by Leanne Ogasawara
Last summer, marooned with a large group of astronomers in a remote 11th century abbey in the Tuscan countryside, I found myself growing increasingly antsy. Hatching a plan to break out, I dragged my astronomer off on what should have been one of the great pilgrimages of our lifetime–for as luck would have it, just down the road lay what Aldous Huxley considered to be the greatest picture in the world.
I am referring to one of the paintings on the famous Piero della Francesca trail. To see those masterpieces in situ is astonishing, and I consider the Piero Pilgrimage to be one of the great art historical experiences in the world.
Like all pilgrimages, however, this one was not without its mishaps…. Flushing my phone accidentally down the toilet after seeing the astonishingly beautiful and transportive fresco cycles in Arezzo was bad enough; but then to finally arrive at the climax of the pilgrimage where Aldous' “best picture on earth” stood, only to find it unavailable for viewing (and not just that but veiled in such a way as to tantalize us about what glorious beauty we were missing)– was close to unbearable.
Our biggest blunder, however, came when we willfully decided to skip driving an extra half hour to go see the Madonna del Parto. Yes, I want to kick myself! Located in Monterchi, the Madonna del Parto is an extremely rare (perhaps the only?) treatment in Christian art of the Virgin pregnant. “Del Parto” can mean labor or childbirth–and in the picture, Piero depicts a very pregnant Mary.
Slightly underwhelmed by the Bodhisattva-esque Modonna della Misericordia in San Sepulchro, we decided to skip altogether the other Madonna del parto in Monterchi. It was a huge mistake– and I didn't quite realize how bad until I read Hubert Damisch's charming and super quirky book, A Childhood Memory by Piero Della Francesca.
I wonder who else has read this one?
Poking fun at Freud's famous book on Leonardo, where he tries to connect Leonardo's love of pink tights to his penchant for giving up on things, Damisch dives into Piero's childhood (of which almost nothing is known!) It is truly a wonderful book and reading it, I thought, what kind of picture could elicit this much imaginative and playful investigation?
How stupid we were to drive right past it!
Jorie Graham has a rather famous poem on the painting as well, called San Sepolchro. The poet “places” the Madonna in San Sepolchro; despire the fact that it is really located down the road in Monterchi (not far from the painter's birth city of San Sepolchro). Graham must have been unable to resist the image of San Sepolchro–being named after the Holy Sepulcher….
This is the birth of God after all.
And the poet beckons you in…..
“Come in, I will take you to see God being born…” Here is the poem:
In this blue light
I can take you there,
snow having made me
a world of bone
seen through to. This
is my house,
my section of Etruscan
wall, my neighbor’s
lemontrees, and, just below
the lower church,
the airplane factory.
crows all day from mist
outside the walls.
There’s milk on the air,
ice on the oily
lemonskins. How clean
the mind is,
holy grave. It is this girl
della Francesca, unbuttoning
her blue dress,
her mantle of weather,
to go into
labor. Come, we can go in.
It is before
the birth of god. No one
has risen yet
to the museums, to the assembly
and wings—to the open air
market. This is
what the living do: go in.
It’s a long way.
And the dress keeps opening
to privacy, quickening.
Inside, at the heart,
is tragedy, the present moment
but going in, each breath
is a button
coming undone, something terribly
finding all of the stops.
Similar to Grahams' incredibly evocative poem, Hamisch's book also beckons you inward.
Moving first past the identical angels holding open the curtains (these are mirror images of each other), one cannot help but wonder: Is this Madonna the Ark of the Covenant? Is she the Tabernacle that came before Jerusalem? But Damisch is a French psychoanalyst so he doesn't dwell on this question and turns quickly to Freud's great childhood question of where babies come from…
… But if you don't mind, leave my mother out of all this…
Says Samuel Beckett.
Is the Madonna a phallic symbol–oh but no, look at the opening of her dress. Like the poet, everything ends in those buttons.
but going in, each breath/ is a button
Her hands–that gesture– are unprecedented in Christian art history; says Damisch several times in the book.
But wait, this all gets better (for everyone else who didn't miss out on seeing this picture!); for Herbert Damisch and Jorie Graham are not the only ones who dream of this Madonna. It was the great Soviet film maker Andrei Tarkovsky who perhaps made her most famous of all. Having traveled hundreds of miles across Italy to see this particular work of art, the Madonna del Parto appears prominently in his masterpiece, Nostalghia.
In this fascinating article about Tarkovsky's use of the Madonna in his film, the author James Macgillivray, begins by describing the history of the fresco– from its removal from the 13th century Romanesque church, where it was originally installed around 1460, to being left as part of the remaining chapel when the majority of the nave was destroyed to create a cemetery in the late 18th century.
Macgillivray is painstaking in explaining the way the painting was utterly removed from its context as part of a church, with much of the original architectural frame being lost along the way. It's quite an interesting story –albeit one that has occurred over and over. Apparently, when Tarkovsky first saw the Madonna in 1979, the picture was being prepared for its eventual removal to a museum–to be cut off forever from its religious and ritualistic context. The Madonna had a long history of veneration by women in the village who were trying to conceive babies. Maybe, suggests Macgillivray, this is why the filmmaker decided to use a very different location some 80 miles away for his 1982 film. It was a better site to replicate the original setting for the Madonna, says Macgillevray. That is, Tarkovsky wanted to put the picture back in what he imagined was its original context.
Macgillivray quotes Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie's description of the opening scene in the film:
Eugenia is seen in the pillared and candlelit interior of a church with women in black dresses kneeling in prayer in the background… In a conversation with the elderly sacristan she is politely reproached for lacking faith and is told that a woman is meant to have and raise children, in a spirit of patience and sacrifice.
Meanwhile the women have carried a life-size statue of the Virgin through the church and are praying before it; Piero della Francesca's Madonna of Childbirth is visible on the wall behind them. As a woman opens the statue's robes, a flock of small birds streams out. A series of virtual match-cuts takes us from a close-up of Eugenia's face to a slow track in to Piero's Madonna and then, in black and white, to Andrei….
Isn't that wonderful? How the scene (video embedded below) replicates the miraculous unbuttoning of the dress by the Virgin in Piero's painting? Except in Tarkovsky's films, birds fly out.
I think it is –if this is even possible–more gorgeous than the painting itself.
Tarkovsky, in his portrayal of the fresco restores it to what must be something of its original mystery and embedded nature within the community– and those birds flying out of the unbuttoned dress of the statue are perfection!.
We learn not surprisingly, the women of the village of Monterchi were deeply upset with the authorities' plans to remove the masterpiece and put it within a museum. They protested and Tarkovsky himself was angered by their plans.
Art can have such tremendous power over our imaginations, when it's allowed to exist in its original context. Think of an heirloom tea bowl used as part of the Japanese tea ceremony or some of the pusaka treasure of Malaysia and Indonesia. The moment a kris sword or a gamelan bell—or heaven forbid! a dragon jar from Borneo– is put behind glass, its power is neutralized. Why? Well, in the same way when you remove a King’s crown from the King’s head, it loses its magic power as regalia. Context is meaning. Kant has done much damage to our understanding of art's original power over us.
I love museums as much as the next person, but there is something truly unforgettable about seeing art in its original context. It is not just wonderful either but one can almost feel the power the work of art once excerted over people. A few months ago, I wrote in these pages about James Elkin's book on Pictures and Tears. The book is highly recommended and I agree with Elkins that indeed in a kind of dry spell when it comes to feeling moved by art. Being removed from its context and sometimes turned into a commodity of experience of amusement, visual art (unlike live music) has in some significant ways lost its hold over our imagination. This is something wonderfully evoked by the sense of great yearning for mystery in Tarkovsky's film. I hope to finish my Piero Pilgrimage someday and see the Madonna that I continue to dream about.
There are other great art pilgrimages as well, I'm sure…