The Baptism of the Neophytes, Fresco (1426-27), Masaccio, (1401-1428)

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Related post B Easter 6, Art for May 13, 2012

From a technical point of view, sculptors in ancient times met success more easily than painters. When Praxiteles carved stone, physical energy was expended but he was not faced with the challenge of creating an illusion of depth on a flat surface. His block of marble was a three dimensional physical reality existing in real space; it was only necessary to carve away the areas he didn’t want. Painters, on the other hand, worked usually on flat surfaces and if an effect of depth was desired, they would have to organize visual elements to create an illusion. Progress in that direction was seen in Roman wall paintings but medieval artists had other concerns and did not seem interested in pictorial space.

During the fourteenth century, as painters studied the work of the past, they gained insights into how effects of space could be achieved. Renaissance artists were the beneficiaries of several centuries of contributions; each leading to a resolution of a particular problem. By the time Masaccio was a young man in the early fifteenth century, scientific perspective had been demonstrated and other illusion-creating devices had been established. He understood them well and utilized them with greater success than any artist before his time. Although we are always aware of a painting’s surface, Masaccio treated it as a window; as though the surface were not there. He had the insights and requisite skills to create an illusion of depth through linear and atmospheric perspective and through gradations of colors and values. Along with depth, he used value changes to suggest light sources within the space he created.

In The Baptism of the Neophytes, Masaccio modeled Peter’s robe and defined the muscles of the neophytes (new converts to Christianity) through the use of light and shadow effects. Peter is closest to the picture plane and behind him are two figures believed to be sponsors; we interpret them as being behind Peter because they are blocked partially from our view. From experience we know objects that are farther away appear smaller in size; therefore, because of size differences and being higher in the picture plane, we interpret Masaccio’s neophytes as being farther from us. Masaccio also is aware that when objects are far away, textural details are not discernable and we are not able to determine color. Atmosphere causes values to become lighter; thus, the hills in the far distance are progressively lighter in tone. Before Masaccio’s time, painters had limited success in creating a sense of depth. Masaccio created pictorial space and made it all seem natural; unless we analyze how he did it we are not consciously aware of the illusionistic devices he used.

In the lower half of this fresco, Peter is baptizing a man by pouring water over him as he kneels in a stream. After we look at the baptism, our focus shifts to the waiting neophytes and we see their facial expressions and body language. Our eyes then progress from the left side to the right and we are guided back to the central foreground figure being baptized. In addition to a convincing depiction of a Biblical event, The Baptism of the Neophytes is a very balanced composition and the continuity of images keeps us engaged.

The Baptism of the Neophytes is among other frescos painted for the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, Italy. Masaccio worked with Masolino when painting began but then when Masolino left, the frescos became Masaccio’s responsibility. Masaccio went to Rome before the paintings in the Chapel were completed and died there at the age of twenty-seven. Artists who came after him were indebted greatly for what he taught them through his paintings. It is said the Brancacci Chapel is the birthplace of the Renaissance.

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© 2012 Hovak Najarian

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