The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca (c.1468)

For today’s blog I am staying with Italian Renaissance art and looking at a work by, some say, the greatest Early Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca.  This is the second time I have featured this artist in one of my blogs.  The first being The Flagellation of Christ (My Daily Art Display, September 29th 2011).   Today I want to look at his beautiful fresco entitled The Resurrection which he completed around 1468.

Piero della Francesca or as he was known in his day, Piero di Benedetto de’ Franceschi, was born around 1415 in the Tuscan market town of Borgo San Sepolcro, which is now known as Sansepolcro,  a small town located on the plains of the Upper Tiber Valley in the southeast of Tuscany, bordering Umbria and The Marches.  His family were merchants dealing in leather and wool and his father, Benedetto di Franceschi, hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps.  With that in mind, Piero was sent to school to learn arithmetic and the ability to calculate weights and measures, assess the volumes of barrels and bales, and most importantly, learn how to keep accounts.  Piero was academically gifted and became well known as a mathematician and in fact after his death he was revered not so much as a painter but for his mathematical knowledge.

Piero’s initial artistic training came as an apprentice to Antonio di Giovanni, a local painter, who was based in Anghiari, a town across the Tiber Valley from Borgo San Sepolcro.  From being Antonio di Giovanni’s apprentice, he soon became his assistant and during the 1430’s the two of them worked jointly on commissions around Borgo San Sepolcro.  Piero went to Florence for the chance to gain more work and he worked on commissions as an assistant alongside another young artist, Domenico Veneziano.  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.

In 1442, Piero returned to Sansepolcro and three years later, in 1445, Piero received a large commission from the Compagnia della Misericordia, a confraternity of Borgo San Sepolcro, for a polyptych, Polyptych of the Misericordia: Madonna of Mercy, as an altarpiece for the local church, Church of the Misericordia.  The confraternity 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 moved around the country a good deal during his life, living in Ferrara and Rimini before arriving in Rome in 1455.  Here he painted frescoes in the Vatican for Nicholas V and continued to work in the Vatican Palace for Pius II. Sadly his works were destroyed to make room for paintings by Raphael.

Piero’s birthplace, the town of Borgo San Sepolcro which literally means “Town of the Holy Sepulchre” derives its name from the story of its founding back in the tenth century.   The story of its coming into being would have us believe that two saints, Saint Arcano and Saint Egidio were returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land bearing some wood shavings from the sepulchre in which Christ had been buried, when they were miraculously instructed to create a new settlement – Borgo San Sepolcro.   These sacred relics have been preserved in the local Benedictine abbey and so when the town hall of Borgo San Sepolcro was renovated and extended in the late 1450s, Piero was commissioned to paint the fresco on the appropriate subject of The Resurrection for the building’s state chamber. This room was set aside for the use of the Conservatori, the chief magistrates and governors.  Before holding their councils, these four appointed guardians of the town would solemnly kneel before Piero’s image, to pray for the grace of God to descend upon them during their deliberations. The room is now the civic museum.

My featured painting today is a fresco which exudes an air of peace and tranquillity.   In the painting, the risen Christ can be seen in the centre of the composition.  He is portrayed at the moment of his resurrection, as we see him with his left foot on the parapet as he climbs purposefully out of his marble tomb clutching the banner in his right hand, as if he is declaring his victory over death.   He looks formidable as he stands tall.   We don’t see the lid of the tomb but look to the bottom right of the painting and we can see Piero has depicted a large rock which probably harks back to the biblical tale which told of a rock being rolled away from the entrance of Christ’s tomb.   In most resurrection paintings we are used to seeing Christ dressed in white burial clothes and yet Piero has depicted him in red robes, which was probably done to infer royalty and signify that this resurrected person is Christ the King.  Piero has portrayed the pale body of the risen Christ as almost blemish-free with the exception of the wound to his side and the wound in the back of both his hands made by the crucifixion nails.   In his depiction of Christ he has not let us forget that this central figure is both man and God, for if you look closely at the stomach of Christ we notice that the artist has given it an almost human appearance.  It has a slightly wrinkled appearance caused by the folds of the skin happening as he raises his leg to exit the tomb.

The sleeping guards

The alertness of the risen Christ in the painting contrasts starkly with the four soldiers who instead of keeping guard on the tomb, lie asleep.  The Renaissance painter and biographer of artists, Vasari, would have us believe that Piero included his own self-portrait in this fresco.

Piero della Francesca

It is the face of the second soldier from the left, and Vasari postulates that Piero did this as a sign of his own hopes of awaking one day to redemption. It is also interesting to note the contrast in the way Piero has depicted the risen Christ and the four soldiers.  Christ is shown in a solid vertical stance looking straight out at us, whereas the sleeping soldiers are depicted in diagonal poses and viewed at various oblique angles.  The way the artist has portrayed Christ almost gives one the feeling that he is about to step out of the painting to join us, the viewer.  In some ways the expression on the face of Christ is disturbing.  It is a penetrating glance and one art critic commented that it was if he was looking into the soul of the viewer.

The landscape is bathed in the new cold and clear light of a Tuscan dawn.  Look carefully at the trees on the right of the painting and those on the left side.  Do you spot the difference?   The ones on the right are depicted as flourishing specimens adorned with leaves and healthy green shoots whereas the trees on the left of the painting are grey in colour and bare as if on the point of dying.   This contrast almost certainly alludes to the renewal of mankind through the Resurrection of Christ

It is likely that Piero painted his striking image of the risen Christ stepping resolutely, banner in hand, from the tomb, to represent not only the resurrection of Jesus but also the resurgence of the town of Sansepolcro.  After a few years under the rule of Florence from 1441, Sansepolcro regained its identity and dignity in 1456 when the Florentines returned the use of the Palazzo to the Conservatori. The church Council which the young Piero had witnessed in Florence had thus had unforeseen consequences for Sansepolcro. The Pope, his treasury depleted by his lavish Council, defrayed some of the costs by ceding Sansepolcro to Florence which was later returned by Florentine authorities to the citizens of Sansepolcro on February 1st 1459, as a sign of the restoration of some measure of autonomy to the Borgo.

One interesting end note to the tale of this painting comes from a BBC article which tells the story of how a British artillery officer, Tony Clarke, during World War II, defied orders and held back from using his troop’s guns to shell the town of Sansepolcro and his decision is believed to have saved this beautiful fresco.   To read the full story click on:

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?