Learn about some of the pictorial aspects of this stunning painting


The Nativity by Piero Della Francesca 1470-5 oil on poplar 124 x 122cm

This is the Nativity by the Italian artist Piero della Francesca. When I was in my early twenties during a visit to the National Gallery in London, I was alone and gazing quietly at this beautiful painting when I had a moment of revelation. Whilst looking at the way the artist had painted the mouths of these young girls who lived so long ago; I got such a strong feeling about the man who painted them. It was as if he was actually there in the room talking to me. But it wasn’t words he was using but the language of paint, and I, as an artist, understood him, and felt his presence through his use of paint.



Although these figures might represent angels in the picture, they are actually portraits of real girls. Their faces are painted so beautifully, that through the genius of Piero’s painting skill, his models have travelled 500 years through time for our delectation. In particular the forms of the mouths are defined so well that you can feel the softness of their lips and almost sense the warm breath that emanates as they sing. It is particularly clever that two of the girls have their eyes closed as all five angels with their eyes open might be too intense an image and draw your eye from the Madonna praying before the Christ child. It seems to me that the second and fourth angel may be painted from the same model. These faces are small, perhaps 5 centimetres wide. Such exquisite delicacy in painting is rare.



To the left of the leftmost angel a river can be seen meandering into the foreground, a rocky outcrop was painted to the left of the angel’s robe. Over time or through overzealous cleaning, the white paint has become more transparent and it can be seen that the grey bank has been overpainted. Although I suspect it is impossible to say when this was done, it is an improvement because it softens the rather hard straight line of the bank, and also the horizontal line of a dark green plantation which would look unsightly cutting into the angels dress. This overpainting made apparent over time is called pentimento, or plural pentimenti. Even when an artist has made an elaborate detailed preliminary drawing, he will often find he needs to ‘repent’ (literal translation), and make unforeseen changes to improve his painting.



On the National gallery website it says, “Even the Magpie, well-known in Piero’s native Tuscany for its constant chatter, seems changed and looks silent”. This may be true, but why is it where it is? From a painter’s perspective it serves two very important functions: firstly it breaks the line of the roof which would otherwise lead your eye in a diagonal, cutting across the painting to the bottom right. Instead, its tail leads you towards the head of the left most angel, past the rather awkward vertical of the back wall of the shed. Secondly it adds a point of interest in the top left of the picture; which is otherwise rather bland, and it echoes the strut to the right holding up the roof. Repeating a shape gives every instance strength.



By tradition Piero Dela Francesca would have had to paint the Madonna’s robe and dress dark blue. However he had a choice of what colour to paint the girls dresses and he chose light colours, including blue to go back in space. The shadows on these are not as dark as in the Madonna’s robe . This means they recede and do not present much tonal contrast which would take away from the central subjects of Christ and the Madonna. The soundholes of the lutes are not as dark as they would be in reality, and there is little detail on the fretboards, so these instruments do not take away from the faces of the main characters . A little red is there to add life and echo the red of the Virgin’s blouse. The eye can travel easily, in a circle, from the Madonnas face to her praying hands, down her robe to Christ, and then up again via the leftmost girl’s foot to her arm and across the faces of the singing angels back to the Madonna again. Furthermore, look how the lutes point to the Virgin’s head, and she looks towards Christ. We always look where a figures eyes are looking, and in this clever way you are led to look at the Christ child. Easy to describe, but it is the planned positioning, subtle underplay, and emphasis of certain elements that make it happen. Although this painting is unfinished and has signs of overpainting or damage, it still has passages of exquisite beauty.

Good painting is always subtle. It is easy to be crude, much more difficult to create a harmony in a painting, to allow the eye to travel easily from one graceful object to another and savour its delights. To enjoy the beauties of a painting you need quiet, and time to view it, and you will get more and more from it. The three line soundbites from a gallery audio guide and a jostling crowd either side of you, are not conducive to the enjoyment of a painting. Rather go to a gallery at a quiet time, and sit in one of the chairs in the middle of the room and gaze quietly, and then you will start to see how we artists see…and what the artist himself intended!