The Flagellation of Christ by Piero Della Francesca
Interpretation/Evaluation of Allegorical Religious Painting

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Flagellation of Christ by Piero Della Francesca
The Flagellation of Christ
By Piero Della Francesca.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Flagellation of Christ (1450-60)


Interpretation/Meaning of The Flagellation of Christ
Further Resources


Artist: Piero Della Francesca (1415-92)
Medium: Tempera/Oil on panel
Genre: History painting
Movement: Early Renaissance art
Location: Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino.

For other great pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

The trio of male figures in
the right foreground of
The Flagellation.

Analysis and Interpretation of Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca

The Flagellation of Christ is one of several masterpieces of Christian art by Piero Della Francesca, one of the great innovators of Early Renaissance painting, who languished in obscurity for centuries after his death, until his rediscovery in the 1900s. He is now considered to be of the major figures in Renaissance art of the 15th century. Probably painted during his first stay in the city state of Urbino, ruled by the warrior/scholar Federico da Montefeltro, this painting - like his earlier picture The Baptism of Christ (1450s, National Gallery, London) - is marked by strongly modelled figures standing in a setting that offers the viewer an unmistakeable impression of depth. It is his most enigmatic work, and one of the greatest Renaissance paintings of the mid-quattrocento. The art historian Kenneth Clark, creator of the famous Civilization TV series, ranked The Flagellation of Christ among his list of the ten finest paintings of all time.

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The painting was executed in oil and tempera on a wood panel, and measures a modest 2 feet by 2.5 feet. Art experts believe that the work was commissioned in order to promote solidarity between the Eastern Christian Church and the Western Church of Rome, in view of the Ottoman attack on Constantinople. A perfectly composed piece of Biblical art, it depicts the scourging of Christ before the Crucifixion, a punishment ordered by the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, who sits on the left (he is also thought to represent Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, leader of the Eastern Church in Constantinople). According to scholars the painting is set in the portico of Pontius Pilate's palace in Jerusalem, whose dimensions and character were allegedly carefully researched by the artist.

What is strange about the overall scene is that Christ is portrayed as a small figure in the background, while the three much larger men standing in the foreground to the right seem far more important. The exact identity of these figures remains uncertain, though the two older men are believed to be important political or religious figures in Urbino. The younger man in the middle may be an angel, while the man on the extreme right may be Ludovico Gonzaga, the ruler of Mantua. (See more possibilities, below.) Note his magnificent damask robe, with its blue and gold thread, which reveals the artist's regard for luxurious fabrics and for the most fashionable styles - quite unlike that of many Florentine painters who tended to eschew such features entirely.

Surreal Mood

Despite its violent subject matter, the painting conveys a sense of harmony and dignified calm. The figures have a clinical sharpness and the architecture is crisply and precisely delineated; the scene is illuminated by a cool, clear light. There is a slightly surreal mood about this piece of religious art: the men on the right are not interested in Christ's ordeal and are engaged in quiet conversation, while the man flagellating Christ seems to be frozen in mid-lash - as if caught by a camera.

Perspective and Vanishing Point

The overall composition is very tightly controlled, both in its narrative content and appearance. The composition is split between two scenes, separated by the column supporting the temple in which Jesus is being scourged. (The two scenes may even have different time frames, as the flagellation scene is lit from the right while the foreground scene is lit from the left.) Piero's use of perspective in this picture is especially noteworthy. In most religious art of the 15th century, the vanishing point - the visual focus of the picture - was usually the face or figure of Christ. In this work however, the vanishing point lies in the middle of the picture, near the right hem of the scourger's robe. Exactly why Piero chose this approach is unclear, although the use of a central vanishing point typically creates a powerful impression of balance and stability, both of which were among the artist's major concerns. Having absorbed the work of earlier painters, such as Masaccio - see his Holy Trinity (1428) and Tribute Money (1425-7) - Piero Della Francesca produced what is arguably the ultimate exemplar of quattrocento linear perspective.

Identities of Foreground Figures

The Flagellation - one of the most famous religious paintings of the early Italian Renaissance - has been the subject of considerable analysis by historians like Silvia Ronchey, David A. King, Kenneth Clark, and Marilyn Aronberg Lavin. Much of the debate concerns the identities and roles of the trio in the right foreground, and the standing and seated man on the left, who are watching the whipping of Christ. Some (like the latter), are believed to have multiple identities (Pilate and Emperor John VIII). According to one interpretation, the central figure is Oddantonio da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, flanked by his two counselors, Manfredo dei Pio and Tommaso di Guido dell'Agnello, all of whom were assassinated on July 22, 1444. According to this version, Oddantonio's death was compared to that of Christ, and the picture was commissioned as a memorial by his half brother Duke Federico da Montefeltro, who succeeded Oddantonio as Duke of Urbino. A second, different version identifies the two flankers as Serafini and Ricciarelli, the alleged assassins of Oddantonio and his two advisors. According to a third explanation, the painting is a portrayal of the ruling Urbino dynasty, commissioned by Federico da Montefeltro, which shows his half-brother Oddantonio and the two preceeding rulers of Urbino. This version is confirmed by an 18th century inventory discovered in the Urbino Cathedral, the former home of the picture, which describes it as: The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, with the Figures and the Portraits of Duke Guidubaldo and Oddo Antonio.


If there is a consus among art scholars as to the meaning of The Flagellation of Christ By Piero Della Francesca, it goes something like this. (1) The painting is a political allegory in which the scourged Christ represents the suffering of Constantinople, (centre of the Eastern Byzantine Christian Church), a city besieged and then sacked by the Ottoman Turks. (2) The figure watching the flagellation with his back to the viewer is the Ottoman leader Mahomet II; seated to his left is the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, identifiable from his red wide-brimmed hat. (3) The picture alludes to the proposed crusade supported by Pope Pius II in Rome, and debated at the Council of Mantua.

There is no consensus on the identitities and functions of the three men standing in the foreground.

Piero Della Francesca

His works demonstrate a wide knowledge of artistic predecessors and contemporaries, including Donatello (1386-1466), Masaccio (1401-28), Domenico Veneziano (d.1461), Filippo Lippi (1457-1504), Paolo Uccello (1396-1475), and even the more International Gothic style of Masolino (1383-1432), who anticipated Piero's use of broad areas of colour pigment. Borrowing from all these sources, Piero put together a style in which monumental grandeur, combined with mathematical lucidity, produces a calming, limpid beauty of colour and light. His main work is a cycle of fresco paintings on the Legend of the True Cross in the choir of San Francesco at Arezzo (c.1452-1465), while other individual panel paintings include Portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza (1465-66, Uffizi, Florence), The Baptism of Christ (1440-50, National Gallery, London), and The Resurrection of Christ (1463, Borgo Sansepolcro Museo Civico). Until his spectacular 'rediscovery', he was remembered mainly as a mathematician and expert on architectural perspective, rather than as a painter.



Further Resources

For more information on quattrocento art, try these resources:

Early Renaissance Artists (1400-1500)
Renaissance Colour Palette

• For more about Early Renaissance painting, see our main index: Homepage.

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