Sunday, 28 June 2009

Piero della Francesca

Madonna del Parto c1460
Fresco (detached) 206 x 203 cm
Museo della Madonna del Parto, Monterchi
9 September 2008

The original location of the painting, is the Capella di Cimitero of the Santa Maria della Momentana in the hilltown of Monterchi near Arezzo. The chapel was destroyed in 1785 by an earthquake and the work was detached and placed in a new chapel until 1992, when it was moved to the Museo della Madonna del Parto in Monterchi. The various displays in the museum document the restoration work done after the move, removing all the additions to the painting done by others over the years, and the installation of what remained of Piero's original painting behind a glass case.

Having seen the painting located in a chapel[1] in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1982 film Nostalghia, it came as shock to see the painting coldly displayed as a museum artifact. However, this surprise removed the painting from the context of the film, and perhaps allowed me to see it “for myself” rather than through another’s eyes.

Piero della Francesca gives his Madonna a queenly status, but does so without the usual royal attributes of crown or throne. Instead he uses her relative size and prominence to convey her elevated status, standing between two diminutive angels in a circular pavillion made from animal pelts. This is covered with red velvet damask that is decorated with designs of pomegranates, a symbol of Christ's passion. She turns towards a light source from the left and touches her prominent belly that is exaggerated by the opening in her antenatal gown. Her eyes are asymmetrical, and her gaze is downwards and distinctly melancholic, perhaps reflecting her sorrow at her son’s future death.

The gaze of the angels is straight at the viewer as they reveal the Madonna by holding back the sides of the tent for us to look in. The two angels are mirror images, realised by the artist with the same holed fresco cartoons, and are depicted in alternating colours of red and green. The Madonna’s gown is lapis lazuli blue.

It is a shame that I never saw the painting in the chapel because despite the invitation of the angels to look, the glass case serves as an additional barrier between the world of the painting and that of the viewer, underscoring the metaphysical gulf between the two. In effect, we are only looking at an "essence" of the painting, objectified in a museum, and it is a testament to the power of the original fresco, that its aura can transcend the clinical setting and convey real emotion.

[1] I have subsequently learnt that Tarkovsky used a reproduction of the painting and relocated the action to a church in Tuscany, some 70 miles away in order to recreate the size and atmosphere of the original Capella di Cimitero.
©blackdog 2009


  1. My mother saw once this fresco in the chapel and she was so enthousiast about this fresco and other ones by Piero della Francesco that his name (sounding like music) and some of his paintings since that have been burnt into my mind (particularly the 'Queen of Saba and King Salomo'), perhaps the wish to see one day these fresco's with my own eyes should remain a dream for ever! Looking at a good copy like this one (or printed in our art book) does make me happy!
    I'm missing the words to express my feelings and thoughts in the view of this genious-heavenly beautiful painting- the grace (Anmut) and the seriousness of the faces, their gestures, and the colours (only the blue gown of Raphaels Sixtine Madonna can be compared with this spiritual blue)!- your description and analysis of this fresco ist excellent! Yes, it is a kind of epiphany: The angels are revealing Mary's conception of the Christ, and she is showing half proudly, half bashfully her belly while opening a slit (some erotical connotation)of her gown. I agree on your interpreation: Mary might think of all the sorrows (seven sorrows as the legend tells) she and he will have to suffer by! Piero is really one of the greatest artist- and his figures are embodiments of pure beauty and at the same time filled with such a feel of heartiness and intimacy (Innigkeit)!


  3. The tabernacle = tent is an old Jewish/Christian symbol performing the permanent presence of God, Mary is called 'templum Dei'/house of God. The colours, the plants... have also a symbolic meaning in that time (as I know from my study).

  4. The unique, provoking theme and character of this fresco which shows a pregnant Madonna who self-conscious touches her belly and her hip can only be recognized and appreciated if we compare it with other presentations of the subject 'Mary and her child'! This painting has different dimensions/meaning- levels: on the one side natural and normal life (Jesus Christus was in fact a human being conceived and born like other ones, the canonized virginity of Mary doesn't seem to be an aspect here), on the other side a spiritual one: In and by Jesus God became present, was revealed, but the godness of Jesus is also hidden and covered- this essential theological problem of God's = Jesus' two 'natures' (God and human being) has been performed in this painting- we have some hints to the salutary revelation act by the incarnation of Jesus/God (opened tent/open gown at two points/open pomegranates)- but the concealment of God can also be recognized- God's following revelation in Jesus' crucification is also indicated by Mary's facial expression... it is in any case a very interesting painting considering the theological theme 'God's revelation'/'concealment', that might have provoked some interpreatations- but I presume that your aspects are special ones!

  5. Many thanks for the informative comments Philine - I did write a long reply and it vanished when I posted it! So annoying. Basically saying aware of the iconography but interesting to read more about the sorrows. Do so the fresco if you get chance!