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  • Terry Glaspey

Lenten Journey with Art #3

Masaccio, The Holy Trinity, c. 1426

Masaccio’s fresco of the crucifixion was created for the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, and completed about 1426. One of his last works before his premature death, it is a marvel of the newly developing science of perspective. Note how he creates an illusion of depth by the receding lines of the dome above where Jesus hangs on the cross. It is even more striking if you can see it not as an illustration in a blog post, but in its place on the west wall of that church, appearing almost as though it is an alcove. But what is most powerful about this work by Masaccio is not its effective attempt to create three dimensions, but the impact of its message: a theologically rich mediation on the mystery of what happened at the cross. Here Jesus is not hanging alone on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. Instead, we witness the participation of all three members of the Trinity. The Father is not being placated to appease His wrath. Rather, His arms stretch out wide like those of His Son on the cross. He appears to be both offering support to His crucified Son and offering Jesus to the viewer. This is a gift which costs something to both the Son and the Father. But it is a sacrifice which is given willingly—a gift to you and me. As 2 Corinthians 5:18 speaks of the gift of salvation: “All this this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” This transaction of grace is taking place within the Godhead. It would be easy to overlook the Holy Spirit, who Masaccio cleverly places directly between the Father and the Son, just an outline of spread white wings that also serves as part of the garment worn beneath the Father’s robe. As Jesus hangs on the cross, the Father is there with Him in an intimate moment of caring, and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. The Holy Trinity is working in concerted action on our behalf. Mary, on the left side of the composition, gazes out toward us, as though trying to make eye contact, and her hand gestures in a way that invites us into the scene. “This is for you,” she seems to be saying, and she is portrayed not as the beautiful virgin queen, but movingly as the grieving mother of our Lord. On the right side is John the Evangelist, who gazes prayerfully upward toward the cross. This cluster of biblical figures is flanked right and left by the painting’s donors. In this striking work of art, Masaccio seems to be inviting the viewer to be present within the painting, to enter into the open middle space in the image and into the divine drama that is taking place there. What we are witnessing is not just a gift given at a particular moment in time, but a gift of sacrificial divine love for all time, and for everyone. How we respond is up to us—will we find our place in the drama at the foot of the cross?

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Jul 22, 2021

Thanks for this! I'm just "wondering" about the role of the Spirit - do you think the artist sees that 'presence' as subtle, for want of a better word? It certainly seems to me that (I'll use 'his' - darned political correctness) his presence is that, and more. I (perhaps my not-so-artistic mind) might have missed the representation.

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