The Painter

Piero della Francesca was revered in his own time as a “monarch” of painting. Born around 1412 in Borgo San Sepolcro, he trained locally but soon sought greater challenges. In 1439 Piero joined a team of painters in Florence led by Domenico Veneziano. Having distinguished himself as a mural painter, Piero won his own commission to fresco the choir of the Franciscan church in Arezzo and created one of his greatest masterpieces, the Legend of the True Cross (c. 1452–62). Early successes led to coveted employment at the courts of the pope, the duke of Urbino, and the ruler of Rimini. Throughout his nearly sixty-year career, Piero made Borgo his home. He died there in 1492.

Piero transferred his talent in fresco to monumental works in oil and tempera on wood panel. This exhibition brought together seven paintings, representing parts of two separate altarpieces for Borgo San Sepolcro. The Sant’Agostino altarpiece (1454–69), a soaring, gilded polyptych decorated with many painted panels, towered over the high altar of the Augustinian church for almost one hundred years. Around 1555 the polyptych was disassembled and its fragments dispersed into collections across two continents. Six of its eight remaining paintings were assembled here, evoking the original splendor of Piero’s masterpiece.

Unlike the multi-panel Augustinian polyptych, the altarpiece of the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown) forms a single unified picture field. Made at the peak of Piero’s career for a church chapel or a palatial residence in Borgo, this ambitious painting is executed on an intimate scale. Its innovative rectangular format allowed Piero to emphasize his magisterial treatment of space and light.

Piero della Francesca (ca. 1411/13–1492), Saint John the Evangelist, 1454–69, Oil and tempera with traces of gold on poplar panel; The Frick Collection, New York