PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA
Resurrection of Christ, c. 1463-65, Borgo San Sepolcro, Palazzo Civico.
Piero was commissioned by the city council to paint the Resurrection in the room where they met in the city hall. When the city councilors addressed the populace from the balcony on the wall opposite the picture, the crowd, standing at a lower point of view, would have seen Christ and his banner rising up behind the councilors.
Piero was born in Borgo San Sepolcro and, as an adult, served as a council member.
Borgo San Sepolcro was named after the Holy Sepulchre, or tomb, out of which Christ steps in Piero’s picture. The town’s patron saints, Arcano and Egidio, were believed to have founded the town with a relic of the tomb.
The resurrection of Christ is not described in the synoptic gospels. This means that Piero had no textual source for his painting which forced him to rely exclusively on pictorial sources for guidance.
The soldiers charged with guarding the tomb are mentioned in the gospels. However, they are not said to have been asleep: when they see the angel roll back the stone, “for fear of him, the guards were struck with terror, and became as dead men” (Matthew 28:4). In Piero’s picture, the guards are reacting in fear and became as dead men due to Christ’s presence—the angel having been elided.
The two soldiers on the right share one set of legs. Christ himself is a non-composite figure: on the left side he is standing and on right side he is seated. Although he is usually represented striding from the tomb, in Piero’s composition, he appears to have paused, as if for a photographer, with one foot resting on the edge of the tomb.
The landscape background of the picture originally was a lush green. The pigments used for those areas do not bind well with wet plaster, so they were applied a secco, or, on top to the dried intonaco and over the centuries flaked off.As a postscript to this, the remarkable story of how Piero’s masterpiece survived the Second World War:Christopher Booker, The Spectator, 19 April 2014.This is a painting like no other in the history of art. But we can only still see it today thanks to the essay to which it inspired Huxley in 1925, ‘The Best Picture’.
When in 1964 H.V. Morton published A Traveller in Italy, he recalled a few years earlier meeting in Cape Town a second-hand bookseller, Anthony Clarke, who told him the remarkable story of how Huxley’s essay had prompted him to save this fresco from destruction. In 1944, as a British artillery captain, Clarke had been sent forward to the hills above San Sepolcro, supposedly full of Germans, with orders to blast the town to smithereens. Recalling its name from Huxley’s essay, in the nick of time he ordered his guns to stop firing. A young boy coming up the hill told them that the Germans had all left. Warily entering the town, Clarke, with huge relief, found Piero’s masterpiece untouched.
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