Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca

The Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca (c.1460)

My Daily Art Display today has me in a quandary.  When I choose a painting for the day I have to spend a number of hours researching the artist, the painting and the subject of the painting and then try and collate all I have discovered into a meaningful and yet not too verbose blog.  Sometimes I struggle to find the information I need from the hundreds of art books I have hoarded, the internet and the local library.  On other occasions, like today, I was overwhelmed by the vast amount of information there was with regards the work of art and now I have the difficult task of trying to filter out what I don’t need.  In this case, I also have to contend with the many varied and conflicting interpretations of what we are actually looking at.  The one thing which is common to all that I have read about the work of art is the praise upon praise which has been heaped on it and yet when I look at it, I struggle to appreciate or understand its so-called “greatness”.  However I will let you decide and if you want to comment and tell me that like Kenneth Clarke, the art historian, who declared it to be the “Greatest Small Painting in the World”,  you also believe it to be one of the greatest paintings of all time, then tell me why you think that.

Before I talk about the painting, let me first look at the life of this Early Renaissance painter and mathematician, Piero della Francesca.   Yes, you read that correctly – mathematician, for as well as being a revered painter, he is now looked upon as the greatest mathematician of the 1400’s.   Piero was born in 1415 in the town of Borgo Santo Sepolcro, now Sansepolcro, eighty kilometres east of Florence.  His father Benedetto de’ Franceschi was a tradesman and his mother was Romana di Perino da Monterchi.  At an early age he began his artistic apprenticeship and at the age of fourteen he and another apprentice, Domenico Veneziano worked on frescoes for the Sant’ Egidio Church in Florence.  It was during this time spent in Florence that Piero would have probably come into contact with the great Florentine artists of the time such as Fra Angelico, Mantegna and the architect, Brunelleschi.

Records show that Piero had returned home to San Sepolcro by 1442 and three years later had received a large commission from the Compagnia della Misericordia, a confraternity of Borgo San Sepolcro, for a polyptych as an altarpiece for the local church, Church of the Misericordia,.  The confratentiy had asked Piero to complete the work in three years, setting the anticipated completion date as 1445.  Piero however did not feel constrained by this suggested timeline and any way he had many other projects on the go at the time and in the end did not complete the altarpiece until 1462, some seventeen years late!

Piero della Francesca travelled widely around Italy completing commissions for frescoes including some papal work in Rome.  At the age of fifty-four he moved to Urbino, where for almost the next twenty years he worked for Count Federico III da Montefeltro, the Lord of Urbino (see My Daily Art Display for March 23rd).  It was during his stay at Urbino that he completed today’s featured work, The Flagellation of Christ, somewhere between 1455 and 1460. 

In his later years, around 1482, Piero della Francesca was living in Rimini where he had a studio.  As he grew older he had given up painting, the artist biographer Vasari put this down to his failing eyesight but this has since been contradicted because it is known that he wrote and completed a mathematical treatise in 1485, when he was seventy years of age.  It could be that his love of mathematics had overtaken his love of painting.  He died in 1492, aged seventy seven at his home in San Sepolcro.

 The Flagellation of Christ is an oil on panel painting and one of the most famous paintings completed by Piero della Francesca.  It is one he painted during his first visit to Urbino.  Look closely at the painting.  The setting is the portico of Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem.  Are we looking at one scene divided into an outdoor and indoor location or are the two scenes we observe, depictions of two different times?    The latter is a popular theory.  It is generally agreed that the inner depiction of the flagellation is set at the time of Christ but the outdoor setting in the right foreground, with the three men, is set in the fifteenth century.  One pictorial argument favouring the time separation of the two scenes is that the background scene is illuminated from the right whilst the outdoor scene with the three men is illuminated from the left.

The whole scene is dominated by architecture with a stunning use of perspective which adds a sense of realism and manages to draw our eyes towards the small figure of Christ despite the fact that the actual flagellation takes place in an open gallery in the middle ground of the work.   Also in the flagellation scene, we have Pontius Pilate seated on the left and possibly King Herod with his back to us.   In the foreground on the right hand side we see three figures, who appear not to be paying any attention to what is happening behind them. So who are all the various people featured in the painting?  It would be great if there was a clear cut answer to that question but different experts have different ideas and so I had better offer you a few alternatives and let you pick which one sounds the most probable to you.

One theory put forward about the reason for the commissioning of this work is that that the painting was an attempt to favour the reconciliation between the two Christian churches, of the East and of the West, because of an impending attack by the Turks on Constantinople. Both the presence of the character in the centre, dressed after Greek fashion, and an inscription on the frame convenerunt in unum would seem to support this interpretation.

We know that the painting was commissioned by the then Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro.  The conventional interpretation of this painting and the one which is still upheld in Urbino as the true interpretation of the work, is that the three men in the right foreground of the painting are, in the centre, the Duke of Urbino, Oddo Antonio da Montefeltro, the predecessor of Federico, the commissioner of the work, and is flanked, on each side by his advisors, Manfredo dei Pio and Tommaso di Guido dell, Agnello.    All three were dead.  Oddo Antonio was assassinated a few months after coming to power because of the unpopularity of his laws and his advisors suffered a similar fate.  Another interpretation is that Oddo Antonio is in the centre and the characters either side of him were his assassins, Serafini and Riccardelli.  A third suggestion is that this is simply a dynastic painting commissioned by Federico in which he has his three predecessors depicted.

There are more possibilities and books and treatises have been written about the painting with various suggestions as to the identity of each of the characters  but I will leave it there and if you want to look deeper into the interpretation of the painting, do so and I will be interested to see what you find out.  So back to my original question which still puzzles me; why is this painting by Piero della Francesca look on as being “a great work”?    Is it the artistic quality of the painting or is it the mathematical quality of the perspective which has art historians tell us it is a gem?