Published by The College of Liberal and Professional Studies
Seeing Piero's Egg through Federigo's Eye: Vision, Linear Perspective, Real Space and Religious Experience
In the early 1470s, the Duke of Urbino, Federigo de Montefeltro, commissioned Piero della Francesca to paint a sacra conversazione for the church of the Osservanti di San Donato in Urbino. The remarkable composition exhibits Piero’s trademark fascination with the correct reproduction of the pictorial illusion of three-dimensional space as well as his increasingly sophisticated understanding of the latest neo-classical architecture of contemporaries such as Leon Battista Alberti.
Much has been said about the powerful evocation of a convincing and monumental space for the presentation of the enthroned Madonna, infant Jesus, cohort of patron saints and the kneeling patron; by contrast, the inconclusive evidence for the relationship of the solid figures to their setting as it would be understood by the application of mathematical rules to their scale and relative disposition and the illumination of their forms by the light the artist introduces to this scene raises a very interesting question: Where is everyone? This question asks us to consider the nature of space, and more specifically the space framed by Renaissance neo-classical architecture and the space defined by early modern Italian painters as they applied contemporary theories of art making and optical science.
When we do this, we then better understand decisions made by artists and patrons that otherwise confound us and cut us off from even an approximate experience of such sublime and powerful artworks. With some perspective, pun intended of course, we can move forward and into the territory staked out with such intellectual rigor by Piero and Federigo and their contemporaries. In turn, our increasing comfort with Piero’s place-making permits us to step back and interrogate him about his choices. For example, what about that darn egg? Why, we ask, did Piero choose to manipulate the mathematical underpinnings of scientific linear perspective? How, we ask, did he then transform an archetypal and somewhat tired image into an evocative and dramatic transformation of his patron from warlord or prince to intercessor and visionary? Oh, and why do we care?
The question that I will raise today has been asked before, although the conclusions drawn by other scholars have not, in my view, satisfactorily teased out of the painting the key to its composition. That is to say – many people have wondered about the Ostrich egg you see suspended in the upper reaches of the panel.
Many others have wondered about the reasons behind the armed patron.
Still others have debated the merits of the successful perspectival construction of the architecture, and others have wondered how Federigo himself expected this altarpiece to round out the transformation of the church into a shrine to the Montefeltro family. What I am proposing is that we build on the diverse body of analyses to develop a more synthetic appreciation for the image. In other words, rather than ask about the relationship between the Ovum struthionis and the Immaculate Conception or the absence of a second patron in the composition as completely discrete avenues of inquiry, we must look at Piero’s approach to painting, his understanding of architecture and the framing of space, his theory of narrative, and the final product in terms of its potential use and probable message as a prominent legacy of patron and artist.
In innumerable articles Marilyn Lavin and Millard Meiss let us know over the years that much careful study told them exactly where things are in the painting. For example, the wonderful egg would measure about 8 ½ inches in height and is some 45 feet behind the massive enthroned Madonna. Similarly, the angels to her rear and the consortium of patron saints stand in the crossing of a space between and before a number of barrel vaulted zones and are arranged in a semicircle that picks up the apsidal return in the niche from which that egg hangs.
The funny thing is that the two distant elements, figure group and pendant pellucid egg appear to be one on top of the other and that spatial illusion is reinforced by the light Piero casts on the particular elements. How, one asks, can this be? Particularly since Piero was and is an acknowledged adherent and master of perspectival painting. Why would the author of mathematical treatises and enunciator of the value that perspectival geometry and illusionistic painting has for imagery burn such a perceptibly confounding collocation in a commissioned work for one of his most prominent patrons? The reason must lie in the goals of the patron in the commission of the painting and cannot be attributed to anything other than the most calculated application of new ideas in early modern Italy by Piero as he made a bold statement about his art, his beliefs and his patron. Although I will agree that this statement was cryptic and was meant to be understood only by a select few members of his audience and would have, thus, reiterated the awesome power of Piero della Francesca, artist, and Federigo da Montefeltro, duke.
The reason I am confident that the painting is about an egg, a savior and a vision, about humanity and salvation is that we also are asked by the artist and the duke to think about presence and absence. How does Piero make us think about something unseen? Well, he takes a page from his contemporaries and builds a figure group that places a patron before a resplendent Madonna, child and saints. But he twists that trope and breaks the connection between the painted patron and the focus of his devotion. Federigo, there for us as a hinge between human and divine, looks not at the Virgin, nor at her only begotten son, no, instead he looks wistfully at a vacant space opposite him in Piero’s picture. He looks, we must think, at or for his intercessor, his departed wife, the duchess Battista Sforza. In moving our eyes from the traditional central devotional focus to a place occupied by another only in his dreams, Federigo harnesses Piero’s artistic genius to signal to all of us that Battista is present and is an agent capable of taking her husband and all the faithful with her into the company of all the saints in heaven.
The ostrich egg, Federigo’s absent duchess and the particularized space demand that we stop and think about each presence and each loss. We must think about things here, things seen and things remembered to understand Piero, the incarnation, the sacred message and the duke’s special place as patron and intercessor. In turn, we might consider how Piero understood sight and how he understood the noble sight of his patron, Federigo, in terms of the power attributed to exalted beings both human and divine. Thus, the egg and the architecture set the stage for our movement from our realm into the pictorial space. As we travel we cross psychological barriers and spend meditative and prayerful moments in an analogue of physical motion that acknowledges the mastery of illusionistic space and the twinning of the created worlds that we occupy and that Piero makes worthy of our focus.
The Brera Madonna stands alongside our human experience. No matter how we look we cannot easily move from our space into the world Piero has built for his Madonna, saints and his ducal patron. How then did Federigo and his contemporaries find value in this exercise of painterly skill? What the painting documents for us and for its normal audience, is the powerful visionary experience of Duke Federigo. Thanks to the egg, the arches and the family portrait of love and loss, we find a new avenue to explore. What may happen is this: we as viewers are blessed to witness not only Federigo’s vision but to partake of the vision itself and of all its contingent benefits for the faithful. In the end, Piero and Federigo have created an altarpiece that championed the scientific construction of perspectival reality as the province of the superior painter. What is more wonderful for us and for Federigo’s subjects is the knowledge that Federigo granted us his noble vision - through the intercession of the gifted Piero della Francesca – in perpetuity and promised us a clear path to salvation along a trail blazed by artist and patron. Quite something for a painting otherwise all about a suspended egg.