Hewn from its original location to preserve it from destruction,
Piero’s fresco now has its own home in a small museum – a former schoolroom –
in an otherwise unremarkable small Tuscan hilltown called Monterchi,
not too far from Piero’s more familiar home territory of Sansepolcro,
where his mighty Resurrection was itself saved from Allied bombs
thanks to an art-loving officer who retrieved that startling image
from somewhere in the back of his mind
and bid the guns be silent lest they reduce the fragile plaster to dust.
Crudely shorn of its fuller splendour,
and so lacking an ornamented top to the magnificent tent,
this Madonna nonetheless speaks out with Piero’s characteristic earthiness,
even the angels seeming solidly earthbound, shod for soil, not air,
each of the three with peasant ruddy cheeks,
heavy-lidded melancholy eyes,
garments of cloth made to last,
and the colours of the earth, not the heavens;
the padded muffling of the tent’s lining offering a heaviness
where there might otherwise have been gold.
And yet there is grandeur in this tabernacle:
the angels’ portentous, theatrical unveiling,
the Virgin’s parted gown, almost wound-like,
the tent’s velvet, embroidered opulence,
and, above all, the sense of an enclosing
that is also a showing.
And she carries a sure knowledge of the weightiness of it all;
the birth and the infant will be utterly wondrous
but the bringing-to-birth is itself no small thing –
the bearing, the bearing-with, the becoming and the blossoming.
[Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto of c1460, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]