IMN #10 — Piero della Francesca

Flagellazione di Cristo by Piero della Francesca

It's Monday Night #10

This is my response to the deal we made with @jerrysaltz. For once, we don’t study digital art, but a masterpiece of art history: Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca.

If you take a look at, you will realize that no painting - not even Velazquez’ Las Meninas - has given rise to so many equivocations or conflicts of interpretation.

In spite of all these attempts, this painting has not yet been fully deciphered. Perhaps because it was painted with this purpose. Not cryptoart but encrypted art: now we begin.

I returned to see the enigmatic painting in Urbino 1 year ago, on a cold winter's day. The experience one has when facing it physically is nothing like the experience on screen.

Flagellation was painted on a wooden support - a curved material. Therefore, the impression doesn’t match the one produced by a perfectly flat surface. I’ll let you imagine why.

Whilst one looks at the painting, one’s gaze ends up in the middle of the characters. The colour, the sun, the light... One feels like one is walking around on a warm spring day.

However, it’s really uncommon that a landscape envelops you to such an extent, even though the painting is not large and the landscape is visible only in the upper right quarter.

I said that this painting was painted not to be understood but to challenge interpretation attempts. So you spend a lot of time in front of it. This is how it operates its magic.

The painting teleports you as if you were right in the Passion. I bet that many people see the Passion with this light, this architecture and even these anachronistic characters.

On the left side, you recognize the silhouette of Christ leaning against the column - Columna est Christus (btw, several other “Flagellations” are called “Christ at the Column”).

In Piero's Flagellation, the whole space is built around this carnal, symbolic presence of Christ, in the centre of the loggia. I'll come back to this later, it’s very important.

Let’s look at the right side of the table. Three men. It's definitely coded. In the 15th century, clothes, colours, ornaments, all that is code. The clothing says the character.

But then why is there so much disagreement in the literature about their identity? Figure 3 refers to Christianity - but it’s not the Trinity, I don’t think it would make sense.

The Trinity is certainly suggested by the number, but not represented by the three characters. There are many hypotheses. But we don’t want to get bogged down in expert disputes.

Among the hypotheses, one of the most recurrent mentions the Turkish threat to Byzantium. This would be the reason why, for example, the man who whips Christ is wearing a turban.

The three characters on the right would be (as Pilate in the left) Byzantines indifferent to the threat to Christianity: a Turk who holds the whip and is about to strike Christ.

But in my opinion the character is more representative of the type of clothing worn in Judea at the time of Herod. Another hypothesis: the central man’d be Piero’s contemporary.

Oddantonio da Montefeltro, killed shortly before Piero della Francesca's arrival in Urbino, who could be the central character.

Last interpretation: 3 entities, past, present and future: it’s attractive, but it doesn’t solve the enigma. And for good reason, as it’s impossible to solve it; it’s deliberate.

Piero apparently mixed several characters/entities in each figure. This raises the problem of the relationship between the left and right sides of the picture - of its structure.

How are the two scenes connected? Can be either spatial contiguity or parallelism. On the right, the 3 men are together but do not interact at all - except, perhaps, with hands.

It’s as if the terrible scene of humanity humiliating its saviour had no interest to them - a meaningfull contrast for our time: the world is burning and we’re looking elsewhere.

(This one I didn’t steal from a French philosopher but from former president Jacques Chirac.) And this is perhaps what gives the composition all its sadness, all its melancholy.

Christ was struck with indifference. But without abandoning this idea, someone may also argue that the two scenes were rather put in parallel by the painter. It would make sense.

In addition to showing the indifference of the world to its saviour, the presence of the 3 characters in the foreground would refer to another episode from the Bible or History.

The Magi? I do not really believe it. Maybe three apostles, but I do not believe it either. As always for perspective paintings, feet should be looked at with highest attention.

In my opinion, this question of feet validates the idea that Piero parallels the death of Christ with the death of a member of his patron's family. But we'll never know for sure.

One has to pay attention to the feet of the three characters. The central character (barefoot) is likely to be Christ’s alter ego. The one who suffered and relived the sacrifice.

Red colour of his tunic obviously symbolises blood and his blond hair covers his face with a halo reminiscent of Christ himself - then I spot a negative meaning in the other two.

One has his foot in the flogging scene, the other has black feet. Moreover, the central figure’s feet doesn’t seem to be fully attached to the ground as he should be. Intriguing.

Perspective usually allows characters to be anchored in space of representation. So, it’s very subtle and a bit far-fetched, but the figure in the middle seems to float a little.

Not much, but a bit. Well, he has one foot on the ground and the other one slightly above it - look at the knee. And his posture is analogous to that of Christ in the background.

In short, it’s a scene to watch from head to toe. Piero’s tour de force is thus to take up a common disposition for flagellations in his time and to reverse it, in a radical way.

Like many others and out of a taste for architectural perspectives, the Flagellation is put under a loggia. But he places the central scene near the vanishing point (background).

In the foreground is the outdoor area. It leads us to look at the picture in a thousand different ways. One can even think they are looking at two completely separated paintings.

Therein lies the ambiguity - is it a spatial contiguity (same place/different scenes) or a juxtaposition (different places/parallel scenes) between the two parts of the painting?

This is one of the things that makes this painting so interesting. Between the 14th and the 16th centuries, «narrativity» of painting undergoes changes - it is a long process.

I will not elaborate on this point (which I personally find fascinating) but one could say this painting vacillates between two opposite ways of telling stories through painting.

One can either represent the same character at different stages of their life within the same panel or fragment the story onto separate panels - two distinct pictorial choices.

Last element to get back on our feet: you will notice that the ground level is the same in the painting (a clue to a topographical relationship between the right and left sides).

But, in my opinion, there is another idea: perspective builds a unity of place, even fictional, to tell a story and here the unit of place is the Christ – 178mm, key measurement.

Then, if you take a close look at the paving, you can notice quite easily that there is a blatant break in the ground pattern between the outside and the underside of the loggia.

Further, Piero is so skillful – to say the least – that the paving becomes a circle around the column of Christ but he still manages to take up the checkerboard paving behind it.

As a result, the depth is slightly altered. At the top of the scene, one wouldn’t tell that the column is in the centre of the loggia. Yet, looking at the floor, it’s undeniable.

So all this to say what? Christ remains at the centre of everything - even when we don’t see him, when we don’t want to see him and when we have decided to turn our backs on him.

I’m pretty sure that’s one of the ideas in the painting. Simple, stupid. Oh, I forgot. There is a little secret in this review too, can anyone help @jerrysaltz to find it please?

2:44 AM (CET), Tuesday, January 25th, 2022 — Collector: IFART