The Gift Of Piero’s Paintings

by Jessie Roberts

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Sanford Schwartz reviews the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit on the devotional works of Piero della Francesca, writing that his “figures can be strangely contemporary in their sexiness, and there is nothing dated about the way they encounter and judge one another, or appraise us”:

The most impressive work in the show is Madonna and Child with Two Angels…. With her downcast eyes, gentle demeanor, and small features set in a large, wide-nosed face, the Madonna is a choice example of a kind of woman, at once regal and rustic, that Piero created. Her quiet strength is reiterated in the work’s painted surface, which has an enamel-like density.

The angel in pink is an attentive young person, but the angel in blue (who is possibly the same model seen in a different way) is, along with the suggestion of a room behind him, transfixing.

Piero’s angels, whether attending a Nativity, a baptism, or a Madonna, can be guarded or genuinely sweet. They almost always have a distinct presence. The angel, or seraph, in blue here, whose arms are crossed before his chest and who might be blocking entry to the background space, would seem to be Piero’s last word on the subject. His baby-blue outfit is exquisitely touched with bits of white and gold, and his white-blond hair is set in little electrified ringlets. Kenneth Clark, in his book on the artist, called him “daunting,” and [curator Keith] Christiansen says he is “implacable.”

But surely his protectiveness has something sensual and brazen about it, and the glimpse we have of the bare space behind him, where all we see are shadows of window blinds and a patch of strong sunlight on the wall, is uncannily of our day and age. Am I alone in thinking that this part of the picture might be set in Palm Springs? The angel and the mysterious area he is linked with form almost a painting within the painting. It is kind of a gift within the larger gift that is Piero’s art.

(Image of Madonna and Child with Two Angels (ca. 1464–74?), also known as the “Senigallia Madonna,” via Wikimedia Commons)