|Madonna del Parto - Piero della Francesca|
This is my favourite painting in the whole world. It is by the Italian Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca and is housed in the Museo della Madonna del Parto in Monterchi, a small hilltop town in Tuscany.
By the time you read this blog. I will be there. One of the first things I will do is go and visit Piero's fresco in the Museo just outside the gates of the town. She is the only occupant. the whole building is devoted to her. In a way, this is right, because she is so special, but she seems strangely out of context in this small, unprepossessing modern building. She should be in a church and, of course, she once was but her original home, the church of Santa Maria di Momentana (Santa Maria in Silvis), was destroyed by an earthquake. She was then moved to a cemetery chapel which fell into decay and so finally to her own museum in 1992.
If you spend any time in Italy, visiting churches, art galleries, museums, you will see plenty of Madonnas, with child and without, annunciations and assumptions, even a few where she is pregnant, or giving milk (as here), but few have the transfixing quality of this one. I am in no way religious, brought up stoutly C of E, but I find Piero della Francesco's fresco peculiarly moving.
She looks like a real woman, and a young one, heavily pregnant, with one hand at her hip to ease her back. She has none of the rich trappings of other Madonnas. She is dressed simply, the beauty of her face lies in its humanity, its ordinariness. There is a strangely long suffering weariness about her (one with which anyone who has ever been pregnant can identify) but hers is so much greater, for this is the face of a young girl, a peasant girl, gravid with a God. I find this fresco awe-inspiring in the true sense. She is flanked by two angels who have a solidity about them, dressed in a symmetry of colours, in no way ethereal, grave, beautiful young men with wings.
The canopy that they are holding open is decorated with pomegranates. This has been interpreted as a symbol of Christ's passion, and the Madonna certainly has the expression of one who can read what is to come, but the pomegranate also evokes much more ancient, pagan goddesses: the lost Persephone and her mother Demeter, the goddess Hera who is often shown with a pomegranate in her hand as the emblem of fertility, blood and death. Perhaps this is an indication of a much older tradition. Legend has it that a local stream was sacred to the goddess and into modern times women would bathe there hoping either to conceive or to protect the child within. Certainly, offerings are left in front of the Madonna del Parto, bunches of flowers, more often than not picked from the fields or the garden, simple offerings left by ordinary women asking for the blessing and intersession of this most human of Madonnas.