Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection of Christ

April 11th 2020

In his essay “The Best Picture” of 1925 (which you can easily find online) , Aldous Huxley wrote this of Piero’s “Resurrection of Christ”:  “It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.”   During World War II,  it was a vague memory of his words “the greatest picture in the world”, that caused a British army artillery officer to forestall shelling the town. In fact, unknown to the officer, the Germans had already left.  The painting survived.  In fact, for about 200 years it had been covered in plaster and yet it remained in tact beneath.   Piero had painted the work for the council chamber of communal palace in the Tuscan Town of Sansepulcro.    The foundation story of the town was that two pilgrims had come from Jerusalem with relics of the holy sepulchre and were directed to this location.  Piero’s contemporaries thought it his best work, but, as Huxley points out, it’s relatively obscure location meant that the work was not widely known or appreciated.  ,In his essay, Huxley didn’t really demonstrate why he esteems it so highly.  But this is not to say that he wasn’t right.  

A monumental Christ steps out of the sarcophagus.  He stares straight ahead holding the customary resurrection flag in his right hand.  Following Matthew’s account there soldiers asleep who were meant to be guarding the tomb. Pre-dawn light shines down from the left, on them and, presumably, also into the now empty space inside the tomb. The same light picks out the folds of Christ’s red shroud and the fine musculature of his torso.  We even see the folds of skin at his stomach.  This Risen Christ has the physique of a Greek God or a classical statue but there are two further things which strike the viewer at once.  First,  his skin glows to the extent that were the sun to go back on its course and it were to become night once more, you might believe that his radiant skin would still shine and light up the darkness. The second element is his extraordinary face.  Piero was interested in the solidity of his figures and often they have an almost doll-like appearance. Recall the ladies in waiting to both the Queen of Sheba and St Helena in the Arezzo cycle.  Not so with his Risen Christ.  Some have seen in this face, the features typical of local inhabitants.  It is certainly not the face of an Apollo. However, there is a body of opinion, that links the face to that of the Volto Santo, a walnut crucifix in the style of Christ Triumphant dating from the 7th or 8th Centuries,  and hanging in the town’s Cathedral. 

The face of Christ iin Piero’s fresco is the location of the apex of a  triangle which has the ledge of the tomb as its base.  Set above the horizontal tomb, Christ seems to burst forward from the tomb even though quite clearly he is motionless.  We are held in his stillness.  Effectively, the picture is divided into two registers.  The vanishing point of the upper part, that is from the ledge of the tomb upward, is in  the face of Christ. The lines of perspective converge in his gaze.  But the positioning of the trees in the background suggest another set of vertical lines parallel to his upright body and converging on Christ from behind accentuating the effect.  This is not the first time Piero juxtaposed Christ’s body with a tree. Consider his much earlier  “Baptism” (1440’s),  now in London.  And there is something of the same monumentality about his Madonna  in his “Polyptych della Misericordia”  with her outstretched cape, also in the Museo Civico of Sansepulcro. Compare her solemn expression with that of this Risen Christ.  The lower register belongs to the soldiers.  Here there is a much lower vanishing point so that they are seen by the viewer as from below.  This means that they are not lost as they would be if the vanishing point of this lower section was at Christ’s face.  The shift in perspective is masked by the steep backgrounds,  by the vertical side of the tomb behind the soldiers and by the vertical trees behind Christ.  It is also masked by the painted columns on either side.   At the base of their perspective columns the lines of perspective converge beneath the soldiers.  At the top they converge on the face of Christ.  Again, the vertical lines of the columns are continuous with the other verticals with the trees so that the eye doesn’t notice his “trick” of double perspective.  These figures are not there merely to fulfil the narrative demands of Matthew’s resurrection account.  Now the upper and lower scenes are linked in a number of ways, most clearly by Christ’s standard which descends behind the soldier in brown and rests on the ground behind him.  His face is the only one we see in full.  The foreshortening is masterly and it can be found in his sketch books.  It is known that Piero spent a whole day on this face alone and had planned to do so.  In fresco a painter must decide how much of the surface he will cover in any one day and instruct the plasterer accordingly, because he can only paint on wet plaster and it dries in a day.   Restoration and analysis has shown that this face is the work of one day.   Whoever he is, perhaps the suggestion is that he will soon awaken and see the Lord face to face. .  On the painted plinth beneath the columns there was once a Latin inscription which looks like it read  “HUMAN…..ORTE”   . It has been suggested that that in fact the final word is “Sorte” so that it may have been a reference to human fate or destiny.   Now it is known that Sansepulcro had an outbreak of plague in the 1467.  It is not inconceivable that the town councillors gave the commission in the aftermath as a plea to the Risen Christ, the true victor over death, to grant eternal life to those who had died.  The sleeping soldiers may represent towns people who now sleep in death.  Finally, you will have noticed that the figure of Christ divides the background into a winter scene with bare trees on the left and a summer scene with trees in full leaf on the right.  Indeed the posture of Christ with his right leg raised suggests that he is leaving winter behind and is the herald of spring.  In this view, the resurrection is symbolised by something that happens in nature each year.    But in fact,  the trees on the right are evergreen cypresses, so that what is actually juxtaposed is an world on the left,  where death holds sway, and on the right,  the new age which Christ inaugurates,  where life is everlasting and death is no more.   The relevance of this work to a populace who had survived the plague but had lost loved ones, hardly needs to be elaborated.  It explains too why the Risen Christ of Sansepulcro must echo their Volto Santo which was until then the emblem of the faith handed on in the town from one generation to the next, why the town council would commission such a work, not for a church, but for the place where they made their decisions, why they needed a work of art that showed a Christ figure who was God-like but also human so that he could be the strong victor over sin and death and the herald bestowing  eternal life.    The contemporary relevance of this great work might just be evidence that indeed Huxley was right in his estimation, even if he did not fully explain himself.  

Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection of Christ

Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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