “poly” means many.

Dr. Zucker: [0:41] Scholars have reconstructed what this polyptych might have originally looked like based on those panels that have survived.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] Often, panels for large polyptychs like this end up in different museums. What happened over the centuries is that the paintings were not particularly valued. They were taken apart, and when they’re sold on the market, you can get more money by selling them individually.

Dr. Zucker: [1:02] Now, we have documents that tell us that this panel was originally part of a polyptych that was for a church in the city of Pisa in Italy.

Dr. Harris: [1:09] We know that the patron was a wealthy notary, but although we have so much documentation about this commission, sadly there are still 10 panels that are unknown to us.

Dr. Zucker: [1:19] That may be lost permanently. But even when we look at this panel, which was featured as the central panel in the original polyptych, even here there are losses.

[1:27] This was intended for a church, and churches were illuminated with candles and lanterns that threw off a lot of soot, which meant that people would periodically clean the paintings and do so not with the care of a modern conservator.

Dr. Harris: [1:40] That’s evident if we look at the drapery of the angels. We can see areas of paint loss. We see that also in Christ’s feet and in the Virgin Mary’s left hand, but we’re still so lucky to have what survives here. There still is so much to see.

Dr. Zucker: [1:57] The largest figure by far is the Virgin Mary. She wears this beautiful brilliant blue cloak with this red undergarment, which originally would have had silver underpainting that would have been quite luminous.

Dr. Harris: [2:09] There are other areas that were probably brightly painted and very decorative that are lost to us. For example, if we look at the wings of the two standing angels.

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] Look at the Christ Child. This is such a difference from the way in which he had been represented in earlier Italian paintings by Giotto or even earlier by Cimabue. Here we see an infant that has baby fat, whose head is appropriately large in proportion to his body. This feels like a real child.

Dr. Harris: [2:35] Well, look at the way that he eats the grapes out of his mother’s hand. As he eats them, he keeps two fingers in his mouth, which seems so characteristically childlike to me.

Dr. Zucker: [2:44] The grapes have more somber, symbolic meaning.

Dr. Harris: [2:47] When we see grapes in Christian paintings, they’ll almost always refer to wine. In Christian theology, the wine is, during the Mass, during the Eucharist, the blood of Christ. This is a reference to Christ’s future death on the cross, which makes possible, according to Christian theology, the salvation of mankind.

Dr. Zucker: [3:07] This perhaps explains Mary’s somber expression. Masaccio, the artist, seems to almost be suggesting that Mary is seeing into the future, understanding her child’s fate.

Dr. Harris: [3:18] There’s something, I think, important about the way that she holds him. In earlier paintings, Christ looks older, but he’s also held in a way that seems very formal, as though Mary were holding up Christ to the viewer, but here she’s got her left arm under his bottom and his thigh, and there’s something very maternal and natural.

Dr. Zucker: [3:38] We associate this artist with the development of naturalism in the early Renaissance, clearly learning lessons that had originally been put forward by artists like Giotto a century earlier. We only need to look for instance at the masterful use of light and shadow, chiaroscuro, the folds of the blue outer garment that is worn by the Virgin Mary.

Dr. Harris: [3:57] You can see very clearly that the light is coming from the left, illuminating those draperies, casting them in shadows on the right, and that drapery is also helping to reveal the form of the body underneath.

[4:09] This is such an important part of the early Renaissance. This interest in the human body, even when we’re depicting divine figures.

Dr. Zucker: [4:16] The word Renaissance refers to a rebirth of interest in the classical world, in ancient Greece and Rome. For Renaissance painters, that meant naturalistic depictions representing the world that we see.

Dr. Harris: [4:27] You could say that Masaccio isn’t doing that because we have a gold background. We don’t have an earthly setting for these figures, but we have to remember this is made for a chapel.

[4:37] The way that it’s painted is dictated by the patron, who may very well have specified the gold background, which would have shown off the patron’s generosity toward the church and his own wealth.

Dr. Zucker: [4:49] Masaccio has minimized the gold by creating a high back for the throne on which the Virgin sits. If you look closely at that throne, you’ll see classicizing columns, a clear reference to the interest at this moment in antiquity.

Dr. Harris: [5:03] There’s yet something else we might not notice at first when we think about the influence of the classical world, that pattern of wavy lines we see along the bottom.

Dr. Zucker: [5:13] This pattern is called the strigilated motif, and we think that Masaccio was borrowing it from ancient Roman sarcophagi, also a reference to Christ’s eventual death and entombment.

Dr. Harris: [5:23] The angels clearly stand behind the throne and the other angels are in front of the throne. There’s that very characteristic interest that Masaccio has in creating an illusion of space, something that was key for the artists of the Renaissance.

Dr. Zucker: [5:37] Well, look at the angels at the front step. They’re both holding lutes at extreme angles from our perspective. We call this foreshortening.

Dr. Harris: [5:44] It helps to create an illusion of depth there in the front.

Dr. Zucker: [5:47] It’s so believable.

Dr. Harris: [5:48] Once we approach this painting with the understanding that it’s part of a larger altarpiece and was likely cut down, we begin to be able to see that. As we look closer at those angels, we can see that they were cut off at the bottom. Art historians believe as much as 25 centimeters has been lost from the bottom of this painting.

Dr. Zucker: [6:06] Look at the space on which the angels in the foreground sit. If you look very carefully, you can see a shadow that does not belong to either angel, and we think [it] was cast by one of the figures that was cut off that had originally stood at the left.

Dr. Harris: [6:18] There are other shadows here. For example, we can see that the Madonna herself casts a shadow. What better to convince us of the reality of these forms? It helps make this seem so believable and so real.

Dr. Zucker: [6:32] And will have a profound impact on the development of Renaissance art. When we think of the masters of the High Renaissance, Michelangelo or Raphael, they are all indebted to the work done by earlier masters like Masaccio.

[6:43] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Masaccio, Virgin and Child Enthroned," in Smarthistory, November 25, 2015, accessed May 20, 2024,