Blame my hunger for spring, or my great longing to return to Italy. But I recently had the most vivid dream about “The Resurrection,” Piero della Francesca’s masterpiece, which dominates the Museo Civico in the pleasant little Tuscan town of Sansepolcro.
This really is a fascinating fresco, very large – about 7 feet by 7 feet – and painted on the wall of what was the town hall in 1460. Last year, when I rented a house very near Sansepolcro (which, happily, is located practically in Umbria) I travelled around to see as many of Piero’s great works as possible: in towns like Arezzo, Monterchi, Urbino.
But The Resurrection stood out. The writer Aldous Huxley, in a famous 1925 essay, called it The Best Picture. I’m not sure it’s the absolute best in the world – that would be mighty hard to define! But I did think that was extraordinary, mesmerizing
The subject of the fresco refers to Sansepolcro’s name (the Holy Sepulchre) which is the tomb where Christ was laid to rest after His crucifixion. In Piero’s composition, we see an athletic Christ at the moment of His resurrection, with one very strong leg planted at an impossibly high angle on the edge, poised to hoisted Himself out of the tomb and into everlasting life.
I find Christ’s eyes particularly mesmerizing, as they gaze far beyond the viewer into the next world. It’s unsettling, but perhaps that was Piero’s point.
Beneath Him, the four soldiers assigned to guard the tomb are sound asleep – missing the moment of the triumph of Life over death. Piero’s landcape is also filled with symbols of this: in the early dawn of a new world, life flourishes in the trees on the right of the fresco, while death stalks those on the left. An early Before-and-After picture, I suppose.
It’s also said that the sleeping soldier in brown armor on Christ's right, with his head thrown back to display the large goiter on his neck, is a self-portrait of Piero della Francesca.
Anyway, I’m still puzzling about the meaning of my dream, which began with me parking my car on the street near a small park not far from Sansepolcro’s civic museum. It’s at that point when I suddenly realize that all these years (in this dream world) I had been living just a few blocks from this incredible work of art and didn’t know it.
So, what could this mean? That I’m hungry for spring and resurrection? Homesick for Italy? Missing something crucial that’s right in front of me? At least, I didn’t dream I was one of the soldiers in the fresco, missing The Whole Thing!
I realize that I’m going to have to return to Sansepolcro to see The Resurrection in June I want to sit quietly on the wide black bench that’s set about 20 feet back from the spectacular work, gaze into Christ’s eyes to try to figure out what He’s seeing.