The dawn of a spring morning, a country church shrouded in fog and a group of women kneeling in prayer. In the background, the image of the Madonna del Parto (Our Lady of Childbirth) by Piero della Francesca. This is the opening scene of the 1983 film Nostalghia by Andrei Tarkovsky. A young woman, Eugenia, enters the church, simply to look. The sacristan approaches her and asks: “Do you desire a child? Or the grace not to have one?” Then he makes a shocking affirmation: “A woman’s task is to make children, to bring them up. With patience and sacrifice.” “Is she good for nothing else, then?” retorts Eugenia. The generations of women who have set out toward Our Lady of Hope give us the opportunity to reflect even today on the meaning of this fresco.
The Madonna del Parto, painted by Piero della Francesca around 1455, stands out not so much for the formal aspects of its composition, for which it makes use of a perfect balance between simplicity of form and economy of means, as for the strength with which it is able to question our culture. Even in Soviet Russia, when Western art was spoken of discretely, the famous Russian art historian Viktor Lazarev had this to say about Piero della Francesca: “How much we would like to simplify his figures, which often become cylinders or cubes! They are never lifeless, but always full of life.”
For those of us who are used to observing works of art, distinguishing between form and content, the compositional simplicity and coloristic vitality of the Madonna del Parto reveal the limits of an external observation that is not based on experience.