A Blending of the Sacred and Secular

Brancacci Chapel at Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

When I first encountered the frescoes depicting the life of Saint Peter by Masaccio and Masolino in the Brancacci Chapel, still in their grimy state in the dank, dimly lit church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, they were not on any tourist’s must-see list. I sat spellbound for about an hour, during which time I encountered no other living soul. Since then—especially after the late 1980s, when the chapel was reopened to the public with cleaned paintings and modern (over)lighting—their fame has renewed, which has lured crowds and inspired further scholarship. The newest and probably the most beautiful book on the topic is Painted Glories by historian Nicholas Eckstein.

Eckstein begins by introducing Felice Brancacci, who in the 1420s initiated the fresco program in his family chapel, the building of which was initiated in the 1360s by his great-great-uncle Felipe. Eckstein then discusses the history of the Carmelites, the order that controls the church. Chapter 1 includes the history of the church building and how the people in the fifteenth century used it, especially the confraternity that was headquartered there. Eckstein discusses the complex web of social, political, and religious interactions between the laity and clergy, reminding the reader of a blending of the sacred and secular worlds that no longer exists and painting a far livelier picture of the church than I first encountered. Chapter 2 examines the collaborative workshop practices of the artistic community and the interactions between the artists and the Carmelites.

Only one chapter of the five in Painted Glories specifically addresses the fresco cycle. Otherwise, the author concentrates on the circumstances surrounding the paintings, which, like the vague title, could apply to much Florentine painting between 1420 and 1490. Chapter 3 introduces the narrative and notes some of the formal qualities of the frescoes. Eckstein cites Scripture, Jacobus Voragine’s Golden Legend, and prayers as suggested sources for individual segments, but fails to address the whole as the late Andrew Ladis did in his fine books (1993 and 2001). Much of Eckstein’s scholarship echoes that of the superb but infrequently cited Cambridge Companion to Masaccio, edited by Diane Ahl (2002). In fact, the clear organization and vibrant prose of Ladis and Ahl and her collaborators shed far more light on the fresco program than Eckstein does.

From chapter 3 forward, Eckstein moves in an increasingly speculative direction. He suggests which Carmelite theologian might have masterminded the program and likens the paintings to a “visual sermon” but fails to tie them to any rhetorical or liturgical structure. He ventures to reconstruct how the laity might have regarded the frescoes and intertwines the narrative with community activities that the paintings could reflect. For him, the vague themes of social responsibility, forgiveness, and redemption emerge as the controlling ideas behind the frescoes. Otherwise, Eckstein sees the frescoes as primarily driven by civic and political ideals.

The paintings were left unfinished for seventy years, partly due to Masaccio’s death in 1428. Thus, in chapter 4 Eckstein shifts his focus to the Madonna del Popolo (the thirteenth-century icon moved into the chapel around 1460) and the widows and Carmelite tertiaries who revered it. In his final chapter, Eckstein takes a political approach as he integrates the impact he perceives the Battle of Anghiari had on the completion of the fresco program. The Florentines, who overcame Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan against great odds, attributed their victory to the miraculous intervention of Saint Peter, as it happened on the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul—June 29, 1440. Eckstein attributes to this victory the impetus for hiring Carmelite painter Filippino Lippi to finish the major Florentine chapel dedicated to Saint Peter. He concludes by discussing Filippino’s contributions to the fresco cycle and the differences made by the intervening years.

In short, Painted Glories exceeds its predecessors in its beautiful layout and large color photographs but leaves the structure, religious iconography, and interpretation of the frescoes open ended. Although the cleaning of the frescoes revealed much about the process and clarified some of the interpretation, Eckstein gives virtually no attention to how science has enhanced the understanding of these paintings. While he gives a thorough and multifaceted context for the chapel, never does Eckstein convince the reader why artists such as Michelangelo, who made drawings of figures in the paintings, or generations of art historians, including myself, have found the paintings so compelling.

Sara Nair James is professor of art history at Mary Baldwin College, where she specializes in Italian Renaissance art history, religious iconography, and Renaissance studies. She has authored two books: Signorelli and Fra Angelico: Liturgy, Poetry, and a Vision of the End Time (Ashgate, 2002) and Art in England from the Saxons through the Tudors: 600–1603, currently in press at Oxbow Publishing.