Studying a Renaissance Master: Piero della Francesca

My first major project for 2018 involves getting to know a fairly obscure Renaissance master, Piero della Francesca.  "Mary Magdalene" is my version of Piero della Francesca's style.

Piero della Francesca

I put my own spin on Piero's work. At first, I wanted to paint a member of the Italian nobility of the time. I was thinking of the Borgia family. Their prominence rose during the 1400s and 1500s as they became involved in political and religious affairs. The family disappeared by the middle of the 18th century.

But friends and followers kept telling me this woman I had painted looked like a Madonna. I wasn't convinced. Giving it more consideration, I remembered stories of Mary Magdalene. In my version, she is shown not long after witnessing Christ's crucifixion. She has a grief-stricken look.

Mary Magdalene may have been given a bad reputation by theologians who did not like her close relationship with Jesus.

She is a figure mired in controversy. The Western church sees her as a prostitute while the Eastern church celebrates her as an apostle. In the latter version, Jesus asks Mary Magdalene to be the one to give the news of his resurrection to the other apostles.

I had never heard of Piero della Francesca (1410, his exact birth date is uncertain, to 1492) previous to this assignment. Piero's artistic achievements during what is known as the "Italian Renaissance" were mainly relegated to obscurity.  

Many of his paintings are hidden away in places that are not often visited by tourists.  It is speculated that this might explain why he was largely ignored for many centuries.

Piero della Francesca worked in Florence and would have seen the paintings of Italian masters and other European artists of the period. 

The portrait of the Virgin Mary (above) extracted from the scene in "The Nativity", (1470-75) was used as the model for my painting. "The Nativity" is found in the National Gallery in London.

Mary Magdalene in Renaissance style

"Mary Magdalene."  Mixed media on 12" X18" watercolour paper.

Elements I tried to capture from Piero della Francesca's style:

  • a slim figure which copies della Francesca's method. He was aware of Flemish artists of his period and was probably imitating them.

  • his use of blue and red as dominant colours for clothing as in "The Nativity".

  • he used brown as an underpainting. I did not but I did add touches of brown to honour della Francesca's style.

  • a "bleached" look which characterized his paintings as well as other paintings of the Renaissance period.

To counter the effect of the washed out faces, I added touches of pink in the skin as well as copper leafing around the neck of the gown.  Piero della Francesca used gold in many of his paintings. For example, in "The Nativity" the Virgin Mary has gold in her cuffs and in her hair.

I didn't expect to enjoy this assignment. To my surprise, "Mary Magdalene" is one of my favourite works so far. I am very proud of this painting.

I am often asked how many hours I spent on any one painting.  This one took about 20 hours. At about the 15 hour mark, I submitted it to hubby and friends for critique.  I thank them for giving me valuable advice.

Certainly, this completed assignment demonstrates once again that it is worthwhile to step out of my usual painting habits, to try something really different.  

Have you tried stepping out of your comfort zone?  I would love to hear about it!  Drop me a line or two.

Cheers from the art room!

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