Masaccio, Trinity, 1427
The vanishing point is always located on the horizon line, and the horizon line is usually set in the middle of
the painting. This placement of vanishing point and horizon line makes the figures within the painting seem
to be standing on the same level as the viewer. (If the horizon line is high, we seem to look down on the
scene; if it is low, we feel as though we are looking up from the floor.) When all the figures stand on the
same ground plane, all their heads are also at about the same height, so it is no longer possible to show the
most important figures by setting them higher in the painting.
For example, in Masaccio’s Tribute Money, the story of St. Peter asking Christ if he needs to pay the temple
tax is illustrated in three episodes. Christ is not distinguished by being shown larger or set higher in the
composition, but the perspective construction itself calls our attention to him. The vanishing point is in the
center of the composition, at Christ’s head. The lines of the building at the right create a convincing three-
dimensional form, but they also point to Jesus. In the fresco, Masaccio also used other means to enhance
the illusion of three-dimensional space. His figures cast shadows, indicating a source of light off to the right.
Each of the figures is carefully modeled so that shadows and highlights create a sense of solidity—this
modeling is called chiaroscuro. Masaccio also used atmospheric perspective, a spatial effect created by
making objects in the distance hazier and less distinct, as if a layer of atmosphere comes between the object
and the viewer. You can see the hazy effect exhibited in the Tribute Money by observing the distant
mountains and trees on the painting’s left side.
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