Of all the visual engines pulling the long freight train of Western art, alone, inscrutable, regal is Piero della Francesca. With Giotto, Velázquez, Goya, Cézanne, and several others, Piero—as he’s always referred to, like a familiar—is perhaps the Western painter most universally loved by artists. The towering majesty, poignant silences, mystic geometries, and stately, breathtaking color in his scenes of saints in conversation, contemplation, or simply standing are spellbinding sources of awe, magnificence, and an almost immortal optical poetry. Piero gives us the astounding power and plaintiveness of early Italian Renaissance art, shakes us to our moral core, bringing the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and soulful closer together than any artist who ever lived. I want to say Piero is perfect.
He worked and lived in what’s now called Tuscany between 1411 (probably) and 1492, and was renowned in his own lifetime, sought after by princes and potentates. The best way to see his work is to travel what’s called the “Piero della Francesca Trail,” visiting his hometown of Borgo San Sepolcro, Urbino, Monterchi, Rimini, and the tremendous fresco cycle in Arezzo known as The Legend of the True Cross. I took this tour in my thirties and still feel the impassive profundity of Piero’s pictorial power. Otherwise, to see Piero’s work one must go to a handful of museums in Europe and America.
Until now. Our own local embarrassment of painterly riches, the Frick Collection, has brought together seven paintings; that’s all but one of the Pieros in this country (the holdout is at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston). They’re installed in its graceful Oval Room. The sight astounds. Six of the oil paintings on panels are quite small, not much bigger than a table lamp. The Crucifixion gathers saints, sinners, soldiers, banners, and foreshortened horses in a barren landscape, and it especially beguiles with its restrained passion, balance, and sumptuous celestial color. All six of these works transport you to another visual realm.
The last work is a fully intact large altarpiece, Virgin and Child Enthroned With Four Angels. My advice to viewers is to throw everything you’ve got at this world-class, mind-bending, trance-inducing masterpiece. You owe it to the painting to take all the time you can trying to understand it—even though you never will. This is what John Ashbery may have meant when he wrote of “pure Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.”
The scene is simple. The Virgin offers a pale rose to the naked becalmed Christ child on her knee. He reaches to grasp it. Surrounding them are four stately figures. They’re angels, though they look like otherworldly living intellects. Go in close, and you’ll see their iridescent, translucent wings. Like the Virgin, they’re almost expressionless, pensive, and serious, and they all look in different directions—at the child, at us, over our shoulders, into space. This creates a supercharged force field; invisible beams extend from the pictorial space, creating an uncanny cone of calm and clarity that envelops us, including us in its visual kingdom, but protects them. This space produces inner suffering, grandeur, respect, and an influx of love.
The grouping is situated in a shallow, classical setting. Let your eye follow the angels’ bare, almost Egyptian-positioned feet up the legs to their Greek columnar bodies to their Roman heads and bowl-like Renaissance hair. You’ve traveled from one realm to another, through time and civilizations, into the past and up to the heavens. The Virgin and child are elevated two steps. They are in a world itself apart from this world apart. Mary isn’t looking at her child and looks instead at the rose he reaches for. You begin to glean the revelation she is having. The flower represents love, devotion, and beauty. It also symbolizes blood and the crown of thorns Christ will wear. This child who will suffer a horrendous death reaches for his acceptance of fate. Mary does not pull the flower back. You sense an inner agony, noticing her deep-blue robe open to reveal scarlet beneath, symbol of outward passion and pain to come. In the dead-center vertical line of the painting is Christ’s right palm that will be nailed to the cross.
The emotional and visual power of the painting is triggered by layers of algorithmic geometry, spheres, cylinders, cones, subtly spiraling cyclones, and careful pyramids of space and shape, arranged in euphonic ways that take over your mood and mind. Wallace Stevens wrote that “the world must be measured by the eye.” Yet, in conjuring these sky beings and earth goddess with the power of a shaman, Piero takes us to the edge of another dimension of dignity, cold fire, pain, passion, worlds intersecting, and edifices of infinity. I love him.
Piero della Francesca in America; The Frick Collection. Through May 19.
*This article originally appeared in the March 11, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.