A long while ago a well-respected Roman doctor told me a story of his youth. He had been dispatched from Rome to visit a small village near Arezzo. The inhabitants were all complaining of “bubons”, unsightly growths on their necks and faces, and he was asked to find out why He stayed for a while, discovered that their water source was contaminated and cured the village.
One of the villagers, in gratitude, offered to show him their local secret and lead him to a small, dilapidated chapel. Kicking the doors open the villager stood back, proudly pointing at the fresco inside. It was a masterpiece by Piero della Francesca, and a most unusual subject: A pregnant Madonna.
I can only imagine the Stendhal like moment that such a revelation would have, seeing such an amazing painting revealed unexpectedly in a non-descript country chapel
The fresco has now been housed in the old school in the nearby village of Monterchi, after lengthy restoration. It is still breathtaking and the subject remains highly unusual.
Why paint a pregnant Madonna?
There is no doubt that the image of a pregnant Madonna is striking. She rests a hand on her belly, where the head of the child Jesus might be. Her expression is beatific and serene, aware of the importance of the child within. But the most important figure is, in a sense, missing.
There are very few images of the pregnant madonna and they seem to span a short period, just over 130 years. Renzo Manetti, a florentine academic, has an interesting theory about this. He believes these depictions are linked to the dissolution of the Knights Templar in 1312.
He argues that Florentine survivors of the dissolution went underground, and the pregnant Madonna symbolises the hidden promise of a return of the order. The spoken word as truth, the pregnancy as gestation and the re-birth as the promised return of tolerance and knowledge.
It is difficult to know whether this is what lies behind Piero della Francesca’s unusual choice of subject. It is true that this was the last example of these painting, bringing to a close a short vogue that started in 1334 with Taddeo di Gaddi’s pregnant Madonna in Bellosguardo, Florence.
Catholic dissent over mystery of pregnant Madonnas. The Guardian