Masaccio, the rediscovery of perspective in the Renaissance, and the possibilities of Islamic Reformation

One of the great early masterpieces of the Renaissance is the series of frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, executed by Masaccio and Masolino in around 1425.

Today we forget that the use of perspective in art was lost for more than a millenium, possibly rediscovered around the time of Giotto, a century before Masoccio, by artists trying to display the Euclidean structure of God’s creative process (Edgerton). So Masaccio created, not the flat paintings of the middle ages, but ones in which the solidity of Adam and Eve was unprecedented.

Many writings on the Renaissance deal with either the artistic or geopolitical sides. The artistic side traces the Renaissance’s stirrings to the classical interests of Dante and Petrarch, to the rediscovery of ancient Greek texts, and a desire to return ad fontes in learning and in art. Geopolitically, the Renaissance got a great boost from a great defeat, the fall of Constantinople to the Muslims in 1453, which resulted in a significant number of Greek scholars relocating to Florence, where in 1462 the Platonic Academy was opened in Florence under the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici.

The rediscovery of perspective is perhaps the best metaphor for the Renaissance. Masaccio used math given in ancient Greek texts to create the perspective of human vision in his frescoes. Nor was the power to create limited to art. The innovations of Florentine banking, the spread of knowledge through the invention of the printing press, and the fall of Christian Constantiople to Muslims with superior technology of cannon and gunpowder — these all empowered the Humanist persepctive, for good and for ill.

When we speak of the possibility of an Islamic Reformation today, we see parallels to the time of Reformation in the West. Martin Luther did not consider himself a Humanist, but rather sought to restore a more ideal Christianity from the past. Yet his legacy is one where the individual conscience is declared more important than a great institution.

Likewise, in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, millions wish only to vote as good Muslims. Yet, as the head-choppers correctly say, the very act of voting recognizes and validates the Humanist impulse. Ultimately, however, democracy is impossible before the Islamic Reformation.

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