Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
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ITP 157: The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca

Date: 20-04-2003
Owning Institution:
Publication: Sunday Telegraph "In The Picture"
Subject: Renaissance

The picture chosen for Easter Sunday is The Resurrection, by the fifteenth-century artist Piero della Francesca, a work in fresco and tempera that can be found in the Tuscan market-town of Borgo San Sepolcro. The painting is in the civic museum, formerly the town hall, and this is a good time of year to go and see it, before the coach parties of summer descend. Less than a hundred years ago Piero was a forgotten master of the early Italian Renaissance, but since his rediscovery in the early twentieth century, his principal works have become objects of veneration and pilgrimage – none more so than the one shown here, which Aldous Huxley once simply but memorably described as “the best picture”. The Resurrection has, I suppose, become the principal symbol of Piero’s resurrected reputation.

The artist designed it with the symbolism of his home town in mind. Borgo San Sepolcro literally means “Town of the Holy Sepulchre”, a name linked to the tale of its foundation, in the tenth century, by Saint Arcano and Saint Egidio. The story goes that the two saints were returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, bearing some shavings from the sepulchre in which Christ had been interred, when they were miraculously instructed to create a new settlement.

Devotion to the Sepulchre and its relics, preserved in the local Benedictine abbey, was still strong in Piero’s time. So when the town hall of Borgo San Sepolcro was  renovated and extended in the 1450s, he was commissioned to paint this fresco on the appropriate subject of The Resurrection for the building’s state chamber. The room was  reserved 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 secular and spiritual meanings of the painting were always intimately intertwined.

Piero shows the risen Christ, holding the banner proclaiming his victory over death, stepping out of a fine marble sarcophagus into the cold and clear light of a Tuscan dawn. The lid of the tomb has been removed and is nowhere to be seen, although it is perhaps symbolised by the rock lying in the right foreground, which calls to mind “the stone rolled away” from the sepulchre in scripture. The theme of death from life is recapitulated in the transition from bare trees to trees in full leaf, branches silhouetted against the sky. The background has faded to a dullish monochrome with time, but if we imagine the fields behind Christ to be lusher than they now are we can still recover some sense of the original, humming colour contrast between his pink robes and the complementary greens of the landscape. Stepping on to the chiselled ledge of his tomb, he also stands out against everything that surrounds him. He is a formidable, unavoidable presence.

The colour of the robe that he wears is unusual, since the resurrected Christ is more commonly shown wearing the white shroud of his entombment. According to Anton Maria Graziani, sixteenth-century bishop of the Catholic church and a native son of  San Sepolcro, the costume denotes “the habit of a victor”. Its inspiration probably comes from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, 63, regarded as a prophetic vision of Christ the Redeemer:  “Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? This that is glorious in apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save…” His garments are red with the blood of his enemies, whom he has trodden down like grapes in a winepress. The red of his robe in Piero’s painting may also have been meant to suggest royalty, to signify Christ the King. Save for the wound in his side, his pale body is as perfectly sculpted and as blemish-free as that of an antique statue. But there are touches of intense humanity about him too: the unidealised, almost coarse-featured face; and those three folds of skin that wrinkle at his belly as he raises his left leg. Piero emphasises his twofold nature, as both man and God.

The wide-eyed victorious Christ is set against the four soldiers dozing through their vigil. Their slumbers signify that they are still caught up in the dream of this merely mortal existence, from which, the Church teaches, only the love of God can release men. If the Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari is to be believed, Piero included his own self-portrait here, in the face of the second soldier from the left, as if to indicate his own hopes of awaking one day to redemption. To reinforce the contrast with the sleeping soldiers, each of whom is viewed at a different oblique angle, Christ gazes directly out from the picture, his face and body presented perfectly front on to the viewer.

Piero was one of the earliest Renaissance masters of mathematically calculated perspective, being the author of a complicated treatise on the subject, and he made use of those skills too to enhance the almost disturbing actuality of the risen Christ. The spatial design of the painting is highly original, because whereas lines of trees are often used in early Renaissance painting as a way of taking the eye back to the vanishing point of the artist’s perspective scheme, here they work in reverse, advancing not retreating to form a kind of funnel, close to the front of which stands the figure of Christ. Instead of making us feel that we can look into the picture, and enter its space with our eyes, Piero has created a rather different sensation. The picture seems to be coming at us, Christ to be on the point of entering our space. The expression in his eyes is also unforgettable. When I look at him I have the feeling that he is not merely looking at me, but seeing into my soul. Standing in front of “the best picture”, I can’t help believing it, at least just for a moment. Christ himself is actually there, before my eyes, stepping out from his tomb, into the town called “Sepulchre”.

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