PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA
(b. 1416, Borgo San Sepolcro, d. 1492, Borgo San Sepolcro)
5. Constantine's Victory over Maxentius1452-66
Fresco, 322 x 764 cm
San Francesco, Arezzo
The story continues in the lower picture compartment of the right wall with the battle Constantine wins over Maxentius under the sign of the cross. The night before the battle the emperor (who took up a position with his army next to the river) was awakened by an angel, who told him to look up at the sky. There he saw a glowing cross circled by the words 'in hoc signo vinces.' The next morning he had a replica of the cross made and carried it before him into the battle, in which he was victorious.
This episode certainly carried an important idealistic hidden meaning and also touched on contemporary events, at a time when Pius II was planning a crusade against the Turks. All attempts to reconcile the two churches had in fact failed, so that, after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, the only solution appeared to be to unite all Christians in the struggle against the Infidel.
In Piero's fresco, Constantine face is a portrait of John VIII Palaeologus, former Eastern Emperor. And just as Constantine had gone into battle, leading his troops carrying the symbol of the Cross, so the modern Emperor can defeat the Infidel by leading all Christian armies into battle. But beyond this symbolism the battle between Constantine and Maxentius is depicted as a splendid parade, from which the crashing of arms has definitely been eliminated. The absence of movement immortalizes the horses with raised hoofs in the act of jumping, the shouting warriors with open mouths, all fixed once again by the unbending rules of construction according to linear perspective.
Compared to the Battle of San Romano, painted by Paolo Uccello about twenty years earlier and which was one of the highest achievements of that Florentine pictorial perspective that inspired the young Piero, in the Arezzo fresco there is a totally new depth of space between the figures. A realistic atmosphere, conveyed by the bright lighting, emphasizes the various spatial planes. Within this composition, Piero della Francesca succeeded in reproducing, thanks to his highly refined use of bright colours, all the visual aspects of reality, even the most fleeting and immaterial ones. From the reflections of light on the armour, to the shadows of the horses' hoofs on the ground, to the wide open sky with its spring clouds tossed by the wind, the reality of nature is reproduced exactly, down to its most ephemeral details.