The Tribute Money by Masaccio

Masaccio

The Tribute Money, 1426–27, Fresco, The Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Space and Time

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In this brilliant example of single point perspective, Masaccio uses the buildings of Capernaum to create orthogonals, the invisible lines that lead the eye to the vanishing point of the composition. They converge on the face of Christ, the figure dressed in blue and pink, who thus becomes the visual fulcrum of the painting.

Seen from behind, in dialogue with Peter, the tax collector stands before Christ at the extreme front edge of the picture space, his short tunic and naked legs indicating his low social status, in stark contrast to Christ and Peter’s patrician-like robes.

The strong directional light falling from right to left illuminates Christ’s face, casts shadows that lend sculptural form to the disciples ranged around him, and gives a sense of atmospheric recession to the landscape behind. Across the central axis of the fresco, Christ points magisterially to Peter, who echoes the gesture, pointing to his future self at the seashore taking the coin from the fish’s mouth. In the final episode, Peter appears for a third time in the right foreground, wearing the papal colours of blue and yellow signifying his role as the founder of the Church on earth, as he places the shekel for the Temple tax in the hand of the tax collector.

By creating the illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface, articulating form through the modulated fall of light, and using perspective and gesture to sequence the viewer’s reading of the picture, Masaccio gives a complete account of the Gospel narrative, from the arrival at Capernaum and the tax collector’s question to Peter, ‘Does not your teacher pay the tax?’ (v.24) to its conclusion in the payment of the tribute. And through these same devices the psychological drama of the miracle—Christ’s command that Peter must pay the tax—is acted out with arresting naturalism.

 

References

Ahl, Diana Cole. 2002. ‘Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel’, in The Cambridge Companion to Masaccio, ed. by Diana Cole Ahl (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 138–57

Strehlke, Carl Brandon. 2007. ‘The Brancacci style and the Carmine style’, in The Brancacci Chapel: Form, Function, and Setting, Acts of an International Conference, Florence, ed. by Nicholas A. Eckstein (Florence: Leo Olschki), pp. 87–114

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