After Piero

I don’t often blog about things inspired from TV programmes. I don’t watch that many, and those I do see are rarely inspirational. However, last night, I caught the last of the series Renaissance Revolution, presented by Matthew Collings. It was on the subject of a major obsession of mine, the art of Piero della Francesca, and I thought it was wonderful. I regret having missed the previous programmes in the series, but I’m sure I’ll get a chance to see them sometime.

Collings focused on one particular painting by Piero, The Baptism of Christ, which hangs in the National Gallery in London, and which is illustrated below:

The political and religious backround to this painting are almost as fascinating as its composition, based on the offset superposition of a circle (representing heaven) and a square (representing the Earth). The use of perspective was very new around 1450 when this painting was finished, but that’s not the only geometrical aspect to note. There’s a striking use of symmetry (e.g. in the angles of John the Baptist’s arm and leg), and the central vertical axis defined by the dove, John’s hand and Christ’s hands.

Given the mathematical rigour of his compositional techniques, it should come as no surprise to learn that in his lifetime Piero was just as famous as a mathematician as he was as an artist. In other words he was the archetypal renaissance man. Unfortunately, most of his art doesn’t survive; the vast majority of his works were frescoes in various churches, few of which have withstood the test of time. Regrettably, little also is known about Piero the man, except that he lived into his 80s.

A while ago I mentioned another work by Piero which is the origin of my obsession with his paintings. The Flagellation of Christ is a work that has burrowed so far into my psyche that I quite often dream that I’m in the strange building depicted therein:

In fact I also use this painting in talks about science – I did so in my talk on Wednesday, in fact. The reason I use it in that context is that it is a bit like the standard model of cosmology. On one level it makes sense: the flat Euclidean geometry mapped out by the precise linear perspective allows us to understand the properties of the space extremely well, including the scale (the vanishing point indicates a front-to-back distance of about 250 ft). This is what our standard cosmology says too:- the universe also has a flat geometry. On the other hand, the more you think about the contents, the more confusing the picture gets. The main subject matter of the painting is to the left, in the background, playing an apparently minor part in the whole thing. Who are the characters surrounding the Christ figure? And who are the three figures in the foreground, dominating the whole composition, but seemingly indifferent to what is going on behind? Do they represent dark energy? Do the other characters represent the dark matter?

That’s not meant to be taken seriously, of course, and nobody actually knows what is really going on in this painting. It’s undoubtedly beautiful, but also an enigma, and that combination is what makes it a great work of art. It’s not easy to understand. It makes you wonder.That’s what science is like too. We have our theories, we have data, but there always remains a great deal we don’t understand. And sometimes the more we think about it, the more confused we get. Just as it is with that painting.

As Mark Collings put it brilliantly in the programme last night

When you’re looking at the picture, analysis isn’t exactly what is going on. You’re seeing and you’re getting pleasure from seeing. Partly the picture is telling you how pleasure is constructed, how it’s created, and partly you’re just lost in it. So when you’re lost in the light of Piero, you’re experiencing when you’ve forgotten how to experience. And you’re suddenly curious when you’ve forgotten how to be curious. And what you’re experiencing and being curious about is .. the world.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a scientist or an artist (or a poet or a philosopher or a historian or whatever). The need to be curious about the world – or some aspect of it – is surely what it’s all about. During the Renaissance it wasn’t unusual for great minds to embrace science, mathematics and art – just think of Leonardo da Vinci. However, over the centuries we’ve become increasingly specialised and compartmentalised and more focused on making money than on making ideas. We’re losing what above all else is what makes us human, our curiosity.

Our society increasingly sees education simply as a means to develop skilled workers, smart enough to do technically complicated jobs, but not clever enough to ask too many questions about the materialistic treadmill they will spend their life upon. The UK government’s plan to withdraw funding for arts and humanities departments in universities is just another step along this path.

It shouldn’t be like this. Universities should be about learning for learning’s sake; not about teaching facts or skills, but about teaching people to ask questions and figure out their own answers. In other words, they should be about curiosity.



13 Responses to “After Piero”

  1. Many years ago now, when I was 13 or 14, I had a discussion with my father about the subjects I should take at school. This was the time of O’ levels and even at that age, as I’m sure you remember, it was a time to think about your future career and start narrowing down the subjects to study.

    It was about the time of the Falklands conflict and given my father’s history of fighting in WW2 I was thinking of leaving school at 16 and becoming an artificer in the Royal Navy (while playing football and cricket for England at the same time).

    My father never had the opportunity to go into higher education. It was too expensive and then he got called up to fight. When we discussed my future he told me two things:

    1) He’ll support me no matter what I do

    2) Go to university, it’ll teach you how to think.

    I didn’t join the navy, I never played football or cricket for England, and eventually I did learn how to think.

    Unfortunately, if I had children, I don’t think I could give them the same advice my father gave to me.


  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    According to the Wikipedia article on the latter painting it had an earlier title “They came together” from Psalm 2. If this was the artist’s intent then it sheds light on why figures other than Jesus are in the foreground and who they are. The relevant part of Psalm 2 is about how men of political power stitch up a figure who in retrospect is obviously Jesus. Likely candidates for these men therefore include Herod, who was the puppet king of Judaea under the Romans and hated Jesus; and Caiaphas, the High Priest of the Jews, who sought his execution as a blasphemous heretic.

    The artist is not above a bit of dramatic license. Jesus was baptised in the river Jordan, not by having a bowl of water tipped over him as shown in the first picture – which is how it was done in the artist’s time.

    • telescoper Says:

      Indeed, patrons usually required they be in the painting too. Some of the characters in the baptism are depicted in Eastern garb, and this dated from a time when there was a lot of discussion of the possible union of East and West to prevent Constantinople falling to the Turks. It didn’t happen, of course.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yes, I know that patrons like to be in paintings, but if the people in the foreground of The Flogging are baddies then the artist has a problem. I’d guess that the bearded one is Caiaphas, with the face of somebody the patron disliked.

    • telescoper Says:

      There are lots of theories about who they are, but nobody really knows. It’s strange that they seem so oblivious to what is going on. It’s almost as if it’s some kind of joke…

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I know that to go further you would need a huge knowledge of Renaissance painting conventions and personalities, but it seems to me that the quotation from Psalm 2 explains why Jesus is in the background not the foreground, which certainly needs explaining. You can read, in the gospels, who are the politicians who stitched him up and make suggestions who the foreground figures are. Only after that can you play “spot the contemporary” with the faces. I’d like to see if any published analyses of the painting make these points.

    • telescoper Says:

      There are many books about Piero, and especially this work. In fact there was a paper in Nature about it some years ago, although it focussed on the mathematical properties of the composition rather than the political and religious background.

      I think it’s generally believed that the figure sitting with his back to the viewer on the left is Herod.

      I saw the picture myself many years ago – it’s in a museum in Urbino. It’s actually surprisingly small (60cm by 80cm). For some reason I had expected it to be a much larger work.

      Another early renaissance painter I am captivated by is Giotto. The Arena chapel in Padova is completely decorated with frescoes by him, and I think it’s one of the artistic wonders of the world.

    • telescoper Says:

      ps. Something very strange is going on with the light in the Flagellation too. The shadows fall in different directions in different parts of the picture.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “I think it’s generally believed that the figure sitting with his back to the viewer on the left is Herod.”

      No figure is sitting with his back to the viewer. Someone is sitting side-on, someone else is standing with his back to the viewer. Which do you mean, please?

      NB This is not of course Herod who tried to have Jesus murdered as a baby, but a later relative of that name.

    • telescoper Says:

      Ooops. I meant the character standing with his back to the viewer (wearing the long robes; not the one with the whip). I think the seated character to the far left is intended to represent Pontius Pilate.

  3. telescoper Says:

    In the interest of accuracy, I should point out that, tonight, I will be watching something else on TV that is likely to prove inspirational. Match of the Day 2 features highlights of Newcastle United’s 5-1 victory over arch-rivals Sunderland.

  4. […] interest in the formal, geometric, aspects of art wasn’t at all unusual in this period. I blogged a while ago about another favourite Renaissance artist, Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492) whose life […]

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