This is an altarpiece painted by Piero della Francesca in about 1470, for a patron in his hometown of Borgo San Sepolcro. It belongs to the Clark institute in Williamstown, Mass., and is now in the little Piero show at the Frick Collection in New York. My favorite detail is the shadow cast on the bottom of the Virgin’s throne, from a point on our side of the picture plane. The two main theories are that the shadow is conceived as being cast by you, the viewer, standing in close proximity to Mary, or that it’s cast by another column in the colonnade we see at the back, imagined as wrapping all around Christ and his mother.
Either way, what interests me is the idea that Piero and his peers conceived of themselves as world-builders, populating a three-dimensional space with novel objects (the way God, the “first painter”, did), rather than as producers of attractive pictures. Today, we are so picture-bound that it’s hard for us to understand the distinction, but in the Renaissance, it meant that two pictures could look quite different and still be “of” a single scene, subjected to alternate depictions.
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