Friday, June 29, 2012

Piero della Francesca and the frescoes



Not Italian supporters after a night celebrating their win over Germany yesterday but a detail from Piero della Francesca's Resurrection that hangs in the Civic Museum of his home town, Sansepolcro, where I am staying. The four figures slumped by the tomb as Christ stands triumphant are both wholly real, earth bound and yet painted as if yet even here translucent to what is happening above. It is shown so artfully as three sleep, one in the foreground here, covers his eyes, as if he knows but will not look. Meanwhile, all is concentrated on the figure of Christ, even the vegetation behind him appears blasted, withdrawn into itself. A great event has occurred, breaking into a world that does not, has not, continues not to fully comprehend it. It is a triumph yet in the making.


As with Florence the day before, there was an unexpected pleasure, one of the guides pointed out an unmarked narrow staircase to the roof  and standing in a high vaulted loft was an exhibition I do not recall from last time of the substantial remnants of fifteenth century frescoes. They were gorgeous.

There is something about the art of fresco that I find deeply appealing from my first real introduction to it living in Macedonia to now. There is physically its resilient fragility - there, in place or, as here, rescued - but often with pieces missing, haunted by the transition of time. From this period especially what you notice is the humanity of the figures, gone is the stiff formality of the Byzantine icon or the more poised brilliance of oil painting, they appear lighter, more embedded in free flowing narrative and often of actual human scale. Here was St Catherine of Alexandra bowing to her wheeled martyrdom with steeled graciousness, here was a man, a very particular man. zealously forging her manacles out of unthinking obedience to his king and here was a life size, gentle, scholarly St Nicholas (who else) surrounded by smaller tableau of his vivid, saintly life.


Again, unlike Florence, I was on my own, quietened, in a space both gallery and sacred. I was reminded of Wittgenstein's advice that you should on visiting a gallery go and see one picture only. It is a little too austere for me but you can see what he is reaching after, opportunities to be with rather than do art; and, you are more likely to find this possible in the smaller gallery. Dostoevsky says somewhere that it is the smaller, poorer churches that are best for praying, perhaps this is true of galleries too, for the unmixed attention they allow you is a form of prayer. 

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