Piero Della Francesca’s ‘Madonna Del Parto’: A masterpiece of disarming modernity

Lucian Lechintan, SJ

 Lucian Lechintan, SJ / Art / Published Date:24 December 2021/Last Updated Date:18 January 2022

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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[1] give us the opportunity to reflect even today on the meaning of this fresco.

The painting, pilgrim destination

The Madonna del Parto, painted by Piero della Francesca[2] 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.”[3] 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. In the regularity of its modules, the painting links the human psyche with a series of atmospheres: memories, sensations, perceptions, which have nothing concrete about them, but are expressions of a vital flow that the painter has managed to capture and preserve intact.

La Civilta Cattolica

The location of the fresco in Santa Maria in Silvis, near Monterchi (in the province of Arezzo) – the village where Piero’s mother was born – is above all an indication of his memory of that region, which he preserved while in Florence, Rimini, Ferrara, Urbino and Rome. However, Piero’s “going back home” does not mean leaving to posterity a sense of artistic nostalgia, as one might hastily conclude. It obviously links memories of his own childhood, the faces of those who had already left, the feeling of being a son of that community,[4] but it also includes the pride of revealing himself to his family as an artist who had fully realized himself after his stay in Rome. Aware of all this, Piero sends a liberating message to the community.

Sources attest that the church where the Madonna del Parto was depicted became a place of pilgrimage for women asking for the gift of fertility and a good birth. The roads to the sanctuary were therefore intertwined with a complex social reality, where infertile women were forced to live marginalized lives. As can be seen from Tarkovsky’s film, the ability to redeem someone from any power of evil was attributed to the Madonna Perhaps for the first time in the Renaissance, in this fresco Western art becomes aware that it can direct a community to a new sense of solidarity.

For these reasons, we can no longer consider Piero as an architect who places his characters “in the silent cages of Euclidean theorems,”[5] because his far-sighted gaze, steeped in memory and retrospection, is unexpectedly revealed. One of the main debates among Piero della Francesca scholars in the 20th century has been to establish whether this fresco, so marginal in the painter’s artistic career, gives rise to something other than “rigorous mathematical deconstruction”[6] or to the “art of number.”[7]

Detachment from medieval tradition

By shedding a new light on the idea of motherhood, Piero della Francesca distances himself from the medieval figurative tradition of the same subject, characterized by stilted images of the pregnant Virgin, attributable to a local devotional culture.[8] As Martone pointed out, “Piero’s conception includes an attitude of respect and honor toward a condition common to all women.”[9]

Looking at the fresco more closely, one notices that the two curtain-bearing angels, framing the Madonna in a banal succession of mirrored gestures, are chromatically drab. The ambiguity of their gestures – it is not clear whether they are opening or closing the curtain: either interpretation is possible[10] – introduces us to the fluid atmosphere of the “here and now” of the fresco. If the Virgin’s introverted gaze contains more than it shows, the mystery that envelops her figure is not hermeticism for its own sake, but conveys the intensity of a presence.

Pierfrancesco’s portraiture, while often leaning to what Henri Focillon called the “psychology of sleepwalkers,”[11] builds, from those looks, a metaphysics of presence. The absence of any suggestion of sound and the compression of the forms of experience are a note of disarming modernity, an indication of a return to that embryonic phase to which all modern art should aspire.

If we compare it with the Lady and the Unicorn of the famous Parisian tapestry in the Cluny Museum (late 15th century), the beauty of the Madonna del Parto is not the result of an effort to get rid of the superfluous. In the French tapestry, the noblewoman deposits her jewels in a drawer to welcome, in all simplicity, the long-awaited À mon seul désir. In Piero’s fresco, more than a programmatic choice, simplicity is a vital force that introduces itself into European art with an expression never reached before, with what art critic Roberto Longhi calls the “calm of demeanor.”[12]  The naturalness of the Virgin led the art historian Eugenio Battisti to hypothesize its Franciscan ancestry.[13]

The body of the Madonna is turned slightly side on, suggesting a movement through which one obtains almost a profile that, instead of attenuating the size of the womb – as it would have been according to the style of the period – achieves exactly the opposite effect. If the hand resting on her womb shows an attentive Virgin, deeply aware of what is happening to her, the one resting on her side shows a character of “strong ambitions.”[14] The slightly contrapposto position required such a pose for the left hand, and this makes a fragile body suddenly acquire the grandeur of a classical figure. Mary presents herself as a “Madonna of listening,” attentive and empathetic, an aspect that is manifested through a series of details, including the emphasis given to the ear.   

A message of hope

Combining the traits of modesty with those of refinement, Our Lady conveys a message of hope to the women who come to this place of pilgrimage to ask for the gift of pregnancy. The Virgin calls an entire community to the experience of a catharsis and opens a new path of hope not only for infertile women, but also for all those who visit her in that place.

We could also say that, already 100 years earlier, in the Sienese frescoes of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government (ca. 1338), a community set out to unite its forces to build a city of peace and virtue on Earth. Thinking about the reasons for such a society is at the very heart of artistic creation. However, unlike Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto, Lorenzetti’s frescoes are tied to a center of power and a rhetoric of circumstance. The Madonna del Parto, on the other hand, was conceived as marginal in relation to any center of power, civil or religious, being destined for the church associated with a cemetery, on a hill, far from the village, and thus oriented more to the realm of no-return than to that of the living.

The “white bandages” woven into the Virgin’s hair show that Mary is the mother not only of the living, but also of the dead, of all generations of humanity.[15] According to Roberta Orsi Landini, a historian of textiles and fashion, they express the widowhood of women in Dante’s Purgatory (cf. canto VIII, vv. 73-75) and in Boccaccio’s Decameron (cf. novella X).[16] Even though there has been no archaeological confirmation so far that Piero’s fresco was already located near a cemetery in the 15th century, the iconography supports this idea.

The fresco has come down to us, despite the fact that it did not have an ambitious patron who could guarantee it a great future. Moreover, it is known that, in the mid-16th century, the Council of Trent had devalued this kind of iconography, so much so that, for example, in Molanus’ repertory, the image of the pregnant Virgin was excluded from the canonical ones. The rediscovery of Piero della Francesca’s fresco came after centuries, in 1889, when art history opened its eyes to what could be found on the periphery. The Madonna del Parto was in an advanced state of decay, with the upper part of the curtain cut off; it had survived by a miracle a devastating earthquake in 1917; and only later was it placed in a specially created museum in Monterchi. Despite these misadventures, it has preserved all its vigor, and today, by virtue of its “Franciscan poverty” it returns to question us. The maternal silences of the Madonna, behind which we perceive the sense of a presence, make us still open our eyes to a borderline art, a visionary art that aims to build a new common conscience.

DOI:  La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.1 art. 5, 0122: 10.32009/22072446.0122.5

[1] This is what art historian Thomas Martone calls it. We thank him for the various ideas we consider here. Cf. T. Martone, “L’affresco di Piero della Francesca in Monterchi. Una pietra miliare della pittura rinascimentale”, in Convegno internazionale sulla “Madonna del Parto” di Piero della Francesca, Città di Castello (Pg), Biblioteca Comunale di Monterchi, 1982, 38; Id. “La ‘Madonna del Parto’ di Piero della Francesca e la sua iconografia”, in S. Casciu (ed), Piero della Francesca. La Madonna del Parto, restauro e iconografia, Catalogo della mostra, Venezia, Marsilio, 1993, 103-119.

[2] The painter was born around 1412 in Borgo Sansepolcro, near Arezzo. He came after Masaccio and was a contemporary of Beato Angelico and Paolo Uccello. Born into a modest family (his father was a shoemaker), Piero received his training in Florence and from 1439 became a collaborator of Domenico Veneziano. Painter, in Arezzo, of the cycle ‘Stories of the True Cross’ (1452-54), he also worked intensively in Rome and later in Urbino at the court of the Dukes of Montefeltro. Three fundamental works date back to the Roman period: ‘The Polyptych of Mercy’ (completed between 1455 and 1462); ‘The Madonna of Childbirth’ (1458-1459); and ‘The Resurrection,’ executed between 1450 and 1463 and conserved in the Civic Museum of Sansepolcro. In the last years of his life, Piero dedicated himself to the study of perspective, writing the treatises De prospectiva pingendi (1482) and A proposito dei cinque corpi regolari (1485). Sources attest that he died blind in his native town in 1492. For the dating of his works, see A. Angelini, Piero della Francesca, Milan, 24 Ore Cultura, 2014.

[3] V. N. Lazarev, Starye ital’janskie mastera, Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1972, 131.

[4] Cf. H. Damisch, Un souvenir d’enfance par Piero della Francesca, Paris, Seuil, 1997, 46; 102.

[5] R. Longhi, Piero della Francesca, Milan, Abscondita, 2012, 57.

[6] On Piero’s sense of measure, see H. Belting, I canoni dello sguardo. Storia della cultura visiva tra Oriente e Occidente, Turin, Bollati Boringhieri, 2010, 162-165.

[7] Cf. L. Berti, “Il decennio di Masaccio”, in L. Berti – A. Paolucci (eds), L’età di Masaccio. Il primo Quattrocento a Firenze, exhibition catalogue, Milan, Electa, 1990, 43.

[8] Cf. T. Martone, “La ‘Madonna del Parto’ di Piero della Francesca e la sua iconografia”, op. cit., 120-143.

[9] Ibid., 111.

[10]10 Cf. H. Damisch, Un souvenir d’enfance par Piero della Francesca, op. cit., 150.

[11] H. Focillon, Piero della Francesca, Milan, Abscondita, 2004, 103.

[12] R. Longhi, Piero della Francesca, op. cit., 119.

[13] Cf. E. Battisti, Piero della Francesca, vol. II, Milan, Istituto Editoriale Italiano, 1971, 71.

[14] The iconography of the character “of strong ambitions” is amply illustrated by Gigetta Dalli Regoli. She discovers other similar cases in the portrait ‘Farinata’ by Andrea del Castagno (1450-55), in Donatello’s bronze ‘David,’ etc. Cf. G. Dalli Regoli, Il gesto e la mano. Convenzione e invenzione nel linguaggio figurativo fra Medioevo e Rinascimento, Florence, Olschki, 2000, 65-67.

[15] On the funereal aspect, cf. C. Feudale, “The Iconography of the ‘Madonna del Parto’”, in Marsyas, No. 7, 1954-1957, 8-23.

[16] Cf. R. Orsi Landini, Moda a Firenze e in Toscana nel Trecento, Florence, Polistampa, 2019, 37 f, figs. b19, b21.