Analysis of the artwork

The Brera Altarpiece – Piero della Francesca – 1472/74

The Pala di Brera, or better still the Sacra Conversazione, is one of Piero della Francesca’s most famous and important paintings of the 1400’s. Its current location is in the Pinacotea di Brera in Milan.

The representation of the Holy Conversation was commissioned in 1469 by Federico da Montefeltro for the local church of San Bernardino. This painting is fundamental in the history of art because it makes us understand the links that in that historical period were intertwined with some Italian potentates, shows us how the painting was constantly evolving and how the “school” of mathematics in Urbino was going to intertwine with the light and perspective used by Piero della Francesca. It must be said that the Brera altarpiece is not only a very high moment for the period in which it was done so much to influence all the figurative culture of the last years of the fifteenth century, but it is also a very controversial subject by scholars both for the dating that the reason for which it was commissioned. As in all Piero’s paintings we also have here a series of hidden meanings that embellish the work of great charm and transmit an almost mystical aura in the philological reading of iconography. The painting was originally larger, there was a predella that does not currently exist, and the table is sectioned on all four sides where there is missing the complex architectural structure developed by Piero della Francesca.

The prospective study and the great capacity of Piero is directly related to his esteem of Leon Battista Alberti that he sees in Mantua and precisely in the solution used by the great architect in Sant’Andrea. Probably the synthesis of the altarpiece to the Duke is a tribute to Alberti himself who died in 1472.

In wanting to understand the work for a more complete analysis it is necessary to immerse yourself in the temperament that was at the court of Federico da Montefeltro, this work is a palimpsest of that culture that was based on the urban architectural exaltation that saw the reversal not already of a municipal vision, but noble with an extra-regional character typical of Humanism of that time. Piero della Francesca depicted a new, modern world on the philosophical mathematical axis of culture that was characteristic of Urbino with Paciooli. At that time central Italy was a fundamental link between the Lordships that in that period of history were changing the fate of the peninsula and in this context the artisit moved in a great flurry of contacts.
At this time in Urbino Melozzo da Forli, Francesco Laurana, Giusto de Gand and Pedro Berruguete were recognized. So modernity was the culture of perspective architecture of Federico da Montefelrto and a proof is given by the personal friendship of the Duke directly with Leon Battista Alberti witnessed by a letter sent to the humanist Cristoforo Landino in which it was expressed as follows: “Nihil fuit familiaius neque amantius amicitia here Battista et ego eramus coniunctis “. A culture that the Duke brings with him from the Florentine as he had with Cosimo De Medici a personal friendship after his services as captain of the Republic of Florence between 1444 and 1450. How did Federico make great Urbino, because after peace Lodi of 1454 many Italian gentlemen had to pay him as a condottiero. Everything as we see the story explains, where a territory rises economically evidently can be raised culturally, and vice versa.

La Pala is probably a tribute to ex voto because Federico is painted with the armor, then also to his wife Battista Sforza (who died in 1472 after giving birth to the filgio) of which are the features of the face of the Madonna and also to the son because the baby Jesus should represent Guidobaldo.

We have a traditional iconography of CONVERSATION in which the Madonna with child is surrounded by a stole of saints and ducts, it is a timeless story, never really verified so it has a meaning centered on the Madonna as a mother interdict with God valid for every time. A dialogue takes place on the sacred and theological themes between Our Lady and men so that there can be a metaphysical and spiritual relationship with the Lord.
There is a sweet and serene connection in which a dialogue takes place, a silent dialogue that takes place earlier and is marked by the place, because even before the word there is an ambientle sharing, which then welcomes the faithful and leads him to participate . This place in the fifteenth century is given by the interior of the Churches, which are a perfect whole in the majestic revelation of the divine and who promotes it among men. There is the link between faith and reason, what is humanism. Matrial power and its representation and divine power mingle through the Mother and the mothers. The persuasions depicted from left to right are: St. John the Baptist (representing the church of Gubbio, the city where Battista died, and indicates the child for which death is due), San Bernardino da Siena, San Gerolamo, San Francesco d’Assisi, St. Peter of Verona, St. John the Evangelist. Then we have 4 angels in embellished robes.

The composition of the painting brings the clear application of perspective with a central vanishing point in the eyes of the virgin. The center of the scene is represented by the ostrich egg on the vertical of the Madonna’s face, also painted oval. The harmony of the whole is given by the circular motif that is repeated in the characters from the upper structure of the apse.

The allegorical symbols are very important of the temper of that time and the humanism that developed in Urbino, the ostrich egg wants to mean perfection and the cyclicity of life is slightly offset from the median axis of the picture because it wants to define the superiority of faith over religion, then we have the Conchiglia which is the vault of the apse and signifies the generating nautical of the Virgin, still the coral necklace of the Jesus child in an apotropaic sense.


There is a great technical complicity in the painting where the school that makes Piero della francesca is evinced with a light that enters from right to right clear, morning that stands out on the perfect dimensions of the perspective construction and all in symbiosis with the Nordic culture of Flemish detail , The carpet under the throne of the Virgin, and the hands of Frederick who were painted by Pedro Berruguete.
A stupendous, hieratic work in its monumental setting but at the same time affable and contemplative in its spiritual synthesis.

16 thoughts on “The Brera Altarpiece – Piero della Francesca – 1472/74

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