My Favourite Painting: Lachie Stewart

The architect Lachie Stewart chooses a Piero della Francesca masterpiece from the 15th century.

Lachie Stewart on Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca

Lachie’s words weren’t taken from today — instead, he provided this excerpt from his diary of August 1979, written when on a travelling scholarship from Edinburgh College of Art.

‘AREZZO

‘A town full of exciting surprises.

‘Many small craft shops on the streets and lanes, bookbinders and furnituremakers. The church tower with “100 windows” and columns piling up on top of each other. San Domenico has jolly wall patterns of interest. These were used to frame huge areas of painted decoration.

‘The House of Vasari had Adam-style decoration; I wondered if that Scot had ever seen it. The Piero della Francesca frescos of men in many numbers dressed for battle were very strong. It was the first time I had seen his paintings outside a gallery. The next day, a visit to one of the greatest paintings I have ever seen — the Madonna del Parto in Monterchi.’

Lachie Stewart is an architect and co-founder of design company ANTA.

John McEwen on Madonna del Parto

When I visited the famous ‘Pregnant’ Madonna 30 years ago, it dominated the apse of a chapel-sized church outside the hill-top village of Monterchi, between Sansepolcro and Arezzo. There was no other visitor and it was moving to see such a famous painting in this modest and private place. Today, it is in a former school in Monterchi and its re-siting is debated.

The original location subjected it to a turbulent history. The fresco suffered from neglect, but withstood an earthquake and the reconstruction of the church, which was reduced and re-aligned, the altar moved and the fresco taken from a side wall to the apse.

Its artistic assurance suggests a date from the artist’s maturity. His mother, Romana, came from Monterchi and died at about the time of the fresco’s probable date, but no document suggests it honours her death. The Madonna became an object of devotion for local women, but whether in gratitude, supplication or both is conjecture. Their veneration may also have owed something to an ancient pagan fertility cult. For Piero himself, the painting probably referred to the words of the Salve Regina (Hail Mary): ‘Show unto us the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.’

Infra-red and ultra-violet photography has revealed that the Madonna’s stance was more defined, her hands more delicate, her head-dress more elaborate. The tented canopy held open by the angels was more sumptuous, its outside decorated all over.

Fresco requires speed, the paint absorbed when the plaster is damp. Additions can be made a secco, to the dried surface, but at the price of shorter durability. The angels are surely one model duplicated, albeit opposites in the colour of wings and apparel.