Masaccio and Jan van Eyck

One can explore the differences and similarities between Italian and northern Renaissance art by comparing the works of Masaccio (1401-1428) and Jan van Eyck (1390-1441). The achievement of Masaccio laid the foundations for the entire Quattrocento in a space of scarcely five years.’ (Wundrum, 1972). The humanism and emotion in Masaccio’s painting are his own achievement and is why he can justly be described as the first great painter of the Renaissance.

Masaccio’s painting in Sta Maria Novella (1426-27), known as The Trinity, see Figure 1, can be regarded as the benchmark of Renaissance painting and shows he was the first to exploit the new science of perspective (Hall, 1995). Known for its use of golden light and soft shadows the fresco uses full perspective in western art for the first time, but most significantly The Trinity is


Figure 1. The Trinity (1476).  In Santa Maria Novella, Florence.  Source: Public domain.

In this sacred scene Masaccio shows the patrons of the work smaller in scale and outside the illusionistic vault, and thus his “… scheme for setting apart the figure of the sponsor… actually initiated portraiture as a legitimate and independent branch of painting.’ (Zucker,1963). Masaccio’s The Trinity  was painted “…in twenty-four sections or, giomate, this depicts the mystery of the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (the dove). Masaccio is particularly renowned for his innovative use of perspective. But while it has often been assumed that the Trinity was painted with mathematical precision, recent investigation has shown that Masaccio was willing to compromise his calculations in order to achieve visual effects.” (Welch, 1997). Masaccio’s Trinity can be seen as the source of inspiration for Piero della Francesca (1420-1492) in that artist’s Brera Altarpiece, see Figure 2, painted circa 1475.


Figure 2The Brera Altarpiece (1475),  by Piero della Francesca. Source: public domain.

Of interest is the architectural background to the group. In the picture Piero creates a harmony between man and architecture where man is still a structural element in the picture of an ornate society… ‘ where he also “…captures at the same time the vibration of the sun’s rays which give substance to colour, through the movement of an anatomy which is itself vibrant.. (Busignani, 1968). Comparison of Masaccio’s Trinity with Jan van Eyck’s Madonna of Canon Georg van Paele (1436) will clarify differences in style between the Italian Early Renaissance and the new epoch in the north, see Figure 3.

Van paele

Figure 3.  Madonna of Canon Georgy van Paele (1436), by Jan van Eyck.  Source: public domain.

In his Madonna of Canon George van Paele Jan van Eyck (as with his Madonna of the Chancellor Bolin painted between 1434 and 1436 and now in the Louvre) attempts to achieve naturalism in every detail, see Figure 4.


Figure 4Madonna of Chancellor Brolin (1434-14366),  by Jan van Eyck.  Source: public domain.

All figures are on the same scale with no difference between the human and the divine and the unmitigated realism of the patron van der Paele’s portrait commands the centre of attention. Masaccio’s Trinity still contains the medieval concept that distance and subordination should separate the perfection of Jan van Eyck’s technique and style down to the smallest detail. The work is an example of his pursuit of flawless reality and dispassionate recording (Levey, M. 1994). Jan van Eyck’s spatial world was no less crisply constructed than that displayed by Giotto. In common with Giotto he anticipated the direction of naturalistic western painting styles and his patronage indicates he was highly esteemed by the Italians. Jan van Eyck, unlike the Italian early Renaissance painters, was intimate rather than epic. By being so he unwittingly created the interior as a respectable subject for pictures.

Summary and Conclusion

Early Italian Renaissance art represents a visual expression of changed concepts, expressing three strands, where (1) man as an individual was viewed as the centre of the universe and, (2) where man is studied by himself in portraits plus inclusion alongside the sacred in religious paintings, plus (3) his intellectual and humanist aspirations inspired by `…the rediscovery of antiquity, its mythology, literature, and philosophy, as well as its plastic arts…’ that       reopened rich sources of subjectmatter.’ (Zucker, 1963). Italian Renaissance artists began to describe the human body as interesting and beautiful in itself and set against natural backgrounds e.g. The Trinity by Masaccio. For the down-to-earth northern artists, unlike their Italian counterparts who aimed for the personification of an ideal ‘… man and even saints and divinities were all depicted in frank and intimate terms… (Zucker, 1963).

Italian early Renaissance art can be seen in terms of the esoteric in the sense that, despite its public display, it was an art for the initiated and a reflection of the humanistic background to its creation and patronage. Behind the art of early Italian Renaissance art their lies a philosophical foundation ultimately based upon the proximity of classical antiquity. Northern Renaissance art however is more exoteric in nature. It is exoteric in the sense that is ordinary, commonplace, and possessed of an intimate detailed preciousness reflecting the interests of a developing burgher class compared to the pomp of the mercantile elite of early Renaissance Italy.


All illustrations are from the public domain.

Busignani, A. Piero della Francesca. London. 1968.

Green, V.H.H. Renaissance and Reformation. London. 1952.

Hale, J.R. Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance. London. 1995.

Hall, J. A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art. London, 1995.

Harbison, C. The Art of the Northern Renaissance. London. 1995.

Haskell, F. History and its Images. New Haven. 1993.

Holmes, G. The Florentine Enlightenment, 1400-1450. Oxford. 1969.

Kristeller, P. 0. Renaissance Thought and its Sources. 1979.

Levey, M. A History of Western Art. London. 1974.

Levey, M. Guide to the National Gallery. London. 1967.

Martin, A. von. Sociology of the Renaissance. 1944. Cited in Green, V.H.H. 1952.

Murray, P & L. The Art of the Renaissance. London. 1995.

Schmitt, C. Contribution Platonism in Hale, J.R. 1995.

Welch, E. Art and Society in Italy 1350-1500. Oxford. 1997.

Wundrum, M. The Renaissance. London. 1972.

Wundrum, M. Paintings of the Renaissance. Cologne. 1997.

Zucker, P. Styles in Painting: a comparative study. New York. 1963.


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