Back in Tuscany to continue the Piero della Francesca trail that began during last year’s visit to Arezzo with the ‘Legend of the True Cross’ cycle. In Sansepolcro, the town of Piero’s birth between 1415 and 1420, the Museo Civico displays two magnificent works; the ‘Polyptych of the Misericordia’ and what the English writer Aldous Huxley called “the greatest painting in the world”, the ‘Resurrection’.
In 1467, Piero was commissioned to paint the fresco of the ‘Resurrection’ for the Palazzo dei Conservatori di Sansepolcro, the meeting hall used by the chief magistrates and governors of the town. Christ is positioned in the centre of the painting at the moment of his resurrection with the four sleeping soldiers in the foreground. It is believed that the second figure, dressed in brown armour, is a self-portrait of Piero. The landscape in the background depicts the river Tiber, which runs along the border of the town of Sansepolcro. The trees on the left of the landscape have no leaves, whereas those on the right are flourishing, which is said to allude to the renovation of men through the light of the Resurrection.
During World War II, the British artillery, led by an officer named Tony Clarke, were ordered to fire on the town of Sansepolcro, but Clarke knew of Huxley’s essay that described the ‘Resurrection’ as the greatest painting in the world, and defied the order to fire, even though his commanding officer ordered him to “get on with it”, thereby saving the painting.
Piero della Francesca ‘Resurrection’ (1467 – 68)
The Polyptych of the Misericordia, dating from 1445 – 62, is one of the earliest works by Piero. It was commissioned in 1445 by the Compagnia della Misericordia, a confraternity of Borgo San Sepolcro. The central panel depicts the Virgin as Madonna della Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy), who is spreading her cloak around the kneeling donors. The side panels show saints; on the left are John the Baptist and Saint Sebastian, whilst the right has Saint Andrew and Saint Bernardino. Because Piero became busy with commissions from elsewhere, the polyptch was not finished for seventeen years, the central panel being the last to be completed.
Piero della Francesca ‘Polyptych of the Misericordia’ (1445 – 62)
The museum also holds the detached fresco of Saint Julian, originally in the church of Sant’Agostino in Borgo San Sepolcro, which was not discovered until 1954, and of San Ludovico di Tolosa, originating from the Palazzo Pretorio, which shows the saint dressed in a Franciscan habit with a richly decorated bishop’s cope.
Piero della Francesca ‘St. Julian’ (1455 – 60)
Piero della Francesca ‘St. Ludovico di Toloso’ (c.1460)
The museum also contains paintings by other local artists including Pontormo, Raffaellino del Colle and Luca Signorelli.
Luca Signorelli ‘Crucifixion Standard’ (c.1502 – 05)
Jacopo Pontormo ‘Saint Quentin’ (1517)
Raffaelino del Colle ‘Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin’ (1526 – 1527)
In nearby Monterchi is Piero’s fresco known as the ‘Madonna del Parto’, in which two angels hold open the flaps of a tent to reveal a pregnant Madonna dressed in a billowing blue gown, partially open to reveal her swollen abdomen containing the future Saviour. The fresco was originally painted by Piero between 1450 and 1475 for the Church of Santa Maria a Momentana between the villages of Monterchi and Cisterna.
Piero della Francesca ‘Madonna del Parto’ (c.1460)