The Renaissance is a widely recognized period in art history, and many artists from this time used stories and themes from the New Testament as inspiration for their work. A closer look at The Tribute Money, a fresco, by the Italian Renaissance painter known as Masaccio reveals how one specific artist interpreted a story from the Gospel of Matthew. By painting the scene in non-sequential order, Masaccio challenges both the viewer’s way of understanding artwork and knowledge of Matthew’s story of the tribute money.
Part of a cycle on the apostle Peter, Masaccio painted The Tribute Money in the Brancacci Chapel in the Santa Maria del Carmine cathedral. It was completed in the 1420s to reflect a scene in Matthew where Jesus and the disciples come to the town of Capernaum. There, they are asked by a tax collector to pay tribute money to the government. The tax collector asks Peter for the money, and the apostle questions Jesus about what to do. Jesus’ response forms the basis of the scenes in the painting:
“’From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others? When Peter said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.’” Matthew 17: 25-27
The fresco depicts this story in three parts. The center scene shows Jesus, in a pink tunic draped with a blue cloak, directing Peter, who is standing next to him in a blue tunic draped with an orange cloak. Jesus points to the left, in the direction of the sea. The scene on the left shows Peter taking the money out of the fish’s mouth. On the opposite, right-hand, corner of the painting, we see Peter handing over the money to the tax collector.
Masaccio’s technique is to show these three separate moments in the same image. This is known as a continuous narrative, and it’s not immediately apparent to the viewer because Masaccio also incorporated the use of one-point perspective in this fresco. What this means is that all of the lines in the painting come to one central point, which, in this case, is the top of Jesus’ head. Our eyes are drawn to the figure of Jesus before we can see that action is taking place in other parts of the painting.
Another significant choice the artist made was to portray the tax collector in clothing that differs from the rest of the figures in the artwork. We can pick out the tax collector because he is wearing a bright orange tunic, but another clue is that his clothing is much shorter than what Jesus and the apostles are wearing.
It also seems that Peter’s clothing is slightly different in the scene on the left than the rest of the painting. Some interpretations say that Peter is shown as a vibrant figure when he is with Jesus, but he is dull and diminutive by himself to highlight his connection with Jesus. It may signify that Peter will spread Jesus’ message on earth.
Due to complications in the restoration of The Tribute Money, it’s difficult to decipher which of the figures around Jesus represent specific disciples. The muddy colors and elements that have worn on the painting over time have left scholars unsure. It is believed, though, that John stands opposite from Peter on Jesus’ right side.
In the group of men to the left of the tax collector, art historians believe the figure with the darkest complexion represents Judas. He may have been painted darker than the others to connect him with his betrayal of Jesus in the gospels. Scholars also think that the figure two to the right of Judas is Masaccio himself represented as Thomas. However, it isn’t certain if the artist purposely included himself in the group of apostles surrounding Jesus in the painting’s central scene.
The story of the tribute money only occurs in Matthew’s Gospel, and its subject matter isn’t common in art history. Scholars have tried to figure out why Masaccio chose to depict this passage on the walls of the Brancacci chapel. Some think the scenes are a way of confirming the legitimacy of tax collection, and that this might be interpreted as a message the Florentine government wanted to send to the people.
At the time this fresco was completed, Florence was undergoing a controversial debate on tax reform. In 1427, government officials ended up instituting a tax register to improve the system of taxation in Florence. Masaccio may have been using a story from the Bible to support Florentine officials, the same people who would have financed his art.
I think this shows that taking a quick glance at the artwork found in cathedrals and historical churches isn’t enough. You could completely miss the sequence of events that are taking place in The Tribute Money if you didn’t take the time to study the painting. On top of that, some further thought reveals that the artwork in cathedrals can tell us about the history of the city and people of the time. This fresco probably wasn’t completed purely for religious reasons—it may have political undertones that reflect the city officials’ agenda. But by examining art with religious themes we can learn and better understand this history.
Image Source: http://history.hanover.edu/courses/art/mastrib.html
- Brooklyn Presta