PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA
(b. 1416, Borgo San Sepolcro, d. 1492, Borgo San Sepolcro)
View of the Cappella Maggiore1452-66
San Francesco, Arezzo
The painting of the main choir chapel (Cappella Maggiore) of the Franciscan church in Arezzo was undertaken in accordance with a provision in a will written some forty years earlier, one that seems to presume even earlier patronage rights to the chapel. The coat of arms of the Bacci family, dating from the fifteenth century, can be seen on either side of the entry arch. The chapel itself was built between 1366 and 1374. In 1408 the owner of patronage rights to it was the spice merchant Baccio di Masi Bacci, who in that year drew up his first will designating the church of San Francesco as his final resting place.
The work on a fresco cycle in the Cappella Maggiore of the church San Francesco had already begun in 1452 when Piero della Francesca visited the city. The Florentine painter Bicci di Lorenzo was working in the chapel, he died in 1452, leaving the decoration of the chapel barely begun. Piero probably began to work right after Bicci's death, covering in a few years the walls of the Gothic chapel with the most modern and most advanced - in terms of perspective - frescoes that the Italian 15th century could have created.
The 13th century Crucifix with Saint Francis was already in the church when Piero della Francesca frescoed the chapel; it has been recently placed above the main altar.
The subject-matter of the stories illustrated by Piero is drawn from Jacobus de Voragine's "Golden Legend", a 13th century text that recounts the miraculous story of the wood of Christ's Cross. The story tells how Adam, on his deathbed, sends his son Seth to Archangel Michael, who gives him some seedlings from the tree original sin to be placed in his father's mouth at the moment of his death. The tree that grows on the patriarch's grave is chopped down by King Solomon and its wood, which could not be used for anything else, is thrown across a stream to serve as a bridge. The Queen of Sheba, on her journey to see Solomon and hear his words of wisdom, is about to cross the stream, when by a miracle she learns that the Saviour will be crucified on that wood. She kneels in devout adoration. When Solomon discovers the nature of the divine message received by the Queen of Sheba, he orders that the bridge be removed and the wood, which will cause the end of the kingdom of the Jews, be buried. But the wood is found and, after a second premonitory message, becomes the instrument of the Passion.
Three centuries later, just before the battle of Ponte Milvio against Maxentius, Emperor Constantine is told in a dream, that he must fight in the name of the Cross to overcome his enemy. After Constantine's victory, his mother Helena travels to Jerusalem to recover the miraculous wood. No one knows where the relic of the Cross is, except a Jew called Judas. Judas is tortured in a well and confesses that he knows the temple where the three crosses of Calvary are hidden. Helena orders that the temple be destroyed; the three crosses are found and the True Cross is recognized because it causes the miraculous resurrection of a dead youth. In the year 615, the Persian King Chosroes steals the wood, setting it up as an object of worship. The Eastern Emperor Heraclius wages war on the Persian King and, having defeated him, returns to Jerusalem with the Holy Wood. But a divine power prevents the emperor from making his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. So Heraclius, setting aside all pomp and magnificence, enters the city carrying the Cross in a gesture of humility, following Jesus Christ's example.
The scenes of the cycle:
1. Death of Adam
2. Procession of the Queen of Sheba; Meeting between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon
3. Burial of the Holy Wood
4. Vision of Constantine
5. Constantine's Victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge
6. Torture of the Jew
7. Finding and Recognition of the True Cross
8. Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes
9. Exaltation of the Cross