I saw the Flagellation by Piero della Francesca in Urbino last year. It is a very strange, yet beautiful, painting because the central narrative: Christ being flogged before the crucifixion is placed at the back and to the foreground are three men, variously identified.
The traditional view is that it is a complex allegory concerning the fall of the Byzantine Empire that happened twenty years before it was painted; however, it is wholly modern in allowing Christ to appear in a picture not as the central figure and as an allegory relating to some other event (rather than the other way around).
Or is it? I am reading Marilyn Aronberg Lavin's book on della Francesca in Phaidon's consistently excellent series: 'Art & Ideas'.
Her reading of the painting is a highly satisfying one because she capture a dynamic that you can see in all Piero's art namely the transformation of particular persons and places, either historical or contemporary, in the light of sacred narrative with a deep attention to the need of his patrons.
Here Lavin suggests we have a painting of 'consolation' offering a private space for devotion.
She convincingly identifies the two older men in the foreground with nobles of Urbino both of whom tragically lost a son at the age depicted by the gilded youth positioned between them. The youth is counterpointed to the flagellated Christ who yet is attached to a sign of future glory - the golden statue that sits upon the pillar to which He is bound. The painting offers a connection between the sorrow and tribulation of the grieving foreground and its final conquest by being shared and defeated by Christ. The imagery accords with the growing theological humanism of the Renaissance that acknowledges the importance of grief and the importance of offering to one another consolation.
It makes sense to me!
As do all Lavin's readings, they seem to give equal attention to the purpose of the patronage, to the theological demand both traditional and newly minted and Piero's accomplishment both in the abstract as mathematician and in the particular as a lover of particular places, most notably his home, Sansepolcro.
Piero is a painter beloved of contemporary artists because of the conceptualism of his designs but I love him for the extraordinary balance he maintains between composure and expression. There is something transformed in his figures' emotions that speaks of a feeling beyond ego, that there is another world enfolded in this one, where we can be as selfs made in God's image and that image is borne by our embodied lives, now, not found somewhere other. They are beautiful testaments to the way the Renaissance, for a brief moment, acknowledged a perfecting balance between the divine and the human.