The day after the Piero della Francesca show opened at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I was up there to see this small gem of an exhibit. I have had a lifelong love affair with the paintings of Piero della Francesca.
When I was in graduate school, they were brought to my attention by Tony Smith. He compared my student painting to della Francesca’s. I couldn’t figure out why; was it our similar name, was it because he was aware that I had gone to an all girls’ convent school? I pressed him repeatedly to explain, and he wouldn’t tell me. Finally after more than a year had passed and I wouldn’t give up my questioning, he discussed “map theory” with me and talked about how three colors never should meet at a single point. He showed me examples by drawing parts of della Francesca’s works. This was one of the magic moments for me in my journey to becoming a painter.
After graduating, I went on a pilgrimage to see every Piero painting I could in Italy as well as Giotto and Duccio. I read about how Italians measured what they saw in terms of volume and not height and width.
I fell in love with these painters, with their various perspectives in a single painting, and with their glorious and simple use of color that made meaning. I already had knowledge of the biblical stories, but it was the gravitas and wonder of the paintings that moved me.
When I saw “St. Jerome in the Wilderness” at the Met show, I was immediately struck and silenced in front of it. The amazing spatial adjustments of the trees on the left had for me an energy and restraint at the same time that seemed almost to be a choreographed ballet. I was taken by the strange placement of the books in the recess of the rock. It was mesmerizing. St. Jerome, in his up front and so close size felt like a mystical challenge. The red of his hat was like a tremolo to the entire painting, and of course the density and weight of the lion threatened the middle space. The salmon stripe of the house behind the large tree can break your heart by its perfect amount and intensity, and the sky has an eccentric voice of its own. For that matter, I think another one of the amazing things about this painting for me is that all the quietly different voices of the painting’s components still live in energized restraint together.