A Piero Without PeerKAREN WILKIN
'The Legend of the True Cross' is visible in Arezzo again.
The art of Piero della Francesca can be described in terms of its severity, its refusal to please or to court approval, yet the artist is passionately loved by his admirers. He inspires his fans to undertake pilgrimages along "the Piero della Francesca trail": to Arezzo, for the frescoes of "The Legend of the True Cross"; to Monterchi, for the ruined, ravishing image of the "Madonna del Parto"; to San Sepolcro, his native town, for the confrontational "Resurrection." Those with more time go to Urbino, for the enigmatic little painting once called a flagellation, now identified as "The Dream of St. Jerome."
Perhaps the most spectacular stop on the Piero trail is the church of San Francesco, in Arezzo, for "The Legend of the True Cross" -- painted in the 1450s, recently hidden for decades for conservation and stabilization, now visible again. The frescoes, lining the walls of the chapel behind the high altar, present Piero at his most inventive and rarefied, distilling a complex narrative into images striking for their geometric lucidity, their unexpectedness, their resonant silence, and their intense, disciplined emotion. Piero lovers -- I am one -- strain to account for the uncanny power of his still, deeply stirring images; strive to unravel his complex, terrifyingly logical compositions; revel in his clear forms and strange, chalky color; and emerge hungry for more.
The flinty American modernist Marsden Hartley made the journey to Arezzo in the early 1920s. "Piero of the great mind, and the sweeping concept," Hartley wrote, "of the high regard for simplicity and the last reduction of emotion, glorious tact, superb rendering of the pause in rhythm, allowing no ridiculous effervescence or commonplace ebullience to over-ride his sense of measure, order, proportion and reality."
In Arezzo, "The Legend of the True Cross" begins with the death of Adam, a frieze of ghostly figures below a vast tree that dominates the composition, damage to the fresco notwithstanding. Sprung from a branch from the tree of knowledge that caused Adam's fall, planted on his grave, it will provide the wood for the cross on which Christ will be crucified. An enormous painted crucifixion by the 14th-century "Master of San Francesco," suspended over the altar, carries this part of the narrative; Piero's symmetrically arranged wall paintings recount the history of the cross, before and after.
The iconic images of the Queen of Sheba and her attendants at Solomon's court -- the long-necked women in high-waisted gowns, cascading cloaks and elegant headdresses who are among Piero's best-known creations -- record Sheba's recognition of a plank of Adam's tree in a bridge and her premonition that it will be used to crucify the Messiah. Solomon, fearful, has the wood buried, provoking one of Piero's leanest, most powerful images: Against an Umbrian landscape, under a cloud-dappled sky, three quattrocento workmen, hose falling with their efforts, struggle to move the immense timber. Visually, the huge plank crushes them into the corner of a narrow panel with its weight and geometric assertiveness.
Below the sunlit workmen, opposite a solemn Annunciation, the Emperor Constantine sleeps in his crimson tent, dreaming that he will prevail in a coming battle under the sign of the cross. The ensuing victory turned him into the first Christian emperor; the dream elicited a staggering image from Piero, an unforgettable nocturne combining the swelling volume of the tent, backlit sentinels, the sleeping Constantine, and his wakeful servant. The only illumination comes from the radiant cross held by an angel who plunges toward the dreaming monarch. No one would paint anything comparable to this masterpiece of economy and drama, nor orchestrate light as tellingly, until Caravaggio, a century and a half later.
The story continues, post-crucifixion, with the loss and rediscovery of the cross (thanks to Constantine's mother, St. Helena), its theft by a pagan ruler, its rescue and triumphant return to Jerusalem. On the lowest registers are two great battle scenes -- Constantine's victory over Maxentius and Heraclius' triumph over Chosroes, who stole the cross. Constantine drives Maxentius' troops across a river, in a composition dazzling, despite extensive damage, for its exquisite horses, its rows of lances, and its distant landscape. On the opposite wall, Heraclius' and Chosroes' men savage each other in a controlled chaos of limbs, weapons and banners. In spite of the violence, the figures seem self-contained and silent; only the horses whinny in protest.
Wrench yourself free of the individual panels, compelling as they are, and a fugue-like relationship of images across the chapel becomes apparent -- thrusts through space that are answered on opposing walls, gestures that echo from painting to painting, geometric structures and massings that link individual frescoes. And more. We become aware of how trees punctuate the narrative and how the poses of figures, poised between radical simplicity and naturalism, create complex connections from image to image and wall to wall. What was it Marsden Hartley said? A "sense of measure, order, proportion and reality."
Karen Wilkin. "A Piero Without Peer." The Wall Street Journal (October 4, 2008).
Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Karen Wilkin was educated at Barnard College, NY, and Columbia University, NY. She is a regular contributor to The New Criterion, Art in America and The Wall Street Journal and a contributing editor for Art, and The Hudson Review. Her publications include monographs on Paul Cézanne; Georges Braque; Giorgio Morandi; Stuart Davis; Anthony Caro, and David Smith. Ms. Wilkin's teaching experience has included the University of Toronto, Canada, and State University of New York, Purchase. She has organized numerous exhibitions internationally on modern painters and sculptors including Stuart Davis, Anthony Caro, David Smith, Hans Hofmann, Milton Avery, Judith Rothschild, and Helen Frankenthaler.
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