A Thousand Words
Piero della Francesca's The Baptism of Christ
by Mary Elizabeth Podles
At the Council of Florence in 1439, it seemed for a fleeting moment as if the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western branches of the Church might have been resolved. In 1417, the papal household had set itself in order, replacing three rival claimants with a single compromise candidate. Meanwhile, in the East, Byzantium was under siege by the Turks, and, desperate for help from the West, seemed ready, too, to make compromises. It was a moment of great hope, and, when representatives of both branches came together, a time of unparalleled pomp and pageantry. The city of Florence poured money into banners, parades, and temporary decorations, while the Byzantines, with their exotic beards, Eastern garments, and indescribable hats, were to Western eyes a visual feast in themselves. Presumably, too, they brought with them icons, which fed into the rich ferment that was early Renaissance art. Ultimately, the union was unsuccessful, but the council left its stamp on Italy, and especially on the youthful Piero della Francesca and his Baptism of Christ.
Piero was the son of a prosperous merchant, Benedetto de' Franceschi, who had close ties to the Camaldolese Benedictines of Borgo Sansepolcro; in fact, one of his other sons became a Camaldolese monk. One or the other may have been influential in procuring the commission for Piero of the altarpiece for the chapel of St. John the Baptist. Work was begun in 1438.
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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.
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