In the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence’s Oltrarno neighbourhood, the Florentine master Masolino (c.1383–c.1447) and his younger and soon-to-be more famous collaborator Masaccio (1401–1428) frescoed a chapel with scenes from the life of Peter. The cycle includes this scene of Peter Healing the Lame Man.
The story in Acts 3 recounts the first miracle that the Apostles perform after the death of Christ. Masaccio depicts Peter and John at the centre of a perfectly balanced composition; at left, the lame man sits with his back to the viewer, reaching up towards Peter, who extends his right hand towards him. As emphasized in the biblical text, John and Peter exchange powerful glances with the beggar (Acts 3:4–5); their eyes meet and the viewer of the fresco prepares to watch the impending miracle unfold.
Masaccio depicts this scene within what would have been for him a contemporary cityscape. Solomon’s portico is shown as a Renaissance loggia; in the background we see palaces with their crenellated walls, wooden balconies, and terracotta roofs. Signs of Florentine everyday life abound: two noblemen strut nearby, their lush brocades and fashionable hats contrasting with the bare feet and heads of the Apostles. A young woman leads her toddler by the hand, laundry hangs drying, and even an intrepid cat prowls outside a window.
Masaccio stages the scriptural narrative clearly and boldly, yet the viewer cannot help but be distracted by the vibrant vignettes of Renaissance urban living throughout the painting. Such a setting would help the viewer to imagine biblical history as part of a continuum with his or her present reality, and serve as a reminder that miracles happen every day, sometimes right under our noses. Or, to echo Peter’s words, ‘in the presence of us all’.