The Pregnant Madonna of Monterchi
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 duly traveled to the village, stayed for a while and discovered that their water source was contaminated. By fixing the problem (the water source was being contaminated upstream by the villagers' flocks of sheep) he 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 doctor told me it took his breath away.
Years later and the fresco has been recognised as the masterpiece it is. It has been carefully removed from the old chapel and is now 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.
Today the fresco is in the old school in Monterchi. It has a website: madonnadelparto.it
For directions click on this link - it will open in Google Maps: Museo Civico Madonna del Parto
To see Villas in this Area: Tuscan Villas near Arezzo