Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels

The Virgin Mary and Jesus are attended by angels, whose wings are partly visible. The angel in red directs our attention to the infant reaching for a flower offered by his mother, an interaction which may symbolize divine love or allude to Jesus’s fate. The angel in white casts a shadow across the base of Mary’s throne, suggesting the painting originally hung to the right of a window.

Piero was an influential artist and mathematician particularly interested in perspective and in Greco-Roman antiquity. In this enigmatic painting, the figures seem three-dimensional, like marble statues, and occupy a space inspired by classical architecture.

Piero della Francesca is one of the most important artists of fifteenth-century Italy. The artwork he produced—frescoes and panels—as well as his exploration of perspective and geometry in painting secures his place as one of the leading figures of the Renaissance.

Many of the ideas that recur throughout his work seem to have been inspired by a brief stay in Florence when he was only about twenty years old. In the 1430s Florence was one of the great powers in Europe, a wealthy cosmopolitan city that supported artists with commissions for great civic monuments. Piero worked with Domenico Veneziano (died 1461) and had the opportunity to study masterpieces by sculptors such as Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378—1455) and Donatello (1386—1466). From these works he learned, for example, about the rendering of complex relationships among figures in groups. The frescoes of Giotto (1266—1337), the great late medieval master whose career began in Florence in the late thirteenth century, taught Piero how to achieve richness and subtlety in color and clarity in the arrangement of space. The paintings of Masaccio (1401—1428) held lessons about the artistic potential of the human body and the power of gesture. The intellectualism that surrounded the architect Leonbattista Alberti (1404—1472) increased Piero’s interest in theory. Everything that he encountered in Florence profoundly affected his thinking and, as a result, his painting.

This panel, one of the very few in North America by Piero, shows that as a mature painter he had fully synthesized all the ideas of his youth. The clarity, calm, and color of the painting, as well as the architectural setting, all show his debt to older masters. The spatial relationship among the figures, however, is Piero at his best.

Following his initiation to theory in the late 1430s, Piero drafted a treatise on mathematical perspective in paintings. This panel shows how Piero applied his writing to his work. His figures are conceived as volumes, constructed three-dimensional forms of spheres, cylinders, cones, and pyramids. This is further emphasized by the architecture. To achieve precision in his composition, Piero relied on some of the tools of a geometrician: the rosettes on the base of the throne, for example, have been drawn with a compass, and the outlines of the various architectural elements have been scored onto the panel.

While geometry and perspective serve as the basis for Piero’s creation of the illusion of plausible space for each figure to occupy, gesture and gaze have been used to unite them. The angel on the right looks outward, engaging the viewer directly, and the angel on the left, along with the Virgin, looks at the baby Jesus. The Virgin also holds a rose, a symbol of the Passion. The baby reaches for the flower—a sign he embraces his destiny of crucifixion and, ultimately, redemption of the faithful.

— Steven Kern, excerpted from The Clark: Selections from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Steven Kern et al. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), p. 18.

Piero della Francesca

Italian, c. 1415/20–1492

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels

c. 1460–70

Oil possibly with some tempera on panel, transferred to fabric on panel

42 7/16 x 30 7/8 in. (107.8 x 78.4 cm) Frame: 54 1/8 x 41 3/4 x 4 1/2 in. (137.5 x 106 x 11.4 cm)


Acquired by Sterling Clark, 1914

1955.948


ON VIEW

Conservation Diagram

This tracing of the Piero work onto transparency indicates the life of the painting before and after completion. The black lines highlght the figure, drapery and architectural outlines, the underdrawing and inscribed preparatory lines are outlined in red, and blue hatching indicates passages of damage and subsequent restoration. Tracing by Sandra Webber from the Williamstown Art Consrvation Center.