Art Home | ARTH Courses | ARTH 213 Assignments

Brancacci Chapel

in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence

Masaccio's frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel play a central role in any narrative of early fifteenth century Florentine painting. The pictorial innovations in a fresco like the Tribute Money are given important emphasis in these histories. Masaccio's use of techniques like linear perspective, foreshortening, atmospheric perspective, cast shadows, unified light source, and contrapposto contribute to the coherent sense of space and light filled environment that seems like an extension of the viewer's space. While Masaccio in his approach to the formal elements is trying to make the scenes immediate to the viewer, the subject matter relates episodes from the life of St. Peter to concerns that would have immediate interest to a Florentine of the fifteenth century. Instead of the more usual Christological cycle, the subjects of the frescoes focus on the involvement of the church in the person of Peter in social life. Consider the frescoes and their likely textual sources, and see their relevance to civic life of Florence.

The chapel was the result of a bequest of Pietro Brancacci, who died in 1367. The choice of episodes from the life of the St. Peter as the subject matter of the frescoes likely reflects the wishes of Pietro. After the deaths of Pietro's brothers and sons, the chapel past down to a nephew, Felice Brancacci. It is understood that Felice was responsible for the commissioning of the frescoes. Felice's political alliance with Palla Strozzi was cemented by his second marriage to the daughter of Palla Strozzi. With the exile of Strozzi in 1434, Felice was charged with political intrigue and was himself exiled in 1435. The prominence of St. Peter in the Brancacci cycle perhaps also reflects Felice's strong ties to the Papacy in Rome. Although not certain, most scholars conjecture that Masolino was given the original commission of the work. He was responsible for the frescoes on the upper register of the right wall, while Masaccio was given responsibility for those on the left. They apparently shared responsibility for the altar wall. While Masaccio's activity can be seen in the lower register that was largely completed by Filippino Lippi, Masolino's work is limited to the upper register. A fire in 1748 destroyed the original frescoes in the vault and lunettes. Following the regular practice in fresco painting of beginning at the top and working down, it seems plausible that Masolino's activity began with the ceiling and then worked down to the upper register with Masaccio picking up at this point.

Expulsion of Adam and Eve (Masaccio). Note how the pose of Eve is apparently based on the so-called Venus Pudica pose that became the norm for the nude Aphrodite figures in the Late Classical period:


The Tribute Money (Masaccio)

Matthew 17:23 And when they were come to Capharnaum, they that received the didrachmas, came to Peter, and said to him: Doth not your master pay the didrachma?
24 He said: Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying: What is thy opinion, Simon? The kings of the earth, of whom do they receive tribute or custom, of their own children, or of strangers?
25 And he said: Of strangers. Jesus said to him: Then the children are free.
26 But that we may not scandalize them, go to the sea, and cast in a hook: and that fish which shall first come up, take: and when thou hast opened it's mouth, thou shalt find a stater: take that, and give it to them for me and thee.

Horizon Line



Raising the Son of Theophilus and St. Peter Enthroned (Filippino Lippi and Masaccio): According to the account in the Golden Legend: "Suddenly a light appeared there, and all the sick people were guerished [healed] and healed of whatsomever malady they had. And that same day the Holy Ghost showed so greatly his grace, that from the least unto the most, all believed in our Lord Jesu Christ. And there were baptized in seven days more than ten thousand persons of men, women, and children, and also Theophilus, the lord and provost of the city, to whom St. Peter had raised his son which had been fourteen years dead.

And some say that of his palace he made a church in the which all the people set up a chair for St. Peter to sit in more higher, for to preach the doctrine of Jesu Christ, and the better to be heard and seen. And of the exalting thus of St. Peter into this chair, this feast taketh the name of the chairing of St. Peter. And in this church was St. Peter seven years, and from thence he went to Rome and governed the church of Rome twenty-five years."

St. Peter Preaching (Masolino)

St. Peter Healing with his Shadow (Masaccio), Acts 5: 12-16: And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people. And they were all with one accord in Solomon's porch.
13 But of the rest no man durst join himself unto them; but the people magnified them.
14 And the multitude of men and women who believed in the Lord, was more increased:
15 Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that when Peter came, his shadow at the least, might overshadow any of them, and they might be delivered from their infirmities.
16 And there came also together to Jerusalem a multitude out of the neighboring cities, bringing sick persons, and such as were troubled with unclean spirits; who were all healed.


Distribution of Communal Goods and the Death of Ananias (Masaccio):

Acts 5: 1 But a certain man named Ananias, with Saphira his wife, sold a piece of land,
2 And by fraud kept back part of the price of the land, his wife being privy thereunto: and bringing a certain part of it, laid it at the feet of the apostles.
3 But Peter said: Ananias, why hath Satan tempted thy heart, that thou shouldst lie to the Holy Ghost and by fraud keep part of the price of the land?
4 Whilst it remained, did it not remain to thee? And after it was sold, was it not in thy power? Why hast thou conceived this thing in thy heart? Thou hast not lied to men, but to God.
5 And Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and gave up the ghost. And there came great fear upon all that heard it.
6 And the young men rising up, removed him, and carrying him out, buried him.
7 And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what had happened, came in.
8 And Peter said to her: Tell me, woman, whether you sold the land for so much? And she said: Yea, for so much.
9 And Peter said unto her: Why have you agreed together to tempt the spirit of the Lord? Behold the feet of them who have buried thy husband are at the door: and they shall carry thee out,
10 Immediately, she fell down before his feet and gave up the ghost. And the young men coming in found her dead: and carried her out and buried her by her husband.
11 And there came great fear upon the whole church and upon all that heard these things.
12 And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people. And they were all with one accord in Solomon's porch.

St. Peter Baptizing (Masaccio).

St. Peter Raising Tabitha and the Healing of the Lame:

Acts 9:36 And in Joppe there was a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did.
37 And it came to pass in those days that she was sick and died. Whom when they had washed, they laid her in an upper chamber.
38 And forasmuch as Lydda was nigh to Joppe, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent unto him two men, desiring him that he would not be slack to come unto them.
39 And Peter rising up went with them. And when he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber. And all the widows stood about him, weeping and shewing him the coats and garments which Dorcas made them.
40 And they all being put forth, Peter, kneeling down, prayed. And turning to the body, he said: Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes and, seeing Peter, sat up.
41 And giving her his hand, he lifted her up. And when he had called the saints and the widows, he presented her alive.
42 And it was made known throughout all Joppe. And many believed in the Lord.

Temptation of Adam and Eve (Masolino)

Crucifixion of St. Peter and Disputation with Simon Magus before the Emperor Nero(Filippino Lippi)

The story of Peter's debate with Simon Magus before the Emperor Nero and the account of St. Peter's Crucifixion upside down do not appear in the canonical texts of the New Testament. Both stories do appear in the most popular late Medieval compendium of Saints lives, The Golden Legend.

The frescoes of Filippino Lippi incorporate the heads of contemporary Florentines, including a self-portrait as the figure on the far right of the scene of the Disputation with Simon Magus. The head of the Emperor Nero in this fresco is clearly based on Roman images of the emperor as represented by the obverse of a coin:

St. Paul visiting St. Peter in Prison

(Filippino Lippi)

St. Peter released from Prison

(Filippino Lippi)

Acts 12: 1 AND at the same time, Herod the king stretched forth his hands, to afflict some of the church.
2 And he killed James, the brother of John, with the sword.
3 And seeing that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to take up Peter also. Now it was in the days of the Azymes.
4 And when he had apprehended him, he cast him into prison, delivering him to four files of soldiers to be kept, intending, after the pasch, to bring him forth to the people.
5 Peter therefore was kept in prison. But prayer was made without ceasing by the church unto God for him.
6 And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison.
7 And behold an angel of the Lord stood by him: and a light shined in the room: and he striking Peter on the side, raised him up, saying: Arise quickly. And the chains fell off from his hands.
8 And the angel said to him: Gird thyself, and put on thy sandals. And he did so. And he said to him: Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me.
9 And going out, he followed him, and he knew not that it was true which was done by the angel: but thought he saw a vision.

Donatello, Ascension of Christ and the Giving of the Keys to St. Peter, c. 1425-1430.

Listed in the Medici collection in 1492, this shallow now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was perhaps originally commissioned by the Brancacci family as a predella for their altar. The prominence of St. Peter in this relief and the close parallels to the work of Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel lend credence to this conclusion. Both Masaccio and Donatello worked in Pisa in 1426, and a bearded beggar in the Brancacci Chapel of St. Peter curing with his shadow has been identified as a portrait of Donatello. This relief perhaps entered the Medici collection in 1435 when the possessions of Felice Brancacci were confiscated when he was exiled.

Useful Links:

Visit to the Brancacci Chapel, Web Gallery of Art.

Cappella Brancacci, Christus Rex.

Art Home | ARTH Courses | ARTH 213 Assignments