Piero della Francesca, Resurrection

Piero della Francesca, Resurrection, c. 1470 (fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection, c. 1463-65, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection, c. 1463-65, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

Saved from destruction

Although Da Vinci’s Last Supper is perhaps the most famous fresco that was nearly destroyed during World War II, the people of the Italian town Sansepolcro in Tuscany contend that they, in fact, hold the most important work spared in the war. For this, they can thank commanding British artillery officer and great appreciator of art, Tony Clarke, who was supposed to raze the city, but defied orders—having read Aldous Huxley’s comment that Sansepolcro was home to the best painting in the world. Huxley, of course, was referring to Piero della Francesca’s famed fresco, The Resurrection.

A relic of the holy sepulcher

Piero painted this fresco around 1463 in the civic hall of Sansepolcro, which had been occupied by the Florentines but was recently returned (the Italian city-states were often at war). The subject matter then—the triumphant Christ arising from his tomb the third day after his death—may be a reference to the triumph of the town itself, which was named after the Holy Sepulcher (Sansepolcro in Italian, and the Holy Sepulcher is the tomb that Christ was buried in). The presence of the large stone in the lower right hand corner of the fresco supports this, as it possibly represents the relic of the sepulcher (the burial place, in this case of Christ) putatively brought to Sansepolcro by the saints who founded the town, Arcano and Egidio.

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection, c. 1463-65, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection, c. 1463-65, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

An interest in more than naturalism

Unlike other paintings by Piero (The Flagellation for example), The Resurrection is less interesting iconologically than it is formally; that is, art historians are less concerned about what it might mean than what it actually looks like. Although The Resurrection is often depicted by having Christ emerge from a cave from which a boulder has been “rolled away,” Piero instead chose to show Jesus stepping out of a Roman sarcophagus. In the foreground of the painting, the Roman soldiers ordered to guard the tomb have all fallen asleep. The position of their bodies is quite interesting. The reclining soldier certainly could never actually maintain that pose while sleeping in real life, and his comrade next to him, holding the lance, doesn’t even have legs. These two details show that Piero was more concerned about achieving a pleasing composition than being true to life.

Also noteworthy is that, although we know that Piero was the author of a major treatise on perspective and was also a mathematician and geometer, the painting contains two vanishing points (the point at which all the lines of the painting should converge).  On one hand, we see the faces of the soldiers from below, but on the other hand, the face of Christ is painted straight on. If the perspective were consistent throughout the painting, we would see all the faces from the same vantage point. Again, Piero has sacrificed realism for effect.

Piero della Francesca, (soldiers detail) The Resurrection, c. 1463-65, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

Piero della Francesca, soldiers (detail), The Resurrection, c. 1463-65, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

A self-portrait?

Perhaps the most striking feature of Piero’s fresco is the physical reality of the people he paints. Piero has been lauded as one of the first painters of the Renaissance to capture realistic faces that show emotion. In fact, Giorgio Vasari, the great sixteenth-century art historian and painter, reported that the face of the soldier in brown armor was a self-portrait of Piero. Although there is no way of knowing if this is true—and Vasari is known for not always being accurate—his inclusion of this detail underscores the fact that Piero’s human figures are not just made-up “types,” but contain a spark of individuality that makes them feel like they are based on observations from real life. This is one of the major differences between Renaissance and Medieval art, and is partly why Piero is considered one of the great early Renaissance painters.

Piero della Francesca, Christ (detail), The Resurrection, c. 1463-65, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

Piero della Francesca, Christ (detail), The Resurrection, c. 1463-65, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

Geometry and mass

Piero has organized the figures so that an isosceles triangle is formed from the top of Christ’s head, through the soldiers, to the lower corners of the paintings. In addition, a tree is placed almost-symmetrically on either side of Jesus. This emphasis on geometric order and harmony is typical of the Renaissance, as best exemplified by paintings such as Raphael’s School of Athens, and Leonardo’s Last Supper.

Also characteristic of Piero’s work is the mass of the bodies, an effect achieved in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most obvious is the stalwart pose of Christ, who appears anchored to the tomb by both his left leg and the flag in his right hand. At the same time, he seems to actively be using the flagpole and the hand on his knee to raise his other leg out of the tomb. The flexed muscles of his abdomen also emphasize the reality of Christ’s body, which is physically engaged despite the serenity of his face.

Piero della Francesca, Christ (detail), The Resurrection, c. 1463-65, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

Piero della Francesca, soldiers (detail), The Resurrection, c. 1463-65, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

Mary cradling Christ's body (detail), Giotto, Lamentation, c. 1305, fresco (Arena Chapel, Padua)

Mary and Christ (detail), Giotto, Lamentation, c. 1305, fresco (Arena Chapel, Padua)

The complex positioning of the soldiers’ bodies also adds to this feeling of mass. Piero overlaps the men, intertwining their feet, so that they appear to exist in real space. The abdomen of the soldier in brown also echoes that of Christ, lending him an even greater sense of realism. The soldier all the way to the left, whose body is curled almost into a ball and whose face is hidden, is reminiscent of a similar figure in Giotto’s Lamentation, who is also used at the corner of the painting to anchor the eye and add weight to the composition.

Thanks, Tony

Not many of Piero’s paintings have survived, and those that have are scattered around the globe; few are in major museums. However, it is certainly worth the train ride from Florence to see this gem of the early Renaissance. And when you do, be sure to remember to thank Tony Clarke, without whom this painting would have become a pile of dust.


Additional resources:

The Man who Saved the Resurrection from BBC News

James Elkins, “Piero della Francesca and the Renaissance Proof of Perspective,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 69, No. 2 (June, 1987) , pages. p. 220-230.

Piero’s polyhedra

Polyhedra and plagiarism in the Renaissance


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”pieroresurrection,”]

More Smarthistory images…


[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] We’re in the Civic Museum in the town of Sansepolcro.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:08] This is an important historic space that was once the town hall.

Dr. Zucker: [0:13] We’re looking at one of the most famous paintings to come out of the Italian Renaissance. This painting was almost lost during the Second World War. Germans occupied this town, and the Allied forces were moving north. Orders were given to bombard the city, to destroy it.

Dr. Harris: [0:28] But luckily for us, a man named Tony Clarke defied those orders. He remembered reading about Sansepolcro.

Dr. Zucker: [0:37] He had read Aldous Huxley, a passage that talked about this as the greatest picture in the world. And so he held off until the Germans retreated, and there was no longer any need to bombard the town.

[0:49] We came so close to losing one of humanity’s great treasures. It speaks to the way the actions of one man can make all the difference. This painting was given a second life, and in an uncanny way, that’s the subject of the painting; this is the Resurrection.

[1:07] According to the Gospels, according to Saint Matthew, after Christ was crucified, Joseph of Arimathea asked to retrieve his body and placed it in a stone tomb. The Romans then placed guards around the tomb because Christ had said, according to Matthew, that he would rise after three days, and Roman authorities didn’t want anybody taking his body out and then claiming that Christ had arisen.

[1:31] In this painting, we see four Roman guards, and we can even make out on the shield of one of them the letter S and part of the letter P. This would stand for “SPQR,” which is an abbreviation that refers to the people and the Senate of Rome.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] For me, there’s an enormous difference between the languid bodies of the sleeping soldiers, and even the rolling hills of the landscape in the background, and Christ’s upright authority and symmetry.

Dr. Zucker: [2:01] There’s such a sense of clarity and righteousness in Christ’s erect posture, but also in the clarity of the geometry of the tomb on which his foot rests.

[2:12] Look, for example, at the diagonal that’s created by the scabbard of the soldier in blue or the large spear that’s held at a diagonal by the sleeping figure in the back right. Contrast those diagonals with the almost perfectly upright staff of the standard that Christ holds.

Dr. Harris: [2:29] Although the Gospels talk about this as a rock-cut tomb with a stone in front of it, here Piero gives us something that looks very much like an ancient Roman sarcophagus. We’re reminded of the Renaissance interest in the art of classical antiquity.

Dr. Zucker: [2:44] Well, look at the helmet of the soldier who leans on a rock. There’s that decorative articulation. It reminds me of so much architectural decoration from ancient Rome.

Dr. Harris: [2:54] We should also note the lovely fluted columns, this borrowing from ancient Greek and Roman art. And Piero paints them as though we are looking up at them.

Dr. Zucker: [3:04] Making Christ feel even more monumental, even more substantial.

Dr. Harris: [3:09] One of the things that we see here that will be employed frequently by later artists like Raphael and Leonardo is the use of a composition in the shape of a pyramid.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] Creating a kind of stability and a sense of the eternal, a sense of the perfect, a sense of the harmonious.

Dr. Harris: [3:32] In his verticality, in the symmetry of his torso and his face, we read a kind of authority that transcends the earthly world, that brings us into a divine realm. Everything about the composition draws our eyes to Christ’s face and that very intense gaze.

Dr. Zucker: [3:46] The four soldiers create a half-circle, or one could argue that their heads create a diagonal line pointing towards Christ. Similarly, as our eyes move back, the trees seem to fan away from Christ, but the reverse is also true. Those trees create a diagonal line that brings us back to Christ.

Dr. Harris: [4:06] We also notice that the trees on either side of Christ are so clearly differentiated. On the left side, they’re barren and lead up to a hill. On the right, they’re green and seem to lead to the town. Piero seems to be suggesting that the pathway to heaven, the pathway to salvation, is a difficult one. The pathway to earthly rewards is easy.

Dr. Zucker: [4:30] Christ almost seems to look out at us, asking us, “Which pathway are you going to take?”

Dr. Harris: [4:41] In that way, it’s very similar to older images of Christ as a judge. Images that we often refer to as Christ Pantokrator. This focus on judgment fits very well with the space that this painting was made for, this city hall.

Dr. Zucker: [4:52] It was here that justice would be meted out, that political decisions would be made. The moral message that this painting delivers was an important reminder for the leaders of the city who met in this very building.

Dr. Harris: [5:05] We can also talk about two works of art that are in the cathedral right around the corner and that would’ve been very familiar to Piero della Francesca. One is a large altarpiece that shows a scene of the Resurrection that is very similar. One of the differences, though, is that Piero has given us this earthly landscape behind Christ instead of angels.

Dr. Zucker: [5:32] The other most obvious difference is that Piero has learned and pushed forward the great lessons of the 15th century, a greater understanding of the musculature of the body, of the skeletal structure, of the movement of the body.

Dr. Harris: [5:40] Look at the modeling that Piero is employing in that torso, in his neck, in his arms. We have a sense of the light coming from the left.

Dr. Zucker: [5:49] Look at the green outer garment that’s worn by the soldier on the lower left. Look at the way that the light moves from brown to green and then to a kind of brilliant white-green, creating this completely convincing sense of the rolls of that drapery. I even have a sense of how thick that cloth is.

Dr. Harris: [6:14] And this interest in figures who occupy space, who have volume and mass, is a hallmark of the Renaissance, as are those shadows. By giving us those shadows, Piero is helping to convince us of the roundness of those bodies.

Dr. Zucker: [6:24] Even the atmosphere itself convincingly goes back into space using atmospheric perspective.

Dr. Harris: [6:30] There’s another image in the cathedral nearby that likely also influenced Piero, and that’s a sculpture called the “Volto Santo,” or Holy Face. It’s a type of image of the crucified Christ where Christ is triumphant over death. His eyes are wide open and he wears a robe instead of the usual loincloth.

Dr. Zucker: [6:57] It makes sense that all three of these works of art return our attention to the tomb of Christ, the namesake of this town.

Dr. Harris: [7:00] The story goes that the town was founded by two men who brought with them a relic, a piece of the Holy Sepulcher from Jerusalem. Piero’s resurrection is painted directly on a wall using a variety of techniques, including true fresco, and also fresco secco or dry fresco.

[7:20] Art historians now believe since the recent restoration that this painting was not made for this location. Now, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t made for this building. It was, but not this location.

Dr. Zucker: [7:34] This might be surprising, because we think of fresco as being permanent, but of course it is possible to move the wall upon which a fresco is made.

Dr. Harris: [7:48] As we sit here and look at this painting, I’m thinking again of Tony Clarke and the decision he made to disobey orders, to do what he felt was right.

Dr. Zucker: [8:00] It speaks to the importance for all of us to learn about art, to understand our cultural heritage, so that if we are ever faced with such a decision, we make the right choice.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Christine Zappella, "Piero della Francesca, Resurrection," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/piero-della-francesca-resurrection/.