Thursday, December 10, 2015

Piero della Francesca and the Legend of the True Cross

Let us try to set the score straight from the beginning of this article: the name of this series is the Legend of the True Cross. This is not the same as to say the True Legend of the Holy Cross.
Adam sends Seth to plead
with the Angel Guardian of
Paradise for the Oil of

Not even Piero della Francesca tried to convince us of the literal truth of the Legend of the Cross. Legends don't have to be true, at least in a literal sense: it is not part of their essence. Legends exists however to teach us something.

The descendants Of Adam
plant the bark of the tree of
the Knowledge of Good and Evil
in the Mouth of Adam 

Santa Claus is a legend, and he doesn't exist, but he did. He was San Nicola di Bari. We believe in Santa Claus one way as children, waiting patiently for him to come down the chimney, and another way as grownups, giving to the young, the innocent, and hopefully also to the needy, as San Nicola did.
The Queen of Sheba feels a
terrible premonition about the
wood of the bridge at the Pool
of Siloe.

If we are alert, we can learn a great deal about people and ourselves from legends, not only when we are children, but as adults. But as our Jesuit professor would shout out at us in Latin from his lectern back in the days when we studied philosophy at the Universita Gregoriana of Rome, when he realized that our analysis of a question was too shallow: "Profundius!", we sometimes need someone to prod us, encouraging us to: "go deeper!"

The Queen of Sheba confesses her prophecy that
the wood of the bridge of Siloe will someday
be the cause that would divide the people of
King Solomon 

Catholic devotion is like a gigantic supermarket. Take what serves you and put it in your cart. You don't have to always fill your cart with so many things you don't even know what you want them for. You don't have to react in a compulsory manner. Take what suits you, and helps you grow in your spiritual life. However, the same cannot be said of the 10 commandments. With the commandments, each one is compulsory. Perfect score is the only score.

The wood that came from the tree
of the Garden of Eden is taken
from the Bridge of Silon and
hidden away for centuries

Many times when I speak or write about people's beliefs in other times, the reaction is: "How could those people be so ignorant!" True. Unfortunately, the same people that say that today may be equally or even more ignorant in other matters. Hopfully having scared away the cynics with this introduction, lets get down to the business of the day, and take a look at the work of Piero de la Francesca.

 Constantine dreams that he
will conquer Rome under
the sign of  the Cross

Piero della Francesca did not invent the Leggenda: he merely recorded it for us, in a beautiful, graphic and easy-to-understand format. But, what was the Leggenda?

Constantine defeats Massentius
with the sign of the Cross

The series of the Leggenda evolves over five time periods. The First period begins with Adam, the first man according to the Book of Genesis.   On his death bed, Adam still forlorns his beloved Paradise lost, and sends Seth beck to the gates of Eden, to beg the Angel, guardian of the entrance,  for the Oil of Mercy. In the composition Piero della Francesca creates,  Seth and Adam are in the foreground,  Adam siiting on the ground,  resting against a  tree, as we see the Angel and the Gates of Paradise in the background,  and an enormous tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong. The angel denies Adam the oil, but gives Seth a fragment of the bark of the tree, telling Seth to put it in Adam's mouth,  when he dies. The second picture shows us Seth, with his red cloak,  standing beside the corpse of Adam,  as they place the tree bark in his mouth.  From Adam's mouth, a new and holy tree will grow.

The True Cross is discovered
along with the Crosses of
the two thieves.
But which is the True Cross?

The second episode of the Leggenda took place thousands of years later,  when the sacred tree gendered in the mouth of Adam no longer exists,  but its noble wood is employed as part of a bridge constructed over the Pool of Siloe.  When the Queen of Sheba comes to visit Israel,  she is cast into a prophetical spell when she comes into contact with the wood,

Helen, mother of Constatine
discovers the True Cross

During her encounter with King Solomon,  the Queen of Sheba confesses to him her prophetic trance, warning Solomon that the wood of the bridge will be the cause of disunity among the Jews. In consequence, Solomon has the enchanted planks of the bridge taken away, and hidden.

Heraclius' army conquers
the Persians

The third period of the Legend is not recorded by Piero de la Francesca, and that is that the wood hidden under Solomon orders reappears and is used in making the Cross of Jesus Christ.

May it suffice to quote the lyrics of the hymn in Gregorian Chant that we intone during Holy Week: "Ecce lignum crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit" ("Behold the wood of the Cross, from which hangs the salvation of the World") to grasp the importance that the wood of the Cross of Christ has in the tradition of the Catholic Faith.

Heraclius generals with the defeated Persian King Chosroe
628, A.D.

The fourth part of the Legend occurs almost 3 centuries later, when the mother of the Emperor of Rome, Constantine, prepares to take Rome. Constantine's army was marching south down the central plains of Italy, preparing them for a battle close outside Rome, at a bridge over the Tevere River. The bridge's name is Ponte Milvio, and is only some 10 miles north of Rome. His opponent, Massentius, had a larger army. The night before the battle, Constantine had a dream: he was in battle when a Cross appeared in the sky, and he heard a heavenly voice: "In hoc Signo, vinces" ("in this sign, you will conquer!"). The sign was the Cross.
"IHS" is the abbreviation of "In Hoc Signo"
When we see the symbol of the Jesuits, "IHS", in their chapels and houses of formation, there arises at times a discussion on whether it refers to "In hoc signo" of Constantine, or "Iesus Hominorum Salvatoris" (the name "Jesus" was spelt "Iusus" in Latin, as Latin doesn't have the letter "J".
The gift of the Book of Piero della Francesca to
 the Old Library of the Museo del Virreinato
(Patrick Kavanagh and Maria Angeles Osorio)
You might recall that last year, in the ancient library of the Museum of the Virreinato, we bestowed a copy of the book Piero della Francesca e la Leggenda della Vera Croce, in representation of the authorities of the Cultural Institute of Arezzo.

Heraclius delivers the True Cross back to Jerusalem

Before dawn, the following morning, Constantine gathers his generals together and tells them of his dream. Constantine was not a Christian, but many of his soldiers were. When Constantine told his troops about the Cross, they felt sure that they would win. And after Massentius slipped and fell off the bridge at a critical point of the battle, his troops panicked, retreating in disorder, while Constantine's soldiers fell on them, slaughtering them. Constantine became the sole master of Rome. One year later, in 313 AD, Constantine moved his center of operations up north, to Milano, he published his Edict, the Edict of Milan, giving all members of his empire, freedom of worship.
Here on the front bronze doors of Il Duomo di Milano
we can read the text of the Edict of Milan, offering
Freedom of Religious Cult to all men.
Constantine's mother, a woman of humble extraction, was a devoted Christian: Elena was he name, and Catholics call her Santa Elena or Saint Helen. Among her many talents and passions, Elena became the founder of Archeology, or at least of Holy Archeology, devoting her fortune and energy, searching out artifacts from the life of Christ. This included her search for the lost Cross of Christ.

The fifth and last part of the saga of the Leggenda takes us another 3 centuries later, when the Eastern Roman Empire, under Heraclius, fight Chosroe, the Persian King who has stolen the Cross of Christ, and desecrated it.
After giving so much well-deserved praise to Piero della Francesca's protégé, Luca Signorelli, in recent articles in this blog, I realized that this article is totally devoid of any comments on Piero della Francesca as a painter. I would think that his art in itself is his most elegant eulogy. However there are few aspects of his art, which we are obliged to underline and show how revolutionary Piero della Francesca was in the context of the historical moment of art when he was painting. Painting was for the most part, at his time, ars sacra, works of art depicting divine mysteries, saints, prophets, and the Divinity in reflection, meditation, and in brief, scenes mostly without a great deal of movement.
The outlandish headdress is
surely Piero della Francesca's
way of poking a little fun out
of the ridiculous style of his
Piero della Francesca's painting is all about movement, action, high-impact and dramatic events. An other point I would like is that Piero della Francesca portrays himself, as a lover of horses, the first great equestrian artist. Finally, it seems to me that where in so many painters we find a artist who bends their brush to heap praise on their patrons, it seems that Piero della Francesca ridicules his patrons, in their softest point: their vanity and the fashion of the day. Although Piero paints scenes thousands of years before his time, he dons his personalities in the garb of the quattocentro of Arezzo.  
The concept of the True Cross is not exclusive of Arezzo. Carlos V of Germany and I of Spain awarded Hernan Cortes and his royal conquistadores of the defunct Aztec empire a relic of the True Cross, which is still preserved in the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in the Church of the True Holy Cross, La Iglesia de la Santa Veracruz.

Here in the Chapel of Our Lady
of Guadalupe in the Church of the
Santa Vera Cruz, in downtown
Mexico City we can visit a shrine
 with an authentic relic of the
Cross of Christ

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