An Altarpiece in Pieces

Piero della Francesca, The Crucifixion, 1454–1469, oil and tempera on poplar panel, thinned and cradled, 14.7 x 16.2 cm The Frick Collection, New York.

Piero della Francesca, The Crucifixion, 1454–1469, oil and tempera on poplar panel, thinned and cradled, 14.7 x 16.2 cm The Frick Collection, New York.

“Piero della Francesca in America” is the first U.S. exhibition to unite six paintings from the artist’s Sant’Agostino Altarpiece. The work, which was executed between 1454 and 1469, was dismantled approximately a century after it was completed. Many of the pieces have since been lost or destroyed, and only eight have survived.

By uniting these paintings, curator Nat Silver explained that the exhibition is able to tell two distinct stories—the first is a history of collecting at the Frick. Helen Clay Frick—the daughter of Henry Clay Frick—first purchased della Francesca’s St. John the Evangelist  (1454–69) in 1936, just months after the museum first opened. Since then, the Frick has had a special connection to these pieces. For example, Helen Clay Frick once tried to purchase Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (ca. 1460–70), which is on loan for the exhibition from the Clark Art Institute in Boston, from Sterling Clark. And in 1961, The Crucifixion (1454–69)—the only surviving work from the altarpiece’s predella—was donated to the Frick by John D. Rockefeller. Henry Clay Frick once reportedly turned down an offer to acquire the The Crucifixion, and now it is a central work in this exhibition.

The second story that “Piero della Francesca in America” tells is that of the artist in his hometown of Borgo San Sepolcro. As the story goes, the town was founded by two pilgrims who brought with them a stone from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is said to have been buried and resurrected. This iconography has served as a vital part of Borgo San Sepolcro’s history, and the image of the resurrection is even found on the town’s seal. Many of the paintings here, such as the Saint Augustine panel (1454–69), feature related imagery . In this panel, the saint wears lavish, ornate robes which are embossed with scenes from the life of Christ. The robes are fastened by a finely detailed brooch that bears an image of the resurrection.

Though the altarpiece itself is not complete, the union of these paintings allows for a discussion of these two very comprehensive histories.

“Piero della Francesca in America” is on view at the Frick Collection through May 19, 2013.