For Kenneth Clark, it was ¨the greatest small painting in the world¨. It´s certainly a masterpiece – and a puzzle. Why did the Umbrian master Piero della Francesca choose around 1450 to paint an overworked stock subject, the Flagellation of Christ, in this extraordinary way?
(Warning: large page below the jump)

The Flagellation of Christ, Piero della Francesca, ca, 1450

Source: Wikimedia. Higher resolution image.

Much critical effort has gone into working out who the three figures in the foreground represent. The young man is an idealised symbol of masculine youth and beauty. Two older men, richly dressed, are obviously portraits – we just don´t know of whom. One good guess by the art historian Marilyn Lavin is that they are Ludovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, and his court astrologer Ottavio Ubaldini (read: chief scientific adviser – astrology had not yet been expelled from science). They had both recently lost sons; the young man stands for both.

Why should the cultivated condottiere Federico de Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, commission an expensive painting from Piero della Francesca about acquaintances within the north Italian nobility? The painting´s original frame included the quotation from Psalm 2 and Acts 4:26, convenerunt in unum (Vulgate): RSV [the rulers] were gathered together. Piero thus tells us upfront that one of the themes of the painting is conspiracy. Federico had come to power in Urbino in 1444 following the assassination of his hated half-brother Oddantonio. The citizens of Urbino had extracted from Federico a promise of complete immunity for the killers. Their new Duke thus could not bear any grudge or avenge his brother´s murder, in terms which ruled out an overt memorial. The foreground group, fixed in their immobile grief, may thus stand obliquely for Federico´s own loss.

Whatever, we aren´t really interested today in the three men who dominate the picture. Which brings me to the second theme of the painting: perspective. Again, Piero is upfront about this. The painting is not only an example of the laws of perspective which he had helped to formalize, it´s a very explicit demonstration of them. The chequered tiles on the floor, and the coffered ceiling of the palace, draw the receding lines of the laws of perspective. They dominate the painting´s created visual space, uniting the two parts of the impossible scene in the pure Umbrian light while casting a chilly impersonality over it all.

What was Piero trying to say with this? Certainly, it´s a tour de force of the new technique by one of its inventors and masters. I think there´s more to it than showing off. Piero was a professional mathematician at a time when mathematics was particularly close to its Platonic and Pythagorean roots. (There are still Platonists as well as constructivists in the trade.) Mathematics was to him a way of discovering truths about the world. Perspective was not an invention – a clever way of creating a convincing visual illusion, like 3D special effects software – but a discovery of the right way of looking at the world.

To go back to his painting. The eye makes the foreground more important: we look first at the group of three figures, and think about the men they represent and their story. It was interesting and important in 1450, but not much to us. A fait divers, as the French say. The lines of Piero´s perspective draw our gaze back to the Biblical scene, part of an event of earth-shaking importance, the execution of the Jewish sect leader Jesus of Nazareth. This importance is incidentally a neutral historical observation, not a leap of faith: the execution had enormous consequences for Jews, Romans, and Greeks in the following centuries, and reverberates to this day, for instance in American elections. However, Piero and his audience were Christians and the distinction was unnecessary for them.

Perspective does two things. First, it models an instinctive hierarchy of attention: closer = more important; distant = less important. (Think of predators on the ancestral savannah). But if you understand perspective, it becomes your ally in restoring the balance. You can make the mental correction, and prioritize the distant if you should. This is where Piero´s accurate perspective beats Saul Steinberg´s witty view of the USA from Manhattan; for Steinberg offers no way out of the bias he nails.

Saul Steinberg, New Yorker cover drawing, 1976

My theory helps explain the preternatural stillness of the scene, and the understated depiction of Christ´s suffering, in welcome contrast to the homoerotic theatrics of Caravaggio and the torture porn of Mel Gibson. Both movement and gore signal priority to our vision, so the perspective comparison would no longer be of like with like. Piero could in theory have made the foreground group as well as the background one gory and in movement, but that would no longer be Piero, more Caravaggio or Bernini, and even then I doubt if they could pull it off.

The other reason for the stillness is the conspiracy theme. The flogger is an unimportant menial; the conspiracy was between Pilate, the corrupt Roman official, the leaders of the Jewish Temple party, and possibly Herod (who may be the figure seen from the back). Conspiracies are silent and invisible until they spring into actions, often carried out by subordinates.

Attention is a moral matter as well as a practical one, so perspective of vision is linked to perspective of morality. Moral understanding requires an empathic shift of perspective, indeed a translation and rotation of our frame of reference that goes beyond Piero´s brilliant visual demonstration.

The painting breathes the confidence and optimism of Renaissance humanism. If we only applied ourselves, Piero seems to say, to properly understand the laws governing our own vision and psychology, we can arrive at a true perception and right judgement of the world and other people.

Not so fast. Our visual system does indeed seem to transform our two-dimensional retinal images automatically into 3-D views, following an Euclidean geometry that works almost all of the time. It´s an a priori projection, but we have reason (our survival) to think it´s true. Graphical perspective is merely a very clever technique: humans – and apparently dogs and cats as they watch TV – can interpret a flat image as a window on to an imagined or reproduced reality that follows the same Euclidean laws.

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire

The window doesn´t have to be Euclidean, as Cézanne and the Cubists and the icon painters showed; and the painting doesn´t have to be any kind of window, as with Klee and Rothko.

The distorsions of cognition that are native to us – Bacon´s Idols of the Tribe – are many and strong. They are worked on and expanded by our society, our temperament, and our culture: the idols of the Cave, the Theatre and the Marketplace. Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in 2002 for deepening our understanding of Bacon´s insights, though dropping his evocative metaphors. (New Kahneman book.) It´s very hard for us to see straight on anything that contradicts these ingrained biases.

So I read Piero´s painting in a way he would not have liked. To focus our attention and empathy on an event as remote in space and time as the death or birth of the aforesaid sect leader, we need the help of art – his or another´s – to unfurl the wings of our imagination. The art doesn´t have to be good, it can be sentimental kitsch. Most effective is art we help create, like singing together in a carol service.

The worm in the apple is that the art that overcomes our cognitive bias also adds a layer of myth and interpretation. Art lies, as Plato said. The Flagellation is an episode recorded in the Gospels without any improbable features. But who´s more truthful about it, Piero or Caravaggio or Mel Gibson? Letting an artist guide you is putting your quest in the hands of a devious and powerful magician, a Gandalf or Saruman, with his or her own strong and possibly concealed agenda. I trust Piero more than the other two because I like his rationalist and optimistic agenda better. But the power of art is not evidence.

This applies in spades to the Nativity, already embroidered by Luke beyond historic probability or any of Jesus´ recorded claims. We might just as well add snow and robins and Santa Claus to the hills of Palestine. It´s not even self-evident that the birth is of much interest. Who cares about the births of Elijah, of Mohammed, or of Gandhi? We have reason to travel to Bethlehem if we accept the highest-voltage Christian claims about Jesus´ death and resurrection. Only if these are a redemptive singularity does his birth become of unusual importance: the kindling of the light that shines in the darkness, even if it is refracted and split into strange colours and illusory shapes before its cone reaches us.

Or we may travel there simply to stand by quietly and watch a random and representative example, in the circumstances of inadequate resources and personal and political tension that have surrounded the great majority of such events, of a great and commonplace miracle: the birth of a human baby.

Georges De La Tour, The Nativity, 1644


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