Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection (c.1458)

The Resurrection created for Piero della Francesca's hometown, Borgo San Sepolcro, has become his most famous work. It was commissioned for the town hall and depicts the resurrected Christ above His tomb, a clear reference to the Borgo's name, The Town of the Holy Tomb. The commissioners must have been pleased. Yet Giorgio Vasari wrote that Piero had placed a self-portrait on the second soldier from the left, a clue that the reference to the town's name is really a reference to a native of that town, the artist himself. As usual with masterpieces, the patron can be satisfied by a superficial meaning that is not the painting's true purpose. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection (c.1458) Panel. Borgo San Sepolcro, Tuscany

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A sleeping figure, or group of figures as here, is almost always a symbol for the dreaming artist imagining the very image we see. Here that interpretation is supported by the self-portrait as well as by other paintings of this scene by other artists with similar meaning.

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Detail of Piero della Francesca's The Resurrection

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Strengthening the association, another soldier holds a long thin spear whose blade obscured against the tree's leaves resembles the brush-end of a giant paintbrush. 

Christ's whitish body, once described as "perfectly sculpted" like an antique marble statue, maintains a look that confirms its presence as a work of art.1 The "artist" below has "imagined" himself as Christ. The odd perspective confirms this. Instead of placing trees in diminishing size as they move towards the center, they work in reverse advancing towards the frontal plane from each side. It is like looking through a painting in reverse with Christ on the surface plane.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Piero della Francesca's The Resurrection

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To sum up, the artist-soldiers sleep in three-dimensional space as though in the real world "in the studio". One is a self-portrait, another holds a giant "paintbrush".2 They are, so to speak, in the "studio". The artist himself having managed to purify his soul has been re-born (or resurrected) as Christ. Thus he imagines himself emerging from his allegorical "tomb", which according to early Christian thought, is the deadening reality of the material world we live in. The new reality is inside himself where he is both "artist" and "artwork". No longer four (or more) different personalities, the artist has emerged as Christ, the one true Self or inner wisdom hidden inside all of us. That is why the background with its reverse-perspective is flat like a painting.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection (c.1458)

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The last feature, rarely seen, is remarkably common. Revealed for the first time on this site we have already documented its appearance in works by Goya, Cézanne, Balthus and Francis Bacon. Piero has shaped the landscape to suggest an eye on either side of Christ. To His left a castle tower sits like a pupil in an "open eye" while to his right the "eye" seems featureless and thus "closed" with a mighty tree growing from it to suggest its strength. In support the right eye in the Renaissance was thought to look inwards into the fertile soul while the left looked out onto reality, this world of the walking dead.

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Diagram of Piero della Francesca's The Resurrection

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Edouard Manet (1832-1883) was a great admirer of Piero's work and drew sketches after a number of his paintings. It is not surprising, then, that the structure of Piero's Resurrection can now be seen to closely resemble Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe. In the foreground a group of people, all alter egos of the artist, sit in three-dimensional studio space while the background, painted differently and looking flat, represents their "painting." Instead of the resurrected Christ the "painting" in Manet's composition is of a woman taking a bath outdoors, a common ritual of purification. Please take a look at the entry on Manet's work. You'll be struck by the similarities.

More Works by Piero della Francesca

Notes:

1. Andrew Graham-Dixon described Christ's body like this: "...his pale body is perfectly sculpted and as blemish-free as that of an antique statue." Graham-Dixon, "In the Picture: The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca", Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 20th April 2003, p. 65

2. It was, perhaps, with this painting in mind that Edouard Manet depicted his son carrying a giant sword also as a "paintbrush" in Boy with a Sword (1862).

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 17 Jul 2012. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.