Piero della Francesca in 3 Works: Perspective, Politics, and Symbols

The 15th-century artist Piero della Francesca fused a passion for mathematics with naturalistic representation in his devotional imagery.

Jul 7, 2024By Shane Lewis, MA Art History

piero della francesca devotional art


As a leading mathematician and theorist of form in his own time, Piero della Francesca employed rigor in his work, mixing aesthetic sensibility with a propensity for contemporary references, symbolism, and allegory. Altogether, his art is distinctive from his peers in central Quattrocento Italy. This article will examine three of his devotional paintings in the context of these characteristics, as well as some of the scholarly arguments provoked by this enigmatic painter.


God’s Geometer: A Renaissance Evaluation

Woodcut portrait of Piero della Francesca in Vasari’s Lives, 1648 edition, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In his own time during the 15th century, Piero della Francesca (c.1415-1492) garnered a reputation as an artist of the highest rank. He came to command high fees for commissions by the time of his professional maturity, with contracts stipulating that only the hand of the master was to be applied to the prospective work in question. This specification was made in the context of the production of imagery for altarpieces in particular, as it was often the case that they were completed due to a collaborative effort, and often with the aid of assistants as well as accomplished masters.


Details regarding Piero’s life, travels, and career are scarce, however, due to painstaking research, his life has been sketched out by scholars. The earliest art historical account that we have of his life and work is a brief but informative chapter in the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by the painter Giorgio Vasari. Vasari’s volumes appeared almost 60 years after the death of Piero, and they contain an acknowledgment of both Piero’s reputation and quality as an artist.


Mathematics and the human head, sketch by Piero della Francesca, Source: World History Encyclopedia


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While staking a claim for the greatness of the painter Vasari reserves his most effusive praise for Piero’s learning, especially in mathematics. His chapter arguably prioritizes this aspect of his life, calling Piero “the leading geometrician of his day.”


Piero’s own writings specified that depicted objects should “attain perfection on the level of geometric form,” implying an artistic process that began with mathematics and geometry and was translated into a naturalistic aesthetic. Studiousness is the most salient quality of Vasari’s Piero. As well as his mathematical undertakings (including his published treatises), Piero’s study of the human figure is foregrounded. He was said to have displayed “a knowledge of anatomy that was rare in those days.”


Self-Portrait, by Giorgio Vasari, 16th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Vasari was writing from the vantage point of the mid-16th century and, with the benefit of hindsight and a prejudice toward his own time which he called in art historical terms the terza maniera (“ the third manner”)—the pinnacle of quality. Piero is duly placed in the second period of Vasari’s metanarrative on the development of art during the Renaissance.


Since the time of Vasari, the art of Piero della Francesca has, if anything, risen in the estimation of art historians. Publications on his life, his themes, and his symbolism have proliferated from the early 20th century onward.


What is apparent from the visual evidence of his paintings and from the sketchy details we have of his life is that he was a scholar as well as a painter. He was, in his deployment of meticulous perspective drawing and his use of symbolism, adept at creating art that was both powerful and layered in terms of meaning. In his devotional images, he was not merely a geometer and painter but, through the mutual enhancement of these two fields in his work, he was a master of multivalent meaning.


1. Action and Reaction: The Flagellation of Christ (c.1460)

The Flagellation of Christ, by Piero della Francesca, c.1460. Source: The Web Gallery of Art


Three men, two older and one young, are afforded prominence in the right foreground of this image. They are compositionally the first point of contact with the world depicted therein. The biblical event taking place is relegated to the left background. The pristine coolness of tonality and the precisely outlined forms of the three men mark a detachment from the action in the background. Whether this separation is temporal, and these figures are Piero’s contemporaries, is debatable. However, there is certainly a situational separation.


The three men are not implicated in the events of the Passion, specifically here the torture of Christ, nor are they directly concerned with it. Yet, the tiled floor that they stand on extends to the threshold of the Praetorium of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judaea, who sits on the far left. The floor suggests that the detachment of the men on the right is not a complete disjuncture. Where the tiles reach the palace and stop at its border to make way for the marble within, it would in fact be reasonable to assume a temporal divide.


Art historian Avigdor W. G. Posèq contends that, under the influence of Fra Angelico’s Cortona Annunciation of the 1430s, Piero used pictorial depth as a device to indicate the distant past in his own Baptism of Christ (c.1450). In the Flagellation, this device would account for the distance between the left background and the right foreground.


Annunciation of Cortona, by Fra Angelico, c.1430s, Source: Dioceses of Cortona


The intricacies of Piero’s visual world are apparent. The complex pattern on the floor in front of and behind Christ has been termed “one of the most elaborate to be found in any Renaissance picture.” Perspective and mathematics are elevated to the level of adornment. Another example of the mathematical made aesthetic and, in this case, symbolic, is Piero’s deployment of the circle that breaks the floor tile pattern on which Christ stands.


The quandary of the quadrature of the circle (the determination of its area by calculating the circumference) had preoccupied mathematicians since antique times including Piero. B.A.R. Carter observed that the floor tile pattern was derived by the artist inscribing the side of a decagon into the circle. Thereby, the floor pattern contains suggestions of both polygon and circle, reconciling the geometry of the circle with that of the overall square module.


In his squaring of the circle, Piero multiplies the “module” (1.85 inches) by pi for the distance of the eye from the picture plane. Nothing is arbitrary and to say that the composition is ordered is insufficient—rather it is scientifically exact.


Piero’s written work on geometry later in life was incidentally included in Luca Pacioli’s work De Divina Proportione. In The Flagellation and beyond, the circle was a symbol of Christ, and recalls the notion of God as the alpha and omega, world without end.


Pisanello, honorary Florentine medallion and contemporary likeness of Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus, Source: Wikimedia Commons


A hesitant surmise would be that these men, while separated from the Passion by time, are debating the significance of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice, for the redemption of humanity. The man on the extreme right of the picture is clad in Eastern dress. Knowing that the Byzantine emperor, John VIII Palaeologus visited Ferrara in 1439 to appeal for help to combat the threat of Turkish influence at an Ecumenical Council, the three men could signify the dialogue between Eastern and Western Christianity that inflected 15th century politics. The man on the extreme right may either be the Byzantine emperor himself or his emissary. As Posèq notes, the religious order of the Flagellants was also especially visible in Italy at the time the painting was made, a mere seven years after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople.


The subject matter, therefore, relates to a contemporary political crisis as well as its biblical theme, which feeds the notion of a separation of time in the painting. The temporal distance in the picture becomes a relation between a mythical past and contemporary politics.


What Posèq calls the “chronological implications of laterality,” a relatively new way of picturing time, based on a conception of space advocated by the Renaissance theorist and architect Leon Battista Alberti, whom Piero met, seems to be at work here. The (western) viewer, in reading the image from left to right joins the two scenes consecutively, while spatially there seems to be an ambiguous or disjunctive relationship. This device is used as well as the suggestion of antecedence through depth—a literal pushing back into an earlier time.


Le siège de Constantinople (1453), miniature by Jean Le Tavernier, after 1455, Source: The French National Library


Given the structural sophistication of the painting, there may be several narratives going on here; the three foreground men are made to adopt a plurality of identities. However, we don’t know the extent of Piero’s erudition. He may “merely” have been a mathematician and a technical operator but he may also have layered his work with political allegory, symbolism, and other subterranean meanings.


Posèq cites another theory that is even closer to home than a political crisis. The Duke of Urbino and Piero’s patron, Federico da Montefeltro’s stepbrother Oddantonio had recently been murdered by his entourage and, this theory maintains, that the young blond man is Oddantonio, flanked by two assassins.


These events of conspiracy and murder chime with those on the left side of the picture, identifying Jesus with the young man whose look of detachment could in this context be fear. Posèq tells us that the original frame for the painting bore the inscription “convenerunt in unum,” a clear reference to Psalm 2:2: “enemies take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed.”


Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, by Piero della Francesca, 1465-6, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Regarding the perspective of the composition, Piero establishes a literal common ground between the two scenes, yet in his depiction of the architecture—at the left side classical Corinthian columns and a coffered ceiling, to the right an Italianate building of the Renaissance—there is a divide that speaks both to the Renaissance rediscovery of antique culture and the distance between the two.


This idea of temporal distance seems to be embedded in several aspects of the Flagellation. A reinforcement of the theory that the right side of the composition was conceived as a scene contemporary with Piero is the Umbrian architecture, Umbria being the location of the painter during much of his career under the patronage of Federico da Montefeltro.


Detail from The Flagellation of Christ, by Piero della Francesca, 1460, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In this light, this is an image of two halves that are in one sense connected and in another divided. In the grouping on the right, there seems to be a shared sentiment with the suffering of Christ, as evidenced by the gravity of their expressions. The blond youth between the two older men attends to their conversation while gazing into space with a look perhaps of helpless pity.


Another note of connection is the choice of the artist to combine these scenes into one image. To suggest, as some have done, that the scenes are sharply disconnected would be to negate not only the visual evidence but the orderly temperament of an artist with a mathematical bent.


Even if the two scenes are not linked temporally or, to the fullest extent, spatially, they are linked conceptually. The nature of the action or, in the case of the right side, inaction, draws a division in time between the two scenes; on the left is the immediacy and extremity of violence, while on the right is dialogue and reflection. Perhaps the subject of debate is the violence inflicted. In any case, the three men are engaged in an earnest and grave conversation.


The Flagellation of Christ, by Piero della Francesca, c.1460. Source: The Web Gallery of Art


Posèq also makes note of the asymmetry of the composition and its rareness in Quattrocento art. The attention of the viewer is initially skewed away from the action of the left background by the disparity of scale between the two scenes and by the proximity of the right-hand scene without a counterbalance in the left foreground.


Our attention is directed perhaps primarily towards the nature and content of the colloquy of the three interlocutors. Yet, there is a clear attraction inwards to the scene on the left through the clear recession of the floor tiles and the colonnaded palace. The vanishing point of this recession is at the scene of torture, creating a perspectival conjunction with the receding right-hand architecture of Umbria.


The viewer is confronted by the brutal actuality of the Passion, the reality of Christ’s sacrifice, and the call to salvation. The structural disjunction of the viewer from the figures could be a visual comment against the seductions of visuality itself and the earthly physical realm.


Detail of the golden statue, The Flagellation of Christ, by Piero della Francesca, c.1460. Source: The Web Gallery of Art


The little-noticed golden statue with a sword over the column to which Christ is tethered could be an ironic comment on Roman justice in its manifestation as the torture of an innocent. The Roman deity of Justitia was new to the pagan pantheon at the time of Christ, introduced to legitimize the imperial regime of Augustus.


Although a female deity, successive emperors sought to personify and embody Justice and, at the time of Christ, the emperor Tiberius had built a temple to the goddess. Piero’s statue is perhaps a gilded and satirized Tiberius, with its left arm raised as if gesturing to the expanse of terrestrial Roman power; its sword represents both the enactment of power and of injustice. The fact that the statue is golden reminds us of the biblical golden calf and the Christian warning against the idolatry of false gods.


Bust of Emperor Tiberius, 14-23 CE, Source: French Ministry of Culture


Not only is the scene from the Passion smaller and set back, but the figure of Christ himself is smaller than his tormentors to accentuate his pitiable state. In the anatomy of Christ, Piero strikes a well-measured balance: he is lean, indicating frugality and humility; but, for the sake of decorum in his depiction, Piero does not emaciate him.


This picture deploys and combines mathematics, politics, and devotion. Piero enlivens the events of scripture with a vivid naturalistic ethos that includes perspectival order but also the layering of the subject matter with themes of contemporary significance. With what Robert Longhi has called “the mysterious union of mathematics and painting,” there is a “mysterious union” of two scenes from two time periods in one work. This mystery is accentuated by the potentially intended coexistence of both the identities of the men on the right and their relation to the Passion.


2. The Mysterious Mother: The Mater della Misericordia (c.1445-1462)

Mater Misericordia, by Piero della Francesca, c.1445-62, Source: The Web Gallery of Art


Piero della Francesca was commissioned in 1445 to paint an altarpiece for the Confraternity of Santa Maria della Misericordia in his hometown of Borgo Sansepolcro for the high price of 150 gold florins. The contract stipulated that none but Piero himself was to paint the central panel, an insight into the contemporary respect for his work.


This commission had both professional and personal significance for Piero. The della Francesca family had an association with the confraternity for a period of at least 50 years in 1445, and his father Benedetto served as treasurer for the confraternity. Benedetto had also served the town as one of the four heads of its government as recently as 1444-1445. It is thought that Piero did next to nothing on the altarpiece until 1449, with the bulk of the work done between 1459 and 1462. James R. Banker wrote that the delay was the result of the promised payment being deferred.


In the contract, the confraternal officers dictated the iconographic program for the altarpiece but in this central panel, Piero’s ingenuity was not stifled. In particular, he adapted the prescribed subject matter to give it a personal, familial significance.


Icon of the Archangel Gabriel from Novgorod, 12th-century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The art historian Kenneth Clark observed that the conception of the altarpiece was “completely medieval in spirit.” Clark was right if by “conception” he is referring to the frontal orientation of the Virgin, which is redolent of earlier devotional icon paintings. However, he is wrong if we consider the naturalist painting of the Virgin’s flesh tones and the carefully realistic folds of drapery. The painting is in this way a departure from the more stylized imagery of the medieval age.


The image is a universal panoply of contemporary humanity, and its monumentality is emphasized by the outsized scale of the Virgin of Mercy who encloses the human race in her mantle. Mary in rounded, three-dimensional form, emerges miraculously from a background that is stolidly flat. However, her presence transforms that background into an analog of the light of the heavens. Her rounded form and her monumental scale contribute to her presence as both real and supernatural. These two aspects are apt for her role in Church doctrine as an intercessor.


Piero creates a depth of illusionistic space within the mantle that offsets the sheer flatness of the gilded background that was stipulated by the confraternity. There is a tension between the necessary matter-of-fact two-dimensionality of the image and the illusionistic and conceptual world that the artist’s vision and skill enacts.


Kneeling men from Mater Misericordia, by Piero della Francesca, c.1445-62, Source: casavacanze.poderesantapia.com


A comparison of the image of Piero that appeared in a 1648 edition of Vasari’s Lives with the idealized male figure closest to the center of the panel is enticing but inconclusive. But, in supposition of a self-portrait here, we should consider the death of Romana, Piero’s mother in 1459—the year that work began in earnest on the commission.


The Virgin as Mater Misericordia is the intercessor on behalf of and protectress of the faithful. In this image, her gaze falls off-center, in the direction of the idealized man, with his arms extended and hands taut with awe. The man’s face is occluded from us, looking directly to meet the gaze of the Virgin. He is set apart from the male sub-group on the left of the picture—maybe in terms of significance as well as physically.


If there is truth in this interpretation, the image reveals a combination of the figure of the Mother of Mercy and Piero’s biological mother, Romana. His naturalistic treatment is, by extension, a double layer of the supernatural: the apparition of the Virgin Mother and of the deceased natural mother.


However, a note of caution must be observed. It would perhaps have been indecorous for a commissioned artist to introduce an obvious likeness of his own mother as the Virgin Mother. But with this objection in mind, one could still maintain an association between Mother Mary and the figure of a mother.


The Resurrection, by Piero della Francesca, c.1460s, Source: University of Chicago


There is another comparison to be made if we accept the traditionally held view that the sleeping soldier clad in brown in Piero’s Resurrection of the 1460s is a self-portrait. In the Misericordia panel, an alternative self-portrait could be the man just to the right of the executioner, who bears a similarity in appearance and position to the Resurrection “Piero.”


This man of the Misericordia is the only figure in the image that faces outwards toward the viewer, while his face is upraised with an expression of rapt adoration. If this is a self-portrait, a mystery surrounds the man and woman in the foreground facing the Virgin. They are set apart from the two groups that are broadly symmetrical on either side. Piero links the couple both by proximity and compositional salience, but also in terms of them mirroring each other’s angle with regard to the Virgin.


Kneeling women from Mater Misericordia, by Piero della Francesca, c.1445-62, Source: casavacanze.poderesantapia.com


Perhaps the man of the couple is not in fact an idealized Piero but a much younger man who, with the young woman, is receiving a nuptial blessing. Biographical details on Piero’s life are scant, but it is thought that he never married and it is unclear whether he had children. So, any assumption about a bond of kinship with the “betrothed” couple is just that.


What is known is that Piero was 47 years old in 1462, the year he finished the altarpiece and, thereby, it is possible that a son or daughter of his was of marriageable age at the time. Alternatively, given the finery of dress together with the prestigious ultramarine of the young woman’s costume, the marriage recorded could be a match made by the nobility. However, the marriage theory requires further research as it is still unsupported by the scholarship, despite compelling compositional clues. Far more plausible is that the altarpiece did not exceed the brief of the contract, but Piero made the devotional picture a tribute to the Mother of Mercy, a hymn to his own mother shortly after her death.


3. The Politics of Faith: Lavin on the Montefeltro Altarpiece

The Montefeltro Altarpiece, Brera Madonna, by Piero della Francesca, c.1445-62, Source: Wikimedia Commons


On the surface, this image of the center panel of the Montefeltro Altarpiece, is conventional for an art object of its genre from 15th century Italy. The Madonna and Christ Child are at the center, flanked by various saints on either side. Also conventional is the inclusion of a donor portrait, that is, the portrait of the patron of the altarpiece in the right foreground. However, these common devices prove to form a veneer over the artistic innovation and the forces of circumstance that are referenced here.


Marilyn Aronberg Lavin has detected an ambiguity in the spatial relations in the picture. Lavin wrote that the figures seem close to the rear curvature of the apse while at the same time dwarfing the architecture; this encourages the association of the Madonna with the Church itself (“Mary-Ecclesia”).


Such is the large scale of the grouping of figures in the transept of the church that some have described the church itself as performing the “function of halos.” This is apt in view of the richly coffered barrel vaulting overhead. The walls of the nave of the church also move out beyond the picture plane, enclosing the viewer.


The presence of the pragmatic Duke of Urbino, as well as the absorption of the viewer by a projection of the perspective, could perhaps entail an exhortation to allegiance to the Church as the providential actor on earth.  More immediately, it makes reference to its political cause in Umbria, as embodied in the person of Federico da Montefeltro.


Battista Sforza, by Piero della Francesca, c.1472-73, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The political context is critical to an understanding of the choices made by Piero in the panel. In 1474, the year of the completion of the altarpiece, Piero’s patron was fraught with activity. After two years of withdrawal after the death of his by all accounts beloved wife, Battista Sforza, Federico re-emerged into a political landscape in flux, especially in Umbria. He cultivated an alliance with Pope Sixtus IV before his election to the pontificate but, as he had campaigned at Rimini against Sixtus’ predecessor, Paul II, the College of Cardinals mistrusted him and voted down the prospective marriage between his daughter Giovanna to Giovanni della Rovere and Sixtus’s nephew.


Umbrian tensions with the papacy over local autonomy erupted into rioting in 1474, with all the concerned cities (apart from Città di Castello) being quieted by papal forces. The rebellion there prompted a worried Sixtus to summon Federico to his military aid, in response to which Federico arrived in Rome with 2,000 cavalrymen. The pope duly showered Federico with prestigious military honors and titles for his support.


Castle San Leo, home of the Montefeltro family, photo by Tony Pecoraro, Source: Wikimedia Commons


At a ceremonial conferral of honors on Federico at St. Peter’s in Rome, an Epistle of Saint Paul was read, after which Federico pledged an oath of fidelity. This would justify Lavin in her contention that the elderly saint in the Montefeltro Altarpiece is, in fact, Saint Paul. The ceremony is reflected through Paul who is holding a volume of writings and through Federico, whose kneeling pose designates a similar oath of faith. Just as in the ceremony Federico also has golden spurs attached to his feet. Piero’s image synthesizes faith and military might in the service of the Church, especially if we see the Madonna here as “Mary-Ecclesia,” as Lavin does.


Scholars Millard Meiss and Theodore G. Jones have noted that the slightly oblique relationship of the front of the platform to the picture plane is deliberate. The angle created pushes Federico toward the viewer as if to invite sympathy for his cause.


The portrait of the donor, Piero’s patron Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, is atypical for its time. As Lavin explains, no donor was painted in armor for about a century before this. She even goes as far as to say that there are “two portraits, one of Federico and one of his armour.” Lavin also refers to Federico’s “hieratic immobility” and “psychological independence” of pose and expression. This is important because the conventional pose for a donor was a gaze in petition or devotion at the Madonna.


Egg Detail, from the Montefeltro Altarpiece, by Piero della Francesca, 1445-62, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Lavin sees the main thematic thread of the image as “a declaration of Federico’s trustworthiness as a Soldier of God,” and says that, in contrast to conventional donor portraits, which solicit protection, Federico is here offering it to the Church. This would account for his independent and phlegmatic demeanor which submits to faith but pledges to vanquish all opposition to the Church’s earthly power.


A detail of this painting that has long puzzled scholars is the ovoid object that is suspended over the grouping. It has been plausibly argued that it is an ostrich egg, a heraldic symbol of the Montefeltro family. By extension, it is a reference to the Virgin birth but also to the fecundity of Battista Sforza, Federico da Montefeltro’s wife who died a few months after the birth of their son, Guidobaldo. In the image, the figure of John the Baptist on the left, Battista’s patron saint, stands as a surrogate for her and balances Federico’s position on the right. The egg also symbolizes the Passion of Easter and the Resurrection, a connection made via the red coral beads worn by the Christ child.


Meiss and Jones say the figures and the apse together are united by “one pattern of color and value, the lighter figures set against the shaded part of the apse and vice versa.” Here is a divine order, expressed in tonality, that signifies unshakeable faith, the universal significance of Christ’s sacrifice, and the eternal and irrevocable power of the Church.

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By Shane LewisMA Art HistoryShane has an MA in Art History from the Open University in the UK. He has a particular interest in the art of the Renaissance, the Neoclassical period, and the 19 th and early 20 th centuries. As well as historical contexts as rendered and contributed to in artworks, he is interested in the visual representation of ideas throughout history. Shane works as a writer on art.