The Legend of the true Cross

The Legend of the true Cross

Piero della Francesca’s masterpiece

In the Basilica of San Francesco there is one of the highest expressions of Italian and European painting: the cycle of frescoes of “The Legend of the True Cross”, a masterpiece by Piero della Francesca. The fresco, painted between 1452 and 1466, narrates the “Golden Legend” by Iacopo da Varagine.

In this itinerary, the interpretation is described and it is shown how to “read” the cycle of frescoes, indicating the chronological order of the scenes. We invite you to click on the image to enlarge it, so that you can follow the entire numbering.

1. Adam (right), on his deathbed, sends his son Set from the archangel Michael to have “the oil of mercy”;
Michele (in the background) denies the oil, but gives him some seeds of the tree of Knowledge, to put in the mouth of Adam at the time of burial (left): from these seeds and from the body of Adam, due to the fall of man, a luxuriant tree (in the center) will be born whose wood will be used for the Cross of Christ, therefore for the resurrection of man.

2. Two centuries later, Solomon, king of Jerusalem, makes the tree cut, but the wood is not docile to any work and is thrown like a bridge over a pond. The Queen of Sheba, on a visit to the king, kneels (in the middle) in front of the wood, having had a premonition on the use that will be made of it. During the meeting with Solomon (on the right), the queen reveals her premonition.

3. By order of Solomon, the wood, which will be the cause of the ruin of the Jews, is removed and thrown “into the deepest interior of the earth”.

4. The Annunciation does not appear in the “Legenda Aurea”, but serves as a compositional reference (the column with the stake of the scene 5) and narrative: alludes, without showing it, to the life and death of Christ: wood, in fact, The excavation will be used to build the Cross which, after the Crucifixion, will disappear.

5. Constantine, on the eve of the battle against Maxentius, in 312, has in dream the revelation of his victory in the sign of the Cross.

6. The next day, Maxentius (according to the latest critical interpretation, it is instead a barbarian king) and his army flee before the Cross that Constantine shows them.

7. Lost traces of the Cross, Elena, mother of Constantine, tortures a Jew who, converted, indicates the place.

8. Going to Jerusalem (in the background on the left: it is actually Arezzo, with the Church of San Francesco in evidence) the three crosses are unearthed. To distinguish that of Christ from that of the robbers, are approached in turn to the head of a young dead man, who resurrects (right) to the contact with the True Cross. Elena kneels in adoration (as the Queen of Sheba had already done in the corresponding box on the wall of her head).

9. In 615 the Persian king Cosroe had stolen and profaned the Cross by erecting it near his throne (on the right). The emperor of the East, Heraclius, confronts him in battiglia (left) and wins him, but when Cosroe refuses to convert, he cuts off his head (still on the right).

10. Heraclius reports the Cross to Jerusalem: with great humility (in the center), barefoot and with only one tunic, he offers it to a group of elderly gerosolimitani in adoration.

11. and 12. Two Prophets.

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