Aldous Huxley Saves the Day

from Thomas Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes:

In a collection of travel essays published in 1925, Aldous Huxley had called Piero [della Francesca’s] Resurrection, the fresco that decorates the Museo Civico of Sansepolcro, “the greatest picture in the world.” In the last days of World War II, as British soldiers began shelling Nazi-occupied Sansepolcro with the intention of reducing it to rubble, their captain, Antony Clarke, was trying to recall where he had heard the name “Sansepolcro” before. Suddenly he remembered reading Huxley’s description—of a fresco Clarke had never seen in a Tuscan village he had never visited—and he called off the shelling. Soon thereafter, the Brits received a message informing them that the Germans had already retreated from the neighborhood, so continued shelling was unnecessary. Thanks to Captain Clarke’s tenacious memory and discerning sensibility (and to Huxley’s extravagant praise), both the village and the fresco survived the war.

Is Piero’s Resurrection the greatest picture in the world? Whether it is or not, it is surely a prime example of Piero’s treatment of human figures, which pop out from their two-dimensionality almost as if they were exceedingly subtle holograms. Even in their unruffled dignity and stillness—what Huxley terms Piero’s “passion for solidity”—they are hologram-like. Few poses in all of art are more definite, more authoritative, than the planting of Christ’s left foot at the edge of the sarcophagus (or san sepolcro), silent medium between Heaven and earth, life and death. The strapping Roman soldier in brown is Piero himself, and his head resting against the shaft of Christ’s banner (a Guelph banner, what else?) indicates the sleeper’s own silent hope of resurrection. For Huxley, the scene incarnates all the most noble qualities of the best ancient and the best Renaissance art. “A natural, spontaneous and unpretentious grandeur—this is the leading quality in all of Piero’s work. He is majestic without being at all strained, theatrical or hysterical—as Handel is majestic, not as Wagner.” His risen Christ is not the usual portrayal, but in Huxley’s view “more like a Plutarchian hero than the Christ of conventional religion. The body is perfectly developed, like that of a Greek athlete…. It is the resurrection of the classical ideal, incredibly much grander and more beautiful than the classical reality, from the tomb where it had lain so many hundred years.”

– Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World, 102-3

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