Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art, this is Alessandro. Today I am gonna be talking about Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ. It is considered by many experts one of the most interesting and enigmatic little paintings in the world. I disagree about “little” since it is 58.4 × 81.5 cm (23.0 × 32.1 in), so it’s not really small. However, for sure it is really interesting, even if pretty rough, and enigmatic.
And today we are going to read it analyzing the reasons that make it so appreciated thanks to three main steps: interpretation, composition and perspective.
ARTIST: Piero della Francesca
NAME The Flagellation of Christ
LOCATION Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino
DIMENSIONS 58.4 × 81.5 cm (23.0 × 32.1 in)
MATERIAL Tempera on panel
Painter and mathematician
First of all, it is important to say that the painter, Piero della Francesca, was a great artist, but also a very good mathematician and one of the first perspective experts. So, he was pretty smart and we learned about him and his remarkable skills in one of my previous videos: The Baptism of Christ.
Math and, as a consequence, perspective are not details, but a fundamental key to read this Renaissance work of art. We are in fact in the second half of 1400, so full Renaissance and one of the first surprises is that we don’t know a lot about this tempera on panel. We don’t know who commissioned it, when or why.
Buuut we are sure that Piero della Francesca made it since he signed it:
OPVS PETRI DE BVRGO S[AN]C[T]I SEPVLCRI – “the work of Piero of Borgo Santo Sepolcro” (his town). And we know also that it was made in Urbino, one of the most influent Renaissance cities of the time, and this is a hint to understand who are the 3 characters in foreground who don’t seem to care at all about the violent scene involving the 5 characters in background. And this is really weird and interesting for 2 reasons, the first because how can they be so dispassionate about what’s going on behind them? And, second, the painting is called The Flagellation of Christ… a well-known biblical episode when the Roman Pontius Pilate ordered to scourge Jesus. But Christ is in background…
I know, it’s seems a mess. Let’s make some order.
There are many interpretations that try to explain who are the characters and, as a consequence, the meaning of the scene. A first theory is that the man in the middle is Oddantonio da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, between his advisors who were held responsible for his death. Oddantonio’s death would be compared, in its innocence, to that of Christ. However, this interpretation is probably wrong since Oddantonio’s corpse was buried in an unnamed grave because of his unpopular government and a painting dedicated to him would have been a betrayal to the citizens of Urbino.
A second interpretation, Political-theological, suggests that the figure in the middle would represent an angel, flanked by the Latin (Catholic) and the Greek (Orthodox) Churches whose division created a lot of troubles. The man watching the flagellation would be the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos (I swear this is the last complicated name for today) who can be identified by the clothes and the funny hat and Jesus would represent the suffering of the whole Christianity.
Other explanations are mostly related to the three characters in foreground identified with important figures in Urbino.
However, beside who they are, what we can tell is that the whole painting is divided exactly into 2 scenes: the flagellation taking place indoor and the outside.
The flagellation is happening on the inside of a beautiful classical building with elegant Corinthian marble columns and a coffered ceiling and it’s interesting noticing that Jesus is tied to a classical column in the middle of the room and on the top of it there is a pagan statue: a clear reference to the origins of his suffering.
Not by chance the room is in the shade and the colors are faded, except for Pontius Pilate’s clothes.
Let’s give a look instead on the outside dominated by quiet and light. The light is coming from the top left as we can see thanks to the shades on the buildings that, be careful, once again with Piero, are not details: those are Renaissance architectures. The sky is clear and bright and we can notice also a tree, a laurel tree that is framing the man’s head. And laurel has a specific meaning: glory.
And if the laurel frames the character in the middle, the modern architecture does the same for the one on the right, while the man on the left is framed by the classic architecture.
Perspective and Golden Ratio
Interesting right? However, there is more: the painting seems kind of split into 2 scenes, but we perceive it like once. Let me show you some cool stuff that explains that. If we use the golden ratio. Yes, the “magical” golden ratio…
… a+b is to a as a is to b.
A scheme present everywhere in nature and that we unconsciously recognize. And the square, a symbol of perfection, is present on the floor and on the ceiling and here once again Piero’s genius. All the straight lines he added help to visualize the perfect perspective that reach the vanishing point. Here is where we have the horizon and if we add a vertical line crossing look what happens: more squares.
So that’s why even if the 3 characters on the right are closer to us we are forced to look also on the left, deep inside the close space. Moreover, following one of the beam our vision is pushed to look at Jesus.
Jesus who, look carefully, he is standing in the middle of a square space, but, for the first time in the painting, there is also another perfect geometric figure: a circle. The popular problem in geometry known as Squaring the circle.
And a fun fact: did you wonder why there is that man in the shade with his back turned? Well, the distance between that man and Jesus is the same there is between the 3 men on the right and us, pushing us to feel even more unconsciously close to Jesus and, literally, inside the scene. That’s insane!
Here is what I think. We can say that the flagellation, a barbaric episode taking place in the shade, inside a classical building is in contrast with the civil dialogue between 3 men different from each other in a bright sunny Renaissance square. Remember that Renaissance was characterized by an effort to revive and surpass ideas and achievements of classical antiquity using modern values and science and this connection, but at the same time contrast, is clearly visible here.
So, the flagellation would symbolize the classical past, advanced on one side, but still related to rough and brutal episodes, that is in background like a distant memory. And then we have a modern scene, dominated by the brightness of reason, in foreground apparently without considering the cruel episode, but still connected to it thanks to the many tricks Piero used.
Once again we found out how fascinating art is. If you liked the post please leave your comment and share. Oh and click here support this free art project. Thanks for reading and see you in the next episode.