Giotto (1266 – 1337) laid the foundations of Renaissance painting, establishing precedents that filtered down through Renaissance art and found development and expansion in the work of Masaccio (1401 – 1428). Both Giotto and Masaccio were true giants of the Renaissance — and therefore stand at the forefront of all artistic expression; both masterfully depicted scenes of deep emotion and lasting impact. To our modern eye, Masaccio’s work may seem more “advanced” and thus “better,” but it is Giotto who often touches the soul in a way characteristic of truly great art.
Comparing their work affords a valuable glimpse not only into the world of Renaissance art, but also into the roots of artistic sensibilities that persist to this day. Their approaches to narrative depiction touch on universal issues of aesthetic understanding and highlight the tension inherent in trying to depict the transcendent.
The most immediate similarity between Giotto and Masaccio is the way in which they depict their subject matter: both relate their paintings in a narrative way — the viewer becomes part of the scene, a participant watching Jesus being placed in the tomb or a bystander observing the disciples enter Jerusalem with Christ. Both artists invite us into the story they’re telling, encouraging mental participation and emotional engagement with the events unfolding before our eyes. These are not static depictions, they are living retellings of powerful stories.
But Masaccio is not content with the limited range of Giotto’s figures — he develops their three-dimensionality and sense of movement and, more importantly, their facial expressions, so that Mary’s tearful gaze in Giotto becomes Eve’s cry of anguish for Masaccio. Masaccio’s expressions of emotion are a significant step forward from the seemingly stilted renderings of Giotto, though they are clearly indebted to that earlier school. Masaccio not only invites us into the narrative, he also invites into the emotional lives of his figures, allowing us to witness the unfolding of events and the inner lives of the characters, and in doing so to empathize with, and perhaps even experience, their joy and their grief.
Masaccio also expands upon Giotto’s use of color and light. For Masaccio, color rather than line becomes the primary means of representation. Though he retains the pure, clean tones of Giotto he uses them in a more convincing manner to accurately represent the folds of drapery and the shape of human forms. No longer does cloth seem sculpted out of stone, stiffly molded around amorphous figures; it now softly bends and flows with human movement. Masaccio’s figures display musculature and articulation and a range of human expression largely lacking in Giotto’s earlier work. Using light and shadow, color and shading, space and form, he creates environments that are not mere symbolic representations, not simply icons hinting at reality, but instead pushes ahead, seeking to truly capture the physical reality he is painting. Giotto’s carefully crafted tableaux made reference to the physical world, but fell far short of Masaccio’s engagement with the substance and space of nature.
That increased focus on realism is most notable in Masaccio’s dramatic use of perspective. Whereas in Giotto’s work linear perspective was essentially an awkward afterthought, Masaccio made full use of perspective, using it to dramatic and symbolic effect, such as in his depiction of the Trinity. This is a work Giotto could never have made, not only because of the radical depth of perspective, but also because of the way in which the Trinity inhabit the space: they are placed within the confines of the church, incorporated into the setting in a manner entirely foreign to Giotto.
But, while Masaccio’s work is in many ways a step forward, his technical prowess lacks Giotto’s simple beauty and subtle expression. Masaccio’s Adam and Eve, though powerful depictions, leave little to the imagination, both physically and emotionally. Through continued development of perspective, understanding of the human form, and broader range of light and space, Masaccio’s paintings become more physically realistic, but in doing so necessarily forego the traces of Medieval symbolism and the almost naive honesty that is characteristic of Giotto’s finest work.
This trend of sacrificing deeper meaning in favor of superficial emotion and ever greater technical advancement persists in creative expression to this day, continuing to poison the artistic waters, whether in painting, film, music or writing. We are impatiently insatiable in our desire to be wowed and shocked and entertained and our consumption of such fleeting experiences demands ever greater artistic sacrifice.
This is not to say that Masaccio’s works are nothing but trite novelties devoid of meaning — to the contrary, they are significant statements of enormous artistic import. But in the development of his work within, and ultimately beyond, the tradition of Giotto, we glimpse the seeds of the cancerous desire for advancement and see, if not with our eyes, then with our hearts, the loss of a deep and pure and true innocence. Eve’s cry of anguish may be for their banishment from paradise, but it is also our cry — humanity’s cry — of despair over the inexorable loss of undefiled truth and our futile attempts to grasp a beauty that remains forever beyond our reach.