Piero della Francesca

Submitted by HedonisticHiking on 30 Aug 2016

We have updated the itinerary for our Medieval Umbria tour in 2017 to include a guided visit to one of Italy's most famous fresco cycles, painted by Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca. The tour will now start and finish in the attractive town of Arezzo, home to the church of San Francesco which houses these celebrated artworks. Freya Middleton, who is an art historian, private guide in Florence and great friend to HH recently wrote this fascinating article for Italia! magazine on the subject of the frescoes and she has kindly agreed to share it with us.

The story of the true cross of Christ is an epic saga that goes on for centuries. It would make for many riveting seasons if produced in the latest trend of marathon television series. The story is full of adventure, drama, intrigue and magic. It is described in the medieval must-have bestselling opus The Golden Legend written in the second half of the 1200s by Jacopo della Voragine, an archbishop of Genova.

At the beginning of the second half of the 1400s Piero della Francesco frescoed highlights from the story of the true cross on the walls of the high altar of San Francesco church in Arezzo. The work was paid for by the Bacci family, local wealthy merchants. The subject matter was probably chosen by the Franciscan order as these friars had always been particularly partial to the cross of Christ and for all that it symbolically represented in the Christian faith. Saint Frances was the first Christian to receive the miracle of the stigmata (the transversal of the five wounds of Christ) which took place in the Tuscan forest at La Verna in 1224. Furthermore, the Franciscan order had received a custodial grant from King Robert of Anjou for the physical protection of certain holy sites in Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem (they are still a strong presence today in these cities) and finally, in precisely the decades that the altar was commissioned and the work executed by Piero, the popes were campaigning for a crusade to the Holy Land. Therefore, the subject matter of choice for the high altar was at the same time wonderfully narrative and close to the heart of the Franciscans but also extremely topical to current affairs in the mid-1400s.

The story of the true cross explains the life of the wood used for the cross of Christ, from its very beginnings when a seedling, to when it was used as the cross in the crucifixion and then its various vicissitudes over the centuries following. It all begins with Adam and his last days. Adam reveals to his sons that he is to die and he seeks forgiveness from God and sends Seth, one of his sons, to go to the gates of Paradise to ask archangel Michael for a seed from the tree of knowledge. The seed is placed in Adam’s mouth after death and from this grew the tree which would provide the wood for Christ’s cross many generations later. The first scene of the fresco cycle in Arezzo is a three-part continuous narrative showing this: Adam and his sons on the left, Seth receiving the seed from the angel in the middle background and then Adam’s death with his family on the left.

The tree was chopped down by Solomon to use in construction but it proved to have a mind of its own and didn’t cooperate with the builders so it was relegated to the countryside and used as a crossing over water. The wood’s magical properties, and future use as the cross of the messiah, were revealed to the Queen of Sheba when she happened to be crossing the river when en route to meet King Solomon. Piero’s all female scene shows the Queen kneeling in front of the wood and her ladies in waiting looking on in solemn silence.

After Christ’s crucifixion, it was buried and lost for a couple of centuries until the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Saint Elena, started on a mission to find the true cross of Christ. She sought out the only man who knew where the wood’s location was and, after some convincing, he parted with the information. However, what they discovered were three crosses. In order to decipher which cross was the true cross they passed them over a dead body in a funeral procession which happened to be passing at the time. The one true cross alone succeeded in resurrecting the corpse. Piero showed the resurrected man sitting up with the cross above him and a delightful realistic Arezzo cityscape in the background.

Saint Elena had been a devoted Christian since her youth. However her son, Constantine, discovered the power of the faith as an adult in a vision of the cross that he had whilst sleeping the night before his decisive battle against Maxentius. He was told that he would be victorious if he fought under the cross In hoc segno vinces (in this sign conquer). Piero’s night scene is iconic in the history of art. Constantine sleeps in his bed guarded by footmen and the angel appears in the top left corner with a cross in hand. The cross is small, almost insignificant, because the symbolic power of what the cross stands for is made glaringly obvious in the beautiful glowing light in the scene. Nowhere has Christ’s phrase ‘I am the light of the world’ from the book of John been more powerfully conveyed.

Piero is one of the most important artists of the 1400s in Italy. However like his art, he is quite enigmatic and little is known about his life. He was famous in his century for being a mathematician and was the first artist to write a treatise on using perspective in painting. After his death his art was largely forgotten until the twentieth century.

Piero’s style gives weight and monumentality to this Hollywood tale of great adventure. His figures are firmly planted on the ground, in perfect proportion to their surroundings, and they emanate a sense of total calm and directness through their simplicity and composed stature. They embody the new confidence that man has in the Renaissance. His figures are in complete balance and harmony with their natural surroundings and are aware and conscious of the moment they are living. Faith is shown symbolically in the light that glows on both the natural landscape and the people in the scenes, creating a unitary harmony of all elements and a sense of timeless perfection. Piero shows us the magic and miracle of life.

Anyone planning time in Florence before or after a Hedonistic hike can contact Freya for a bespoke tour of the city and its many impressive works of art. To get in touch you can visit her website.