The touching image of the Madonna del Parto was painted in just seven "working days" (presumably before 1465) by Piero della Francesca. She is distant as a heavenly vision and yet alive and real in her post-adolescent freshness. The fresco was planned to complete the back wall of the main altar in the 13th century church of Santa Maria di Momentana (formerly Santa Maria in Silvis) in an isolated country village on the slopes of Monterchi.
By 1452, when Bicci died, he had finished painting only the four "Evangelists" in the great cross-vaulted ceiling of the choir, the "Last Judgment" on the front wall of the arch, and two "Doctors of the Church" on the intrados or inside curve of the arch. It is presumed that Piero della Francesca immediately took up with the work where Bicci had left off. The theme of the cycle is taken from the Golden Legend by Jacopo da Varagine, the iconographic source relied on by many Tuscan and Italian painters starting in the 1300s. It has been determined from a notary`s document that the work was interrupted in 1458/59 and brought to completion by 1466.
The Legend recounts how, on the point of death Adam begs his son Seth to go to the archangel Michele to procure the oil of mercy. The archangel refuses and instead gives Seth the seeds of the tree of sin, ordering him to plant them in the mouth of his dying father in order to save his soul. Seth obeys and once buried, the tree of Good and Evil springs up from the mouth of Adam, thus saving him. This tree is forgotten about over the years until the moment in which King Solomon orders the building of the Great Temple of Jerusalem when in fact, the tree is used in erecting a bridge over the waters of the River Siloah. The Queen of Sheba visits Solomon, and while crossing the bridge she suddenly has the vision that this plank over the river will be used in building the Cross of Jesus. On hearing this King Solomon orders the burial of the plank in order to prevent the vision from coming true.
During the trial of Jesus however, the plank comes to light again and is used by the Jews for building the cross, after which it is stolen and hidden away to prevent it from becoming an object of worship. The story continues with the discovery of the Cross by the Emperor Constantine and its subsequent carrying away from Jerusalem by the Persian King Cosroe, who wants this relic for himself. Later on Heraclius, Byzantine Emperor finally recovers the Cross and brings it back to Jerusalem again. The recounting of this legend is all reproduced by Piero della Francesca in the ten paintings, characterised by a great contrast - both in the subject and the representation them - that creates a striking effect of magnificence.
Information: Cappella dei Bacci c/o Basilica di San Francesco - P.zza San Francesco
Arezzo Internet: www.pierodellafrancesca.it