Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Many Marys of Piero della Francesca

Editor’s Note: During July Venetian Red continues to post on topics of interest in Italy.  This is the second of two posts on Piero della Francesca.

© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto, ca. 1455
(Museum of the Madonna del Parto, Monterchi)

It seems only fitting to follow The Legend of the True Cross post with an entry on Piero della Francesca’s Madonnas. After viewing scores of 13th and 14th century Madonnas stylized in the Byzantine icon tradition, I found Piero’s Marys refreshingly human. I can imagine scores of the faithful loosing their hearts to these radiant beauties.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto (detail)

There’s a physicality about Piero’s figures, which derives I think from the artist’s sensitive modeling of light and dark, but also from the figures’ weighty stances and individualistic features—i.e. full lips, averted eyes, not to mention a very unusual pregnant belly.

Piero della Francesca, Mary Magdelene, ca. 1460
Fresco, 190 x 105 cm
San Donato cathedral, Arezzo)

Through these techniques, Piero managed to create an archetypal Virgin with attributes beyond the usual sweetness, docility, and humility. His Madonnas display an earthy strength and dignity, characteristics I believe that no artist before or after him equally achieved.

Piero della Francesca, Polyptych of Misericordia, ca. 1460
Tempera and gold leaf on wood
(Municipal Picture Gallery, Sansepolcro)

Piero della Francesca, Polyptych of Misericordia
(detail showing The Madonna of Mercy), ca. 1460

Piero was greatly influenced by the Northern masters, and no doubt that is part of the reason he made his Madonnas resemble real people. I suspect, however, that years and years of looking at the country girls around him imprinted on his mind a particular female presence. And this he translated into figures of transcendent spirituality.

Piero della Francesco, The Annunciation (detail), ca.1432-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

One can be lucky to see most of the Piero Madonnas along small corridor between Arezzo and Urbino.  The drive from  Sansepolcro (Piero’s birthplace) to Urbino is especially spectacular. From Sansepolcro, Italian route SS73 climbs precipitously up the  towering Apennines. The views are thrilling, if dizzying at times. Once through the pass, the road descends into a picturesque valley populated by gently rolling hills, before arriving in the hilly environs of Urbino.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna of Senigallia, ca. 1470-78
Tempera on wood
(Ducal Palace, Urbino)

Wider Connections

The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca
Popular Images of the Madonna
Other Piero Madonnas:


6 Responses to “Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Many Marys of Piero della Francesca”

  1. Wow, these are beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post! I too was captured by the earthy dignity of Piero’s Madonnas in Florence and Arezzo. I love your idea that he was influenced by the strong country women of his home. This gave me a whole new lens through which to view these powerful Madonnas. One day I would like to take the ‘pilgrimage’ you suggest, from Sansepolcro to Urbino. Thanks again for bringing these lovely Ladies to light.

  3. There is something disturbingly sensual rather than earthy in these images. The soft downturn of the lips, making a nearly pouty moue. For a former catholic the idea of a sexy Mary is delicious.

  4. George, once again your keen sense of le bon mot triumphs. I adore your description (i.e pouty moue)! This may be why so many viewers loose their hearts to these maidens. . . Whether he intended to or not (I vote yes), Piero’s pouty Madonnas expanded the iconographical “reading” of the Virgin Mary/Great Mother, by providing a (stoic) hint of the bad girl, thus Mary’s human-ness. Give me a Piero Madonna anytime!

  5. Great insights!

  6. Viva the earthly Italian Madonna – I found it fascinating that when the Italians began to liberate their art from Byzantine influences, the earliest masters produced art that was much more sensual. But I also wondered if his “pregnant” women were simply reflecting a time, before contraceptives, when most women of childbearing age were pregnant, wanted to be pregnant or were recovering from pregnancy. Plus, the fashions that he painted with the thick folds of cloth gathered at the waist, made them look pregnant.
    Again, another perceptive and well-written post. Grazia! Bella Liz.

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