Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker provide a description, historical perspective, and analysis of Masaccio’s The Tribute Money.
Masaccio, The Tribute Money, 1427, fresco, 247 cm × 597 cm (97.2 in × 235 in), (Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence).
The Tribute Money is one of many frescos painted by Masaccio (and a lesser artist Masolino) in the Brancacci chapel. All of the frescos tell the story of the life of St. Peter (considered to be the first Pope). The story of the Tribute Money is told in three separate scenes within the same fresco. This way of telling an entire story in one painting is called a continuous narrative.
A Story Unfolds
In this fresco, a Roman tax collector (in a short orange tunic and no halo) demands tax money from Christ and the twelve apostles who don’t have the money to pay. Christ (centrally located, wearing a pink robe gathered in at the waist, with a blue toga-like wrap) points to the left, and says to Peter “so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” Christ has performed a miracle by making the money needed to pay the tax collector appear in the mouth of a fish. These two things are shown in the same image,even though they happen at different moments. Thus, in the center of the fresco (scene 1), we see the tax collector demanding the money, and Christ instructing Peter. On the far left (scene 2), we see Peter kneeling down and removing money from the mouth of a fish, and on the far right (scene 3), St. Peter pays the tax collector.
In the fresco, the tax collector appears twice, and St. Peter appears three times (you can find them easily if you look for their clothing).
We are so used to one moment appearing in one frame (think of a comic book, for example) that the unfolding of the story within one image (and out of order!) seems very strange to us. But with this technique, which was also used by the ancient Romans, Masaccio is able to make an entire drama unfold on the wall of the Brancacci chapel.
In the central, first scene, the tax collector points down with his right hand, and holds his left palm open, impatiently insisting on the money from Christ and the apostles. He stands with his back to us, which creates the illusion of three dimensional space in the image. Like Donatello’s St. Mark from Orsanmichele in Florence, he stands naturally, in contrapposto, with his weight on his left leg, and his right knee bent. The apostles (Christ’s followers) look worried and anxiously watch to see what will happen. St. Peter (wearing a large deep orange colored toga draped over a blue shirt) is confused, as he seems to be questioning Christ and pointing over to the river, but he also looks like he is willing to believe Christ.
The gestures really help to tell the story. Peter seems confused. Christ is saying, go to the lake and get the money from the mouth of a fish to pay the tax collector, and Peter looks like he is in total disbelief.
And the tax collector looks upset. He stands in contrapposto and seems to say, “look, no special deals for you guys. You have to pay your taxes right now.” He has his back turned to us (which helps to create an illusion of space) and you can see his mouth open and palm out, like he wants the money!
Only Christ is completely calm because he is performing a miracle.
Look down at the feet—how the light travels through the figures, and is stopped when it encounters the figures, and so the figures cast shadows (do you see them there on the ground?).
Masaccio is the first artist since classical antiquity to paint cast shadows. What that does is make the fresco so much more real—it is like the figures are really standing out in a landscape, with the light coming from one direction, and the sun in the sky, hitting all the figures from the same side and casting shadows on the ground. For the first time, there is almost a sense of weather!