Friday, August 9, 2013



One of the first things one notices when looking at figures in Piero della Francesca's paintings is the stillness of the heads. Even if the figures turn to speak to one another within the scene, the impression is that the heads are carved in stone and silent in space and time, eternally stiff and immutable.


Piero's hands are a different matter. If there is movement in his figures, the movement is often in the hands. And Piero's hands are some of the most beautiful sections of his work.  They deserve an examination and careful praise. If they speak to us with a language of their own, they reflect the Italian language. Italian has three parts: the spoken word, the written word, and the words expressed through the hands. In Italy it is possible to witness entire sentences conveyed by hand gesture alone. Piero's hands are examples of the expressive nature of that part of the language. In order to understand Italian completely, you often have to know what a hand gesture means. In order to understand Piero's painted stories, the hand gestures must be included in the analysis of his scenes.
             Piero is a master of the painting of hands. He draws them in many different angles and is able to foreshorten them so skillfully, that the spectator believes them to be in real space and time. Some good examples of this part of his art are:

Magdalene, in the Arezzo Duomo, 1460:

The left hand has fingers encircling the glass oil lamp and we only see a portion of the left wrist as it is hidden by the foreshortened hand. The light reflected off the oil lamp glass on the fingers raises those fingers into sculpted relief against the glass.
The right hand bends around and grasps the lined cloak she is wearing while the viewer notices the soft skin of the back of the hand and the light playing over the knuckles. Magdalene's eyelids are down and her head is not moving, but the hands offer to the viewer, in the left, the light she sought in repenting of her sins, and in the right, a covering for the area of her body that she sold for money before converting. Her penitence is clear in the language of her hands. The beauty of the foreshortening and the beauty of light revealing the fingers in the shadows of the painting draw the viewer into the scene and help us understand her human waywardness much more than her impassive face and eyes do.
            We might add that she carries an alabaster box of oil because Magdalene is often associated with the sinner woman in Luke 7:37ff who anoints Christ's feet with her hair and oil. In that context the oily strands of hair splayed out on her garments here by Piero are understood as the anointing members.
Christ also tells her in Luke's account that all her sins are forgiven because she has loved much. "Thy faith hath saved thee: go in peace," he continues. The light coming from her alabaster box is actual and symbolic, and her peaceful face makes the viewer realize that she is painted by Piero in her state after the encounter with Christ in the story. The hair only makes sense, though, after we have "read" the hands.

Piero's Brera Altarpiece (Brera Gallery, Milan,1472-74):  St. Francis holds a bejewelled crystal cross in one hand and opens the slit in his robe with the other to show one of the "stimmate" of his fame.
He is the third figure from right in the Brera Altarpiece commissioned by Federico da Montefeltro, who kneels in armor in front of him. Francis' fingers are exquisitely rendered in foreshortening by the artist. The viewer's eyes run from light on knuckle to light on pearls on the cross, to light on scarred skin, to grasp, as the fingers do, the meaning of the sacrifice on the cross and the renewed experience of Francis that Federico wishes to emulate. The fingers of the saint point the way that Federico must follow in order to attain heaven in the afterlife; Francis' hands hold the cross and the scar right over Federico's hands.

 Between Federico's praying hands and those of the Madonna lies the child of that sacrifice.
After examination it is clear that all of the figures in the foreground have at least one hand pointing to or angled in the direction of the child in the center:

John the Baptist, saint on far left, points, as he does in many altarpieces, to the child because John is the precursor to Christ. Third in from left, San Bernardino, patron saint of the church for which the altarpiece was commissioned, points to the head of the child with his left hand palm out, "Behold the Man".

The vertical of the praying hands of the Madonna directs our eye toward the child on her lap, and Federico's praying hands continue into the stretched-out limbs of the child.

Francis is painted into the scene because the church of the commission (San Bernardino degli Zoccolanti) was Franciscan; his left hand points toward the child as it reveals the stigmata. The far right saint, Jerome, holds the book of the Bible, the Vulgate (his own translation from Hebrew into Latin), but his left hand (especially the thumb) joins in the chorus of hands pointing toward the child:
And, as if it were not enough that Piero could paint so many human hands with such grace and conviction, the artist outdoes himself and paints a metal set of hands, the armored gauntlets of Federico lying on the floor beneath the child:
The light falling on the metal hands underscores the difference in texture between skin and metal, and adds another dimension to Piero's talent.
       His altarpiece gives new meaning to the term "laying on of hands" as Federico's child, Guidobaldo, for whom presumably the altarpiece was made, is a child in need of protection because his mother, Battista Sforza, had died in 1472 when the child was just two. Since the Madonna is a portrait of Battista, the child must be a reference to Guidobaldo. Piero's hand is instrumental in protecting Federico, his wife, his child, and Federico's realm, with the conscious setting out of gentle hand gestures surrounding the sleeping heir, Guidobaldo/Christ. Even the metal gauntlets are meant as protective devices for Federico's hands and his child.
      Within the sacred conversation, Piero's hands make an eloquent case for human protectors gathered in prayer around the heir. Federico himself kneels between his armored hands and Jerome's book hands, unsure which will protect him most, the sword or the word offered by Jerome. Were Piero's hands enough to reassure the patron of the power of the hands of saints? Were they merely reasons to celebrate human touch? They point the way to heaven for the patron (i.e., through the Christ/son) as they protect the family inside their circle. Hands here direct the line of prayer.

In the Annunciation painted before 1466 in his Arezzo cycle, Piero uses hands to tell us the stages of the Annunciation drama:
With his right hand the angel blesses the Madonna and points upwards to the half-figure of God in the sky, announcing to her that he is just the messenger. With the left hand he holds out a palm-frond, the symbol of martyrdom, a foreboding gift to warn her that her child will predecease her. Mary is in between the first stage (as described by Michael Baxandall in his 1972 book), FEAR, and the second stage, REFLECTION. Both stages are suggested in Line 29 from Luke, Chapter 1: "And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be." Her foreshortened right hand set out in a greeting that is also protective of her body is Piero's way of conveying the first part of Luke's line, the troubled reaction, the FEAR.  Her left hand holds open the book she was reading. She presses her left index finger between two pages, indicating that she has stopped reading to think, "What manner of salutation this might be?"(REFLECTION STAGE)
     The leather strap that had bound the book tightly falls down below it. That fallen strap and the slit in the book remind us that this story is about God's entry into her life, her own impregnation. (Such leather straps can be found in Renaissance Books of Hours, prayer books). Her hand wrapped around the book, the loose strap, and the slit in the pages also suggests the Madonna's eventual ACCEPTANCE of her fate, the last stage in this Annunciation scene. Her hand encompasses the whole.

Only one more example: the Madonna del Parto, 1457, Monterchi:

The hand gestures of the angels draw the curtain open to reveal the Madonna. She, with her left arm akimbo, draws open with her right hand the slit in her dress to reveal the undergarment beneath:

Her head and body appear motionless, but her hands convey the meaning: her left hand is that of Donatello's Davids, the heroic gesture of confidence, accomplishment:

Her right hand in movement tells us she is feeling the motion, the "quickening" of the new child in her womb. The fingers of the right hand are not evenly spaced or set on the opening with calm; the awkwardness of the hand gesture as painted by Piero tells the viewer of the tentative nature of her touch. She is the handmaid of the Lord, but she is unsure of her new-found role. Piero's hands, as all Italians' hands, tell more of the story than the figure herself. Their movement lets the viewer know she is expecting and is proud of the child she bears, but that, for all her reliance on faith, she has the nerves of the new mother.

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