The Triumph of Piero

Sauerlander_1-051216Willibald Sauerländer at the New York Review of Books:

But let us turn to the most important work that has survived from Piero’s oeuvre, the frescos of the Legend of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo. They were the donation of a rich family, the Bacci, and took a long time to be completed. Piero joined the project in 1452 at the latest and created one of the most imposing fresco cycles of the early Renaissance. In fourteen scenes he depicts—probably following the text of the Legenda Aurea—the Legend of the True Cross from the death of Adam to the Cross’s entrance into Jerusalem. Again it is perspective in its interplay with light that gives the scenes their vivid presence. He places his powerful figures near the front edge of the pictures, so that in their statuesque physicality and colorful garments they move as if on a stage. Piero is a gripping narrator who never diverts our attention from the main figures and the predominant events.

In the depiction of emotional agitation, emphatically recommended by aesthetic theories of the time, Piero is restrained. For him, it is gesture and especially gaze that are most important. We encounter only one figure who is emotional in the expressive sense defined by the art historian Aby Warburg: the mourning woman at the burial of Adam who raises her arms and opens her mouth in a wail. The gracefulness Vasari praises in Piero is evident in the female figures surrounding the Queen of Sheba and the Empress Helen. Piero’s sensitive feeling for light culminates in the scene of the slumbering Constantine, where the dark of night is wonderfully illuminated by the heavenly messenger bringing the dream in which he is shown the True Cross by an angel.

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