Art critics don’t agree on much, but the Legend of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca is a happy exception. It’s regularly slated as one of the greatest series of frescoes of all time. But you don’t need to be well versed in Renaissance art to appreciate Piero della Francesca’s work. Its beauty, drama and general magnificence is plain for all to see. It is to be found in the town of Arezzo in western Tuscany, Italy.
Legend of the True Cross frescoes in Arezzo, Tuscany
Painted across the interior of the Cappella Maggiore in the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo, the “Legend of the True Cross” (1447-1466) is one of Tuscany‘s Renaissance art masterpieces. It tells the story of the cross on which Christ was crucified, beginning when the tree was planted (a seed put in the mouth of the dying Adam) to when it was buried by King Solomon, who learns the future of the wood from the Queen of Sheba. The story goes on to involve all the good and the great, from Constantine to Emperor Heraclitus in the 7th century who recovers the True Cross after it was captured by the Persian King.
What’s so special about the Legend of the True Cross?
Even if the story’s lost on you, the effect won’t be. From its perfectly designed compositions, to the atmosphere they create, it’s a mesmerising experience. Look out for the frail Adam surrounded by his family, the majestic Queen of Sheba kneeling in front of the wood, and the Emperor Constantine asleep in his bed illuminated by a sacred light.
Piero della Francesca was among the amongst the first artists to use perspective, following Masaccio’s example. He’s also noted for putting his figures inside a realistic space. His interest in geometry (and the theories newly minted by Leon Battista Alberti) are clear in his solemnly constructed compositions. He also pays great attention to the light, being one of the first artists to represent the different qualities of atmospheric phenomena.
In the first scenes of the story, an old Adam is laying on the floor surrounded by his family. In an allegory of human life, the young stands next to the eldest (Eve’s wrinkled face is particularly moving). One look at the clothes and the hats show his dedication to the art of perspective, especially in the “Exaltation of the Cross“, the last episode of the cycle (up on the left, in front of Adam’s Death). It’s interesting to note the splendid attire of the oriental noblemen. They show that the artist may well have witnessed the Council of the Roman Catholic church (1438–45) in which the Latin and Greek churches tried to reach agreement on their doctrinal differences.
The vivid and harmonic colours used throughout the frescoes, and the attention to detail is particularly evident in “Constantine’s Dream” on the lower righthand side of the end wall. By way of example, the way the two sentries in the foreground stand out shows a very realistic depiction of light that is innovative for the time.
Did you know?
The stories told here in painting are based on the “Legenda Aurea”, one of the most important hagiographies of the Middle Ages. Compiled around 1260, the book was effectively an encyclopaedia of the saints. It was so popular it became a bestseller, and is still an important reference text for medievalists today.