Hulking Tom

Art - Ned Denny on the unprecedented stature of the painter who founded the Renaissance

Masaccio's Virgin and Child, part of the National Gallery's collection since 1916, seems far removed from conventional ideas of Renaissance beauty. The Virgin isn't the demure Tuscan girl implanted in our minds by Raphael and his countless imitators, but a vast, hulking, almost bovine figure. Her mantle, blue as one of Giotto's skies, covers her more in the manner of a sheet shrouding a statue than a garment hugging flesh. The Christ child is similarly huge, a preternaturally large baby growing even fatter on the dark grapes that the Virgin offers with her right hand. All these disturbances in your sense of size are taken to another level altogether by the throne on which they sit. A neoclassical construction resembling the facade of a church or temple, it makes you see this mother and child (subliminally, perhaps) as gigantesque figures on the scale of King Kong or Godzilla. The comparison is not entirely puerile, because they must have given 15th-century churchgoers a similar thrill of awe and fear as that imparted latterly by celluloid monsters.

The name Masaccio was rendered by Robert Browning as "hulking Tom", although it isn't clear whether this refers to the painter's own stature or that of his unprecedentedly weighty figures. Browning also calls him the "morning star" of the Renaissance, the great master whose frescoes at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to Michelangelo came to study and admire. What really begins in earnest with Masaccio is the evocation of figures in depth, the pursuit and perfection of which is the defining obsession of Renaissance art. More than any painter before him, even Giotto, Masaccio communicates a feeling of the sheer physical presence of bodies, of their weight pressing down on the earth. Others would do it with more elegance and more anatomical precision, but what they gained in technique they lost in significance.

Perhaps in part because these techniques were still tentative and unsure (or, at least, not yet slick), Masaccio's figures give a sense of the body slowly waking to consciousness of itself, as if after a long sleep. At the bottom of the aforementioned Virgin and Child panel are two angels playing lutes; the way that they appear projected towards us as if seated outside the frame, one lute pointing into and one out of the picture surface, still seems miraculous. We have physical bodies, Masaccio reminds us, and a three-dimensional world to move within. By thus returning man to himself, going beyond the stylised medieval forms that made of his body a mere pawn in the divine order, he in effect founds the Renaissance.

This achievement is all the more remarkable in view of the extreme brevity of his life. Masaccio was born on 21 December 1401 and died at the age of only 26 in June 1428. To celebrate the 600th anniversary of his birth, the National Gallery has reassembled the altarpiece for which the Virgin and Child panel provided the focal point. Undertaken in 1426 for the private burial chapel of a wealthy Pisan family (making Masaccio just 24 at the time), it was described admiringly by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists of 1568. When the church in which it was housed was remodelled towards the end of the 16th century, the altarpiece was dismantled and its numerous panels scattered and lost. Some of them have disappeared for good, but all the extant pieces have now been gathered - from museums in Berlin, Pisa, Los Angeles, Naples and Florence - and reunited for the first time in perhaps 400 years.

The second major surviving panel is the magnificent Crucifixion from Naples, which would have crowned the altarpiece high in the upper tier. The background - as with the National Gallery's panel - is the radiant gold ether inherited from medieval art, but the rounded forms of the figures herald something altogether new. Christ's body in particular, painted to be seen from far below, is so perfectly modelled that you feel you could reach out and lift it from the cross. Vasari recorded that images of several saints surrounded this top panel, of which only two have been recovered. Both these and the four smaller saints from the side columns show the wonderful subtlety with which Masaccio depicted draped cloth. The small saints are like a brief visual fugue, each arrangement of body and cloak a magical variation on the one before.

As a couple of low reliefs lent by the V&A demonstrate, Masaccio's sculptural paintings were almost certainly influenced by the work of his contemporary Donatello. But look closely at The Adoration of the Magi from the altarpiece's base to see something that no sculptor, however great, could ever give form to. The first king kneels to kiss Christ's foot, a halo of fine white hairs crowning his outstretched head and flowing downwards in the form of the beard. His curiously large eye stares straight forward, embedded in the face like a sentient jewel and as alive as the day it was painted.

"Masaccio: the Pisa altarpiece" is at the National Gallery (020 7747 5950) until 11 November

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, What would you do?