This is the last weekend to catch Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a selection of four devotional pictures never before seen in the United States. Though modest in scope, the exhibition reflects the epic scale of the Early Renaissance master’s frescoes while offering a concentrated glimpse of how startling and of-the-moment his work can be.
Piero’s forms are frontal and abstract, splayed against the picture plane in clusters of blocky, flattened shapes, wedding distinctly articulated volumes to the painting’s surface while infusing the compressed recesses between them with cool, crisp air.
Of the four paintings presented here, two are of the Madonna and Child and two depict St. Jerome. One of the Madonnas, allegedly Piero’s earliest known existing work (c. 1432–1439) and the only one of the four to include halos, sets Mary and the baby Jesus inside a faux frame or windowsill, with an open door or window behind them looking out onto a hilly landscape. The other is the well-known “Madonna and Child with Two Angels (Senigallia Madonna)” (c. 1478), an interior scene distinguished by Piero’s virtuosic handling of perspectival space and the juxtaposition of stagey, ambient illumination with naturalistically rendered shafts of sunlight.
In these two works, the imagery is straightforward and iconic, with the Madonna and Child filling the center and the rest of the composition falling in behind them. Things start to get a little skewed, however, with the paintings of St. Jerome.
The earlier of the two, “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness” (1450), shows the white-robed, barefoot hermit, who was born in the year 347 and died in 420, on his knees, gripping instruments of self-mortification in his hands. The painting has been over-cleaned, which may be the reason why the fingers of Jerome’s left fist are barely discernible, giving him the appearance of having two right hands, and why his left forearm seems to be sprouting from his rib cage. Also, the lion reclining in the lower left corner — the saint’s sole companion in most of the depictions of his hermitage — here resembles a silhouette cut from a semi-transparent sheet of film, revealing that Piero added the animal after he had fully rendered the landscape behind Jerome.
These distractions aside, the painting’s real interest lies in its jarring composition, which places St. Jerome and the entrance to his cave (the two entities behave formally as a single unit, joined in shades of light violet) to the right of the central vertical axis, shoving them, as it were, to the side. The tree directly behind Jerome sits at a disturbingly indeterminate distance. It seems to be growing out of his back, with its leaves and branches sheltering him like a beach umbrella, but if you look carefully at its juncture with the smaller stand of trees on the left, an argument could be made that it is rising above and behind them, putting it much deeper in the landscape.
The tree’s back-and-forth ambiguity is a major factor in its command of the composition, which the wraithlike Jerome can hardly resist. His significance is further diminished by the strong vertical stripes of the tree trunks on the left (take note of the orangey undercoat — visible no doubt thanks to over-cleaning — radiating beneath the trunks’ earth tones), which counter the leavening horizontal movements of the winding riverbank, the distant hilltops and the quirky, flying saucer-like clouds. The tree trunks are reflected in the water (which, curiously, is painted a misty white while the sky is a clear blue), turning the bend in the river into a raccoon’s tail.
The saint’s red cardinal’s hat (also an apparent addition over the completed landscape) sits on the painting’s bottom physical edge, an incongruous accessory to the pauper’s robe he’s wearing. But the hat, while providing a colorful kick to the dark, brooding canopy of leaves, comes off as a footnote to nature’s dominance of the scene — and a compelling revision, at least to modern eyes, of the religious and political hierarchies of Piero’s time, a reordering of the accepted lines for God, nature and humanity.
A similar reordering is at work in “Saint Jerome and a Supplicant” (ca. 1460–64?) from Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia, in which the role of the supplicant is played by the painting’s donor, Girolamo Agostino Amadi (c. 1433/35–1507), a Venetian silk merchant and a scholar in his own right. Amadi commissioned the panel to honor the literary accomplishments of his patron saint (Girolamo is Italian for Jerome), which included translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. Accordingly, Jerome is shown leafing through a book instead of castigating himself over his distant hedonistic past.
The two Jeromes stare at each other, the saint’s face in three-quarter view and the patron’s in profile, and their compositional relationship, with each occupying one half of the panel, is roughly equivalent, although Amadi’s red robe has a slight visual edge over Jerome’s white one. Also, despite his supplicant’s posture — kneeling, hands clasped in prayer — Amadi’s placement near the composition’s vertical midline encroaches on Jerome’s space and thereby draws more of the viewer’s attention. But on an abstract plane, the space between the two figures binds them together though an odd-looking landscape feature (an irrigation ditch?) that echoes the contours of the donor’s praying hands and points like an arrowhead from the mortal’s midsection to the saint’s.
At the same time, Amadi’s L-shaped pose is relegated to the lower-left corner of a rectangle bounded by the bottom of his robe, the top of a tree growing in the mid-distance, and the right edge of the panel. In contrast, Jerome is planted on a stone bench in the middle of his half of the picture. As a line of hills runs in a riot of curves behind both their heads, Jerome assumes the position of a regent presiding over his realm, while Amadi, stuck in the corner of his respective domain, is inescapably part of nature and its vicissitudes, prey to time and its decay (as were the copper resinate pigments used to paint the landscape, which have changed over the centuries from green to brown).
The restoration of “Saint Jerome and a Supplicant” (performed, not coincidentally, by the Met) was the impetus for the exhibition, which the curator, Keith Christiansen, expanded from a proposed single-work show to include the three other devotional pictures. In an interview published on the museum’s website, Christiansen points out that “the two figures who lock eyes in intimate communication are not from the same era, as is evidenced by their clothing, so you have an intersection of time. Additionally, there’s the viewer observing from a different context, entirely their own and entirely ‘now.’”
I found myself returning to this work again and again during the time I spent at the show, eventually concluding that what attracted my focus — what made the painting so 2014 — was its refusal to settle into a consistent style. The two figures could almost be the work of two different artists. The saint is powerfully and sculpturally rendered but painted in wispy, almost impressionistic brushstrokes, while the handling of the silk merchant, the “real,” observable person, is crystalline and exact. Paradoxically, his prayerful profile, which is typical of donor portraits, also serves to flatten and abstract his features, making him, in a way, more ethereal than the substantial-looking saint.
Behind the two protagonists, the realistic landscape heaves and flows and never quite connects with the awkward, toy-like city towers, but the bushy leaves in the tree above Amadi supply the most disruptive element. Their darkness is impenetrable, adding a touch of gloom to the scene’s muted daylight (though, again, we can’t know how much of this effect is attributable to the degradation of the pigment), but what is most intriguing is their heightened texture. Due to the glass protecting the painting and the angle of the spotlight shining on it, I couldn’t determine with any certainty whether the paint is actually raised off the surface (the work is executed in oil and tempera); nevertheless, the brushstrokes are laid down with such aggressive tactility that the profusion of leaves resembles hundreds of squashed bugs.
As in the earlier painting of Jerome, the viewer’s experience of an ascetic saint is informed by the lushness of nature expressed through bursts of pure paint. The contradictions inherent in the first two factors (discipline and wildness) are mediated by the third (materiality). While irresolvable impulses lie at the core of Piero’s timeless geometry, the intimate size of these pictures goes a long way toward collapsing the distance between his time and ours, confronting us with a stylistic and material fractiousness we recognize as our own.
Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through tomorrow, March 30.