Masaccio and Masolino's St. Anna Metterza: two eras that meet in one table

The St. Anne Metterza, preserved in the Uffizi, is a work made together by Masaccio and Masolino: a cornerstone of Italian art history, it is a painting that encapsulates the meeting (and the gap) between two eras.

It is difficult to find an art history textbook that does not reproduce the Sant’Anna Metterza, the Uffizi panel painting created, around 1424, by Masaccio together with Masolino da Panicale. And rare, too, are the works that can rival the charm of the Saint Anne Metterza: to stand before this cornerstone of Italian artistic events is tantamount to observing a historical passage in its unfolding, to witnessing a fundamental watershed, the meeting of two epochs, allows us to admire simultaneously, within the edges of the panel, the results of Masaccio’s revolution and the reactions to the novelties that that very young provincial born in San Giovanni Valdarno, and thus Masolino’s countryman, had brought to painting in the early fifteenth century. Masaccio dealt with the Madonna, the Child and the angel in the upper right-hand corner, the one with the green dress changing to red, while St. Anne, that is, the hierarchically most important, as can be seen from the larger size of the nimbus, mother of the Virgin and grandmother of Christ, “placed third” (“mi è terza” would have been said in the Tuscan vernacular of the time: hence, the nickname of the panel), fell to the older and more experienced artist, who also painted the other four angels.

Yet, the experience and age difference of eighteen years lose significance in the face of the unbridgeable gap that distances Masolino from Masaccio: it was the generational gap that kept apart a young man who had matured a whole new sense of volumes and the construction of bodies, and a forty-year-old who had trained in the bed of tradition, but who was nonetheless convinced that old painting could open up to the new, and that tradition would manage to revive itself by welcoming the impetuosity of modernity. Giuliano Briganti, in describing this work, thus imagined a Masolino who had not closed himself off from Masaccio, but rather tried to keep up with him, trying to give the face of St. Anne “a certain sculpturality, a certain severity,” without succeeding, however, and turning out to be clumsy and heavy, on the contrary: simply, because they were two completely different ways of understanding spatiality. Masolino, Longhi wrote already in his youthful Breve ma veridica storia della pittura italiana, was “the fruit of a Sienese seed that fell by chance on Florentine soil.” Masaccio, on the other hand, was a resurrected Giotto, to use a well-known expression of Berenson’s. A Giotto reborn, a painter firmly convinced, like Giotto, that the world exists and has its own plastic evidence. Masolino, on the contrary, had been formed according to an entirely different culture, and consequently, in this panel, he cannot but be “Masaccesque by condescension,” as Longhi happily remarked in his fundamental Fatti di Masolino e di Masaccio: he almost seems to want to chase after his young colleague, he seems to “beg Masaccio to stop, to let go.” So much so that, having ended his collaboration with him, Masolino would stop trying to follow him and return to his elegant, flowery, essentially Gothic language.

To better explicate the scope of Masaccio’s revolution, Argan had to write that, in St. Anne Metterza, his Madonna has the volume and even the “ogival profile” of Brunelleschi’s dome, whose construction began on August 7, 1420: “it fits into the figure of St. Anne exactly as Brunelleschi’s dome fits into the dimensional spatiality of the 14th-century naves,” the art historian tried to explain. “And, like the dome, it constitutes at the center of the picture a powerful plastic nucleus, which reabsorbs and ’proportions’ on its own axis everything else.” And Longhi himself, to whom we owe the merit (again in the aforementioned Facts ) of having distinguished in the panel the hands of the two painters by bringing all the critics into agreement, was convinced that the spatial logic of the Sant’Anna Metterza accorded with Brunelleschi’s modern logic: and this is not, of course, an episodic occurrence in the art of the young Valdarno artist, who we assume had direct contact with Brunelleschi. It is as if Masaccio had inscribed the Madonna in a kind of visual pyramid, within a system in which even color, Ragghianti noted, becomes the protagonist of the perspective and compositional structure, as if the colors had the task of making evident the’organization of the perspective construction concealed from the eyes of the viewer, with the blue of St. Anne’s tunic constituting the apex of the pyramid constituted by Mary’s cloak, and vice versa with the red of Mary’s tunic rampant in the luminous red of her mother’s robe.

Masaccio e Masolino da Panicale, Sant'Anna, la Madonna col Bambino e cinque angeli o Sant'Anna Metterza (1424-1425 circa; tempera su tavola, 175 x 103 cm; Firenze, Galleria degli Uffizi, inv. 1890 n. 8386)
Masaccio and Masolino da Panicale, Saint Anne, the Madonna and Child and Five Angels or Saint Anne Metterza (c. 1424-1425; tempera on panel, 175 x 103 cm; Florence, Uffizi Gallery, inv. 1890 no. 8386)

Observe, at this point, Masaccio’s Madonna and Child. The face is presented to us as a full oval that abandons the elongated proportions typical of earlier painting, her body is modeled with a new plastic sense, occupying a real space, her neck is firm in its obvious muscular vigor emerging from the tensed tendons, her legs can be seen beneath the heavy cloth robe that covers them, and the light, real, leaves Jesus’ face almost entirely in shadow. And the Child himself is a kind of miniature Hercules, with his sculpted, monumental body, a manifest reminder of some classical sculpture that Masaccio must have admired and studied: that strength of limbs is an allegory of the strength of faith. Masolino tried, in turn, not to give way, and tried to give evidence of sculpturality to the face of St. Anne, but it came out woody (wanting to use an adjective used by Briganti), he ended up creating a body devoid of relief, which seems almost like a backdrop, rather than a figure occupying a space together with the others. Longhi again: “an accommodation little less than inconvenient” for Masolino, who was forced to lodge the Saint Anne “at worst in the background.” It is, moreover, widely agreed that Masaccio began painting the panel first, “with undeniable overbearingness, and without regard to the primitive indications,” Longhi suggests, “leaving then for the elder to make do with the remaining space.” Similarly, the artist from Panicale tried to be credible in the perspective of the right hand making the gesture of protection over the Child Jesus, but even in this detail he did not achieve happy outcomes. And wanting to compare the two artists vis-à-vis in a direct comparison on the same type of figure, let us admire the two holding angels above, the one on the right painted by Masaccio and the one on the left by Masolino. Masaccio’s one emerges from the background, has its neck firmly and credibly attached to the torso, has the robe that wraps around its body, emphasizing its proportions with a strong and skillful chiaroscuro that accentuates the third dimension: conversely, Masolino’s angel is a gracefully late Gothic creature.

We know that Masaccio and Masolino’s altarpiece, moreover the first fruit of their collaboration, was destined for the church of Sant’Ambrogio in Florence, where it was to decorate the “chapel that is allato alla porta che va al parlatorio delle monache,” Vasari wrote, and we know, thanks to the archival findings ofarchives of the scholar Alessandro Cecchi, that the commissioner of the painting was one Nofri del Brutto Buonamici, by profession a weaver of silk cloth, deeply devoted to the Virgin and holder of the patronage of the chapel of St. Anne in the Florentine church. The St. Anne Metterza, though not customary, was not a new iconography for the Florentines, who were deeply devoted to the Virgin’s mother, who was also the patron saint of civil liberties in Florence: it was during her feast day, July 26, that in 1343 the Florentines drove out the Duke of Athens, Gualtieri VI of Brienne, regaining their lost communal liberties. But the idea of depicting the female genealogy of Christ could also be connected to the fact that the church of St. Ambrose was connected to a convent of Benedictine nuns: thus, wrote Timothy Verdon, author of an interesting iconographic reading of the St. Anne Metterza, “the child is placed in front of the womb of his mother, Mary, who then sits between the legs of his mother, St. Anne: a body that is born from another body, the life of God coming from our history, born from our collective flesh, to become true ’Son of Man.’” Even the gesture of Mary, who holds the child in her hands with the gesture of a “housewife who working the dough makes bread,” in turn, however, guided by Jesus who places his hand on his mother’s, suggests not only theidea that the work was probably meant to be placed above the altar on which the Eucharistic sacrament was celebrated, but perhaps also the perception, more or less consciously, of giving form to the first verse of Canto XXXIII of Dante’s Paradise : “Virgin Mother, daughter of thy son.” And there is no reason to doubt that Masaccio, even on other occasions, meditated on the Comedy.

If you enjoyed this article, read the previous ones in the same series: Gabriele Bella’s The Concert; Plinio Nomellini’s The Red Nymph;Guercino’s Apparition ofChrist to His Mother; Titian’s Magdalene; Vittorio Zecchin’sA Thousand and One Nights; Lorenzo Lotto’sTransfiguration; Jacopo Vignali’sTobias and the Angel; Luigi Russolo’sPerfume; Antonio Fontanesi’sNovembre; Cosmè Tura’s St. Maurelius Roundels; Simone dei Crocifissi’s Madonna and Child and Angels; Francesco Gioli’sScales at the Mouth of the Arno; Pellizza da Volpedo’sMirror of Life; and Elisabetta Sirani’sGalatea.

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