Miracle of the snow

(c. 1423; Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte)
   In c. 1423, Masolino painted the Miracle of the Snow, also called the Founding of Santa Maria Maggiore, as the central scene of an altarpiece commissioned by Pope Martin V for the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, now dismantled. It depicts Pope Liberius tracing the plan for the church on the ground when a miraculous snowfall occurred in August that outlined the shape of the structure. Above, Christ and the Virgin, enclosed in a blue circle of heaven, oversee the miraculous event. Below them, the clouds that brought the snow diminish in size as they move deeper into the back-ground, while the arcade on the right is also rendered in perspective. For this, the painting represents a major breakthrough in the depiction of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. In the background, the pyramid of Gaius Cestius, the Aurelian walls, and other ancient landmarks situate the scene in Rome and assert the position of the pope as the heir to the emperors from antiquity. Giorgio Vasari wrote that Pope Liberius bears Martin's likeness, at his side Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund II who convoked the Council of Constance that elected Martin pope. The altarpiece's side panels are now in the National Gallery in London and the Philadelphia Museum and depict Sts. Jerome and John the Baptist (left) and John the Evangelist and Martin of Tours (right), respectively. The left panel is believed to have been executed by Masaccio who often collaborated with Masolino, as the saints are more massive and crude than the rest of the figures. A double-sided altarpiece, the central panel's verso depicts the Assumption of the Virgin with a foreshortened Christ welcoming her into heaven. On the reverse of the lateral panels are Sts. Peter and Paul (left) and Pope Liberius and St. Matthias (right), this last's relics housed at Santa Maria Maggiore. The Santa Maria Maggiore Altarpiece was commissioned at a time when Pope Martin V wished to rebuild the city of Rome after it had fallen in disrepair from the absence of the papal court during the Great Schism. The altarpiece therefore, marks a moment in history when pope and artist set in motion the forces that would eventually transform the papal city into the principal artistic center of the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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