Friday, May 03, 2024

The Story of the True Cross, by Piero della Francesca

In the mid-15th century, the Italian painter Piero della Francesca (1416-92) did a remarkable series of frescoes in the choir of the Basilica of St Francis in Arezzo, known as The History of the True Cross. Although a few sections of the paintings are completely lost, most of it is in very good condition; the entire cycle was beautifully restored in the 1990s. Arezzo is a lovely city, but it would be worth a visit even if there were nothing else to see there besides these works.

The cycle includes not only St Helena’s discovery of the Cross, which is celebrated today, and its recovery in the 7th-century, which is celebrated on September 14th, but also some of the popular stories collectively known as the Legend of the Cross, as recounted in Bl. Jacopo de Voragine’s Golden Legend and elsewhere. It has to be said that some of these stories stretch the bounds of credibility well past the breaking point, a fact of which Bl. Jacopo was quite aware. In his account of today’s feast, he refers several times to conflicting accounts in the histories to which he had access. The stories are not depicted in order within the choir itself; I will give them here in the chronological order of the legend. (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

The first panel (right wall at the top) depicts the death of Adam, the elderly man lying on the ground on the right, with Eve supporting him from behind. His son Seth receives from the Archangel Michael a branch from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Paradise, which he plants in his dead father’s mouth (at the bottom, to the left of the tree.) From this branch grows the tree which will become the wood of the Cross. (The depiction of a skull at the base of Christ’s Cross derives from this legend.)

Second panel, below the first - The tree lives until the time of Solomon, when it is cut down and part of it used to make a bridge. When the Queen of Sheba comes to visit Solomon, she recognizes it as coming from the Tree of Life, and kneels before it. On the right, she meets Solomon and his court, and bows before him. One version of the story adds that she had webbed feet, which were made normal by touching the wood. (Piero della Francesca’s mastery of the art of perspective is seen very nicely in the horse on the far left. His habit of depicting people in unusual hats, which he shares with a number of his Tuscan contemporaries, comes from seeing the delegates of the Eastern churches to the Council of Florence, which concluded shortly before he began this project.)

The third panel is to the left of the one above, on the back wall; Solomon has the wood from the bridge buried. (Piero does not depict the story of how the wood was then recovered and used to make the Cross of Christ.)

In the fourth panel just below it, the story moves forward to Constantine; an angel appears to him in a dream as he sleeps in his tent, the night before the great battle which will make him master of the Roman Empire, leading to his conversion. The angel bears a small Cross in his hand, a very subtle depiction of the In hoc signo vinces episode. (Piero has here done a very skillful depiction of a night scene, which most artists of the Renaissance shy away from.)

Returning to the right wall, to the right of the panel above, Constantine defeats Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, another tour-de-force of perspective, but sadly also the most damaged of the frescoes.

After the death of Christ, the wood of His Cross is buried again. According to the legend, when St Helena went to find it, some of the Jewish leaders knew where it was, but refused to tell her, so she threatened to have them burned alive. They therefore handed over to her one of their number, a man named Judas, whom she had lowered into a well and left for several days, until he agreed to reveal its location. This scene, to the left of the window at the back wall, shows him being lifted out of the well; his foot on the edge of the well is another example of Piero’s clever mastery of perspective. (This distasteful episode furnished the antiphons for Lauds, Vespers and the minor Hours of the Finding of the Cross in the pre-Tridentine Roman Breviary; the second, for example, reads “Then she ordered them all to be burned, but they, being fearful, handed over Judas, alleluja.” These were removed in Clement VIII’s revision of the Tridentine Breviary, and replaced with the antiphons of the Exaltation.)

St Helena finds the crosses of both Christ and the two thieves by digging up Mt Calvary. The Lord’s is identified by touching all three to a dead man whose funeral procession happens to be passing by; the third one raises the man back to life, at which all present adore it. (Piero is really showing off on the right with the perspective of the Cross. This panel is in the middle of the left wall.)

The Cross is stolen from the church of the Holy Sepulcher by the Persians when they take the city of Jerusalem in 614 AD. This spectacularly chaotic battle scene shows the defeat of the Persian Emperor Chosroes at the hand of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, which took place in 627 at Nineveh. Chosroes returns in defeat to his capital, where he is murdered by his elder son and successor Siroes. The latter will sue for peace with Heraclius, who makes the return of the relics of the Cross one of the conditions for the treaty. (This panel is located lowest on the left wall, to mirror the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on the right wall.)

At the top of the left wall, Heraclius, simply dressed and barefooted, brings the relics of the Cross back into Jerusalem. As described in the Matins lessons for the Exaltation of the Cross, on approaching the city, Heraclius found himself unable to pass the gate, held back by a mysterious force. The bishop of Jerusalem then told him to imitate the poverty and humility of the King of kings by laying aside his royal robes, at which he was able to continue his way to the Holy Sepulcher. It may be guessed that this story was particularly appealing to the Franciscans who sang Mass and Office in this choir every day, and was therefore put at the top as the most “exalted” of the scenes. (Here Piero really goes to town with the funny hats!)

To the left of the window in the back wall, below the scene of Judas being lifted out of the well, is depicted the Annunciation. More than one art historian has failed to realize that this is also, obliquely, part of the Holy Cross cycle, in accord with the ancient tradition, very widely accepted in the Middle Ages and beyond, that the earthly life of Christ was a perfectly circle of years, and that the day of His Incarnation was the same as the day of His death.

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