April 10, 2020 – Roger W. Lowther
When you walk into the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, the above scene greets you from across the space. This fresco was made by Masaccio in 1427.
God the Father holds God the Son on the cross. God the Holy Spirit descends between the two like a white dove. On the left, the Virgin Mary gestures toward her son, drawing our eyes back to the middle. On the right, John the Apostle meditates on the scene. Below, a tomb and a skeleton are accompanied by an inscription in Italian. “I once was what you are and what I am you also will be.”
The cross and the tomb acknowledge our sin, but Jesus’ outstretched arms invite our embrace and offer forgiveness. God the Father presents this precious gift to us. This is the gospel. This is the throne of grace.
“Let us approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
The Holy Trinity invites us to come where he is, but we cannot. The painting depicts a three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional wall we cannot enter. In fact, Masaccio was the first to master depth and perspective in the Western world.
What is fascinating to me about this painting is why he made it. When commissioned, plagues raged through Europe. In fact, some scholars think the artist himself succumbed to it just the following year, at the young age of 26. This painting was one of his very last. I believe the plague led him to develop the technique of perspective in order to create a space free of infection. A shelter that can protect. A quarantine that is safe. Perspective enabled him to portray just such a space, while also helping give birth to the Renaissance.
“Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” (Psalm 91:1-7)
Plague and pestilence once again reign in Masaccio’s beloved Italy and the rest of the world. Everyone is in danger of catching and spreading this life-threatening disease. The gospel portrayed here is as urgent and relevant as ever. God can be our refuge. God has prepared our shelter. Jesus is the door to entering this space. All we have to do is accept the invitation and enter.
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