PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA
(b. 1416, Borgo San Sepolcro, d. 1492, Borgo San Sepolcro)
9. Exaltation of the Cross1452-66
Fresco, 390 x 747 cm
San Francesco, Arezzo
The last episode of the cycle is in the lunette of the east wall. Heraclius wished to bring the cross back to Jerusalem after his victory over the heathen. When he tried to enter the city through the very gate Christ had used, the stones fell down and blocked his way. An angel then told him that he would have to walk barefoot, carrying the cross in humility, as Christ did. Heraclius followed the angel's advice, whereupon the stones sprang back into place, the gate was opened, and he was then able to return the cross to its proper place. In Piero's cycle the scene is presented in a somewhat different version. Heraclius, barefoot, has carried the cross up to the walls of Jerusalem. There he and his train are met by a group of men who kneel down before the cross in veneration.
The figure of the Emperor is almost entirely illegible now. The Oriental noblemen wear splendid Greek headdresses, the exotic elegance of them had been admired by all Florentines at the time. Piero's interest in these enormous hats, cylindrical or pyramidal in shape, is dictated by the same motives which had driven Paolo Uccello to concentrate on the complex armour of contemporary warriors - the study of shapes and perspective.
And the colours of the garments are more lively, too. In the midday light and under the blue sky, they vary from pale blue to violet, from bottle-green to pearl-white. This scene is the confirmation that Piero wishes to depict an ideal mankind, healthy and strong, with a peaceful expression, characterized by calm, measured gestures. He conveys the impression of a race of mature men, rationally at peace with themselves.