Art such as The Holy Trinity often revealed the metaphysical truths which flow through the artist from the timeless source of all human wisdom. The fresco above the altar in the north aisle of the church of San Maria Novella in Florence embodies several of these truths. Painted by Masaccio (1401-1428), who probably died the year it was completed at the age of 27, it is an “unmatched and magisterial statement of the fundamental principles of the early Renaissance.”[i] Our thesis in this essay, of course, is that the fresco is also a revelation of much more than fundamental principles of art.
Among the principles upon which any profound worldview must rest are those of impermanence, suffering, and the illusion of a separate self. This fresco also marks a paradigm shift away from the conventional religious worldview which is another requirement if humanity is to access the deeper wisdom of the process of Self-realization. The viewer’s eye starts at the top of the fresco with the halo above the head of God, flowing past the agonizingly realistic body of the crucified Christ, to the resigned and pensive figures of the Virgin and St. John. This stunning work of art pulls the descending eye to the skeleton lying at the base of the altar. The translation of the Italian inscription reads: “I was once that which you are; and that which I am you will become.” Never was the reality of impermanence so forcefully and tersely delivered.
The wound is the place where the light enters you.
For two millennia, the most eloquent and universal icon of human suffering has been Jesus on the cross. And yet ironically, humanity has little understanding of the meaning of suffering. First, it is literally necessary for human progress. Evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris holds that stress (suffering) is necessary for evolution. Next to the gospel (the “good news”), the most powerful teaching of Jesus was that suffering is transformational. The poet Keats saw suffering as a teacher. “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? Call the world if you please ‘The vale of Soul-making.”[ii] The mystic Eckhart Tolle confirms that suffering “teaches.” “There is no one on the planet that does not have a teacher. For 95% of the population it is suffering.”[iii]
Jesus did not die for our sins (sins = self-imposed nonsense) because we have not sinned and need no redemption. The idea of original sin came centuries after Jesus in the neurotic and guilt-ridden consciousness of St. Augustine. Jesus taught that we are powerful beings who are capable of doing all that he did and more. Jesus’ moment of death with the piercing of his side is symbolic of our own transformational wounds. As the playwright Thornton Wilder said, “Without your wounds where would your power be?” Our wounds in life are the heart of the transformational process that bespeaks of the presence of the Divine.
“Specifically invited into the picture by the Virgin’s direct gaze and beckoning hand, the beholder becomes involved in the illusion.”[iv] The illusion that the critic speaks of here is the artistic and psychological illusion of a three-dimensional scene. The deeper illusion is that the events depicted exist in some other time and place and that we are not personally involved in the long-ago tragedy. In reality, the events depicted are timeless and are archetypal representations of our own present lives. All of Creation is interconnected and interdependent and can be summed up in the single word Oneness. Masaccio through the skillful depiction of a dramatic scene with eloquent forms points to a world beyond form and ego.
“Masaccio suggests that its mystery is not only a matter of faith but is also penetrable by human reason.”[v] Masaccio transcends religion with this work by setting the scene of the crucifixion against the background of classical Corinthian pilasters and with mathematically precise perspective. He enters the humanistic Renaissance and leaves the church in its Gothic past. He exalts human reason by suggesting that the Church is no longer the sole interpreter of the mystery of the Christian Passion.
“By his use of perspective, Masaccio anticipates the argument of Nicholas of Cusa, cleric, mystic, geometer and astronomer, that mathematics is the most certain of the sciences, a reflection on earth of the heavenly light. The truths of mathematics are not subject to change; neither individual death nor the fall of empires can affect them; natural laws are the reflection or symbols of eternal laws, and it is within their logic that Masaccio’s masterpiece is constructed.”[vi] Obviously, the “shift” that Masaccio’s fresco has suggested is an historical or evolutionary shift but in spirit it foreshadows the shift in consciousness that is the first step in Self-realization.
[i] Piper, David. The Illustrated History of Art. Octopus Publishing Group, London. 1986, page 104.
[ii] Moore, Thomas. Dark Nights of the Soul. New York: Gotham. 2004, page 29.
[iii] Bertrand, Michael. “The Power of Now.” September 30, 2002. An interview with Eckhart Tolle by Michael Bertrand. http://members.surfeu.fi/wpk/links/Tolle/focus.htm
[iv] Piper, op. cit., page 104.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.