The art essay

Exaltation of the Cross (1466) by Piero della Francesca

Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca hailed from a tiny village in central Italy called Sansepolcro, which translates into Holy Sepulchre. It seems therefore appropriate that his most famous commission would be a fresco cycle to celebrate the Holy Cross.

The fifteen scenes of the Exaltation of the Cross were commissioned by nobleman Luigi Bacci for the high altar of the Church of Saint Francis in Arezzo. Piero began work around 1447, after the original artist died, and took almost twenty years to complete the project, but the care, thought, and artistic innovation that Piero brought to the work resulted in one of the world’s finest masterpieces of sacred art.

The epic of the cross

The subject was drawn from the prose of Blessed Jacobus de Voragine, the 13th-century Dominican Archbishop of Genoa. Compiling 182 hagiographic stories, he published The Golden Legend around 1290. The text was so successful that by 1500 the book had been translated into numerous languages, and as many as seventy-four Latin editions had been produced.

“The Legend of the True Cross” recounts the epic adventure of the wood that became the cross of Christ’s crucifixion. Upon the death of Adam, a cutting of the tree of Eden’s forbidden fruit was planted by his tomb, and it grew until the time of King Solomon, when some of its wood was taken to build a bridge. The Queen of Sheba, who had prophetic powers, recognized the importance of the wooden beams, and told King Solomon, who had the tree cut down and buried. The wood was found and eventually used for Christ’s crucifixion, but, after his Resurrection, the beams were buried again. Three hundred years later, Constantine had a vision of the cross on the eve of his victorious battle against Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, and his mother Saint Helena unearthed the cross during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land shortly thereafter. The power wielded through the cross was evidenced by both the resurrection of a dead man and the startling defeat of Persian King Khosrow II by Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in the 7th century.

The pictorial challenge

This complicated story had been depicted before, by an anonymous 13th-century artist in the Church of Saint Nicholas in Lanciano, and by Agnolo Gaddi, a disciple of Giotto, in the Church of the Holy Cross in Florence, but Piero’s masterpiece completely transformed the narrative cycle.

He paired images across the walls, creating an antiphonal dialogue between them: Saint Helena’s rediscovery of the cross looks at the Queen of Sheba’s veneration of the wood; the battle of Constantine mirrors the victory of Heraclius; the Annunciation across from Constantine’s vision of the holy cross. For the supreme pairing of the chapel, surmounting the rest of the scenes, Piero chose to place the death of Adam, with the old, nude man laid out on the ground, across from the Exaltation of the Cross, raised high above the kneeling crowd.

“The Exaltation,” the last chapter in “The Legend of the True Cross,” recounts how, in 615, victorious Emperor Heraclius had retaken the cross from Khosrow, and was preparing to carry the wood into the city in his triumphal parade. His plans were thwarted by a miraculous collapse of the gate, which prevented him from entering the city in full regalia through the same gate Jesus had passed on the day of his crucifixion.

An angel appeared and reminded the astonished crowd that “when the King of heaven had passed through the gate to suffer death, there was no royal pomp.” The emperor immediately took off his boots and stripped down to his shirt to receive the cross. Then the stones shifted and the gate was miraculously restored. The cross was reinstalled in its place of honor, and miracles and wonders returned to the Holy Land.

Piero della Francesca’s many years on the project allowed for a careful and unique crafting of the story. An expert at the mathematics of perspective and the nuances of light and shade in modeling forms and creating atmospheres, each chapter in the cycle was composed differently: one a warm night scene, another with pearlescent daylight; one a violent clash of armor, the other more an effect of rolling, swaying figures.

Piero’s personal touch

In the Exaltation of the Cross, Piero highlighted the humility of the emperor—barefoot and bare-headed—by contrasting him with the extravagant apparel of his entourage. The high hats, in exotic shapes and sizes, not only identify the noble courtiers, but also illustrate Piero’s deep love for geometrical volume.

This master had made tremendous strides in the relatively new art of perspective, imposing order on his spaces and lending a solemn and peaceful quality to all of his stories. The low vantage point of the Exaltation allows the stark wood to tower over the standing aristocrats and kneeling townspeople alike. Framed by two trees, this “chosen” wood reaches the culmination of its journey. Beginning as a tree in Eden, it journeyed from humble beam to tool of death to lost artifact, and then finally resurfaced, instrument of miracles, conquest, and conversion.

Art historian Frederick Hartt had a special fondness for Piero della Francesca, whom he described as a “nature poet” much like Saint Francis. Piero found revelation in simplicity; the bare wood of the cross and the limpid, slightly-bleached light of the Tuscany countryside make the Lord present in the natural world. There is something unearthly about the order and luminosity and focus he gives to the natural world that hints at a greater purpose and meaning in the most understated of scenes.

Piero gave special attention to human reactions to the sight of the cross. Most gaze raptly upwards, while one man tilts his head in wonder and another goes to sweep his lofty hat from his head. Perhaps Piero imagined himself in that little group lost in adoration. Going blind while completing these frescoes, Piero knew something about carrying a cross, but, even as his eyes dimmed, he never lost sight of the peaceful beauty that was his love.

Elizabeth Lev

Writer and professor of art history in Rome, Italy


Exaltation of the Cross (1466), Piero della Francesca, Chapel of the Holy Cross, Church of San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy. © akg-images.