Review: "Piero Della Francesca in America" at the Frick Collection, New York, NY (February 12 to May 19, 2013)
Piero della Francesca, St. John the Evangelist, 1469
Over spring break I had the opportunity to visit the Frick Collection’s exhibit, “Piero Della Francesca in America.” What connects the seven works by Piero featured in the exhibit was that they were all painted in the artist’s hometown Borgo San Selpolcro. Although Quattrocento Italian art is typically associated with Florence, Piero proves the Renaissance was flourishing during this time outside of Florence as well. The exhibit stressed, “He was as much Borghese as Michelangelo was Florentine” I particularly took interest to the piece, “Saint John the Evangelist. “ The work was commissioned by Angelo di Giovanni di Simone as part of an altarpiece in Borgo Sansepolcro and was commissioned in 1454 and finished in 1469.
An exemplary work of the Italian Quattrocento, Piero exhibits the revitalization of classic ideas and the importance of the individual. The painting imposes geometry on a Christian image and makes use of perspective. Almost coming out of the painting, John the Evangelist has an overwhelmingly physical presence, accented by the overlapping layers of his rich, red garment and by the shadows in the folds of the garment, created by the light hitting the image from the upper right. Meant to be viewed high up on an altarpiece, one can infer Piero used subtle lighting effects to make the space of his painting harmonious with the space of that church. The back of St. John’s hands, which support the book he is holding, are slightly illuminated, even though the light source is coming from a the upper right. This makes sense in that the book would have still be seen high up on an altarpiece, above flickering candles. John the Evangelist is in the foreground of the painting, with the architecture of the church and blue sky behind him. Yet John almost fills up the space of the piece like he himself were a physical Christian pillar of the church. When looking at the piece another thing one sees is that one of his bare feet is covered by the edge of a platform. Infrared reflectography shows Piero painted the entire foot before starting on the platform, even though he had planned out the entire composition and knew the right foot would be blocked out. This detail reveals the artist’s determination and organized process to create a convincing pictorial space.
While there is no symbol of an eagle, an attribute usually associated with images of John the Evangelist, and he is typically painted in his youth, the book John is holding helps us identify who he is. The emphasis of the book as the iconographic key in viewing this work, reveals the important Piero believed John possessed as a scholar. Piero is evoking a feeling of devotion for John here for the intellectual legacy the Evangelist left in addition to the religious significance of the image. Piero is not trying to glorify John by making him look young and majestic. He paints the wrinkles in John’s face, the bags under his eyes, and we see the veins on his hands. The power and glory of painting comes from its realness and from John’s intellectual beauty.
Piero della Francesca, Enthroned Madonna and Saints Adored by Federico de Montefeltro, 1472-1474
Piero studied the writing of Baldassare Castiglione, Italian courtier and diplomat, who wrote a book, The Courtier, on what he believed to be the model Renaissance gentleman. Humanist ideals were imbued in Piero’s style and approach. In another painting by Piero (not in the exhibit), the “Enthroned Madonna and Saints Adored by Federico de Montefeltro,” Piero puts the patron of the painting, Frederico de Montefeltro, in the scene in the San Bernadino degli Zoccolanti near Urbino. The artist is therefore combining contemporary and biblical times in one image, showing the importance of man, himself, in a highly religious piece.
By: Lizzy Weingold