Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Piero della Francesca, one of the most innovative artists of the 15th century, worked for some of the most powerful figures in Italy, from Frederico de Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, to Pope Nicolas V in Rome. Yet Piero always maintained links with his hometown of Borgo Sansepolcro in Tuscany, where in 1454 he accepted a commission to paint a polyptych for the high altar of the church of S. Agostino. His patron was one Angelo de Giovanni di Simone d’Angelo who initiated the project to fulfill the wishes of his late brother, Simone, and Simone’s wife, Giovanna, to make a donation to the church for the spiritual benefit of the donors and their family.
This type of religious commission was common among the wealthy mercantile and aristocratic classes. For the devout, such a gift helped guarantee their place in heaven; and, on a more secular level, commissioning an altarpiece for a church was a sanctioned method to display not only the donors’ piety but also their status and wealth (a useful function in Renaissance Italy where sumptuary laws frequently forbade overt public displays of riches). And no doubt, particularly for the small town, d’Angelo family, it was a mark of honor to hire such an illustrious artist as Piero.
The contract stipulated that Piero should include ‘images, figures, pictures and ornaments.’ Unfortunately, the central portion of the altarpiece is lost, but four side panels with standing saints – St Michael the Archangel (National Gallery, London), St Augustine (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon), St Nicholas of Tolentino (Museo Poldi-Pezzoli, Milan), and this painting, thought to be St John the Evangelist – have survived. The figure has no identifying attributes but is thought to be St John as he was the patron saint of the donor’s father and Simone’s wife.
Busy with other commissions, Piero took 15 years to complete the altarpiece (a record of his payment is dated 1469). Still, despite his commitments to other more illustrious and, no doubt, demanding patrons, Piero endowed the Sansepolcro altarpiece with the same contemplative precision and mesmerizing stillness of all his works.
The elderly saint stands reading, draped in red and crowned with a golden halo. The cool color palette and balanced order give the figure a restrained elegance, while his ruddy feet, hands and aged face add an earthy quality. It is a precise balance of a naturalism derived from Netherlandish art with the clearly defined volumes and accurate perspective of the art of classical antiquity. Piero, like many in Renaissance Italy, was fascinated by Greco-Roman antiquity; to emulate the style and works of the Ancients was seen as a way of returning to a grandeur that was felt to have been lost during the ‘middle ages,’ that is, from the end of antiquity to their own time. This classical influence is evident not only in Piero’s crisp linear perspective (the artist was fascinated with geometry and mathematics and would write several treatises on the subjects in later life) but also in the saint’s costume and background: note the marble floor and applied columns, capitals and entablature.
Exactly where Piero learned all this is unknown; his early life and training remain a mystery. He is first recorded in 1439 working in Florence with Domenico Veneziano. Subsequently he received commissions for frescos, altarpieces and portraits throughout central Italy. But other than that, we have only his art.
c1460 Rogier van der Weyden: Francesco d’Este, New York Metropolitan Museum
1461 Benozzo Gozzoli: Journey of the Magi, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi