New York art museum features Renaissance master's altarpiece

Piero della Francesca — born around 1420, died on Oct. 12, 1492, just as Columbus landed on American soil — won fame as an artist and a mathematician. 

Now an exhibit at New York City’s Frick Collection titled “Piero della Francesca in America” reunites works he made for his hometown of Borgo San Sepolcro: a small altarpiece of the “Madonna and Child with Angels” in the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass., and six panels from what was once a three-story altarpiece for the local church of St. Augustine.

Image of Resurrection

According to tradition, in 1012 two pilgrims bearing precious relics of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem founded Borgo San Sepolcro, or Holy Sepulcher Town. Today a sleepy Tuscan village, Borgo stood at the crossroads of international trade and pilgrimage routes. Under papal rule in Piero’s lifetime, it was populous and prosperous. 

Piero painted in every major capital of Italy, including now-lost frescoes in the Vatican. He wrote a treatise on perspective. His mural cycle of the Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo marks him as a founder of the Italian Renaissance. 

But more than any other place, he painted for San Sepolcro. His “Resurrection of Christ” for the town hall has been described as the “world’s best picture.” In it, Jesus raises himself from the dead, one foot planted on the edge of the tomb, while the Easter dawn transforms the landscape, left to right, from winter to spring. 

This iconic image is recaptured in the most glamorous of the panels from the St. Augustine Altarpiece, which was dismembered in 1550 when Clarian nuns took over the church. This is the nearly life-size figure of St. Augustine, which the National Art Museum of Lisbon has loaned to flank four panels belonging to the Frick and one from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Curator Nathaniel Silver called the loan “the biggest surprise” of the show.

‘God’s supreme work'

St. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo in northern Africa, is a Father of the Church and the most influential of all Christian theologians. Portrayed with a greying, bushy beard, Augustine wears a richly embroidered cope over the black habit of his order — perhaps a tribute to the lay donors who ordered the altarpiece and donated two sumptuous vestments to the Augustinian friars. It gave Piero, a wizard of perspective, a chance to show how he could pack multiple meanings into an image via the “picture within the picture.” 

An orphrey, or ornamental band, borders the cope. Down the left side are depicted the Annunciation, Nativity, Flight into Egypt, Presentation in the Temple and Agony in the Garden. On the right, the story picks up with the Flagellation and Crucifixion, but the next three scenes are tantalizingly hidden from view. An enameled morse (clasp) pulls the two sides together. It is decorated with a miniature of Piero’s great Resurrection fresco in the town hall. 

The message could not be clearer, or more artfully expressed: The meaning of the Savior’s earthly life is summed up in the Resurrection. In a phrase often cited on Holy Saturday, St. Augustine wrote: “The resurrection of Christ was God’s supreme and wholly marvelous work.” Augustine’s bishop’s miter holds an image of the Redeemer pouring his blood into a chalice, underlining the miracle of the Eucharist.  

Contrasting to St. Augustine is the grand image of another saint in a panel from the opposite side of the altarpiece: John the Evangelist. The panel (owned by the Frick) shows the aged John sunburned and barefoot, clad in a heavy crimson robe, and holding a book, probably Revelation. John was the first disciple to reach the tomb of Christ on Easter morning. 

A center panel, now lost, portrayed either the Virgin and Child or the Coronation of Mary. Either one put Christ at the center of worship. Using the magic of modern computer graphics, the Frick displays a reconstruction of the original altarpiece with the extant panels in their places. The Frick website offers a view of how the painting looked in the 1470s in the church, which has survived in altered form. 

Nora Hamerman writes from Virginia.