Did you know there is a museum in Italy where pregnant women are exempt from an admission fee?
In the small southern Tuscan town of Monterchi,….
…..pregnant women enter free to see the 15th-century Renaissance masterpiece of Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto (“Madonna of Childbirth”).
The mysteries linked to this splendid fresco fascinated me. Who commissioned the splendido fresco – probably painted between 1450 and 1475 – for a simple small church outside of the town? Why ever was the fresco painted in a back wall of that small chapel on wooded hill? And why ever was Piero della Francesca – already famed – chosen to fresco in a humble church outside of a village?
The Madonna stands in reflection under precious and elegant brocaded drapery. She is in an advanced state of pregnancy, her eyes lowered and her thoughtful look seems to predict the future sufferings of the Child in her womb. Her face is solemn and at once humble as she caresses her bulging stomach.
The angels open the drapery with a decided, quick movement as if flinging open the baldacchino (canopy) to reveal the Madonna to the faithful for contemplation:
The angels’ expressions are serene yet solemn:
Piero della Francesca was a master of perspective and brilliant mathemetician, writing various mathematic treatises and.
A fascinating display across the room from the fresco, shows us clearly his skill and here are just a few photos I took of the images:
Just below the fresco to the left, a basket holds the many requests written by mothers – both expectant ones and those already raising children – to the Madonna del Parto:
The Piero della Francesca fresco of the Madonna close to childbirth had in fact substituted an ancient votive image of Vergine Lactans (“The Virgin of Milk” or “The Nursing Virgin”) venerated in that small mountainside church – Santa Maria della Momentana – where Piero frescoed his image.
The remains of the pre-existing votive image are now in a room near the Madonna del Parto:
The cult existed until recent years when local women invoked her intercession for a safe childbirth and drank the waters of the nearby Momentana stream to assure abundant milk.
The iconography of the Madonna del Latte (“Virgin of the Milk”) was noticeably diffuse in the upper Tiber Valley area for centuries.
After our visit to the Madonna del Parto, Pino and I headed outside of Monterchi to the village cemetery, for here in the small, simple church – now the cemetery church – Piero had been commissioned to fresco his pregnant Madonna.
Partially destroyed in a late 18th-century earthquake, the bishop permitted rebuilding of the church as the cemetery church.
In 1910, Piero’s Madonna del Parto was detached from the wall, restored and then returned to the same place.
In 1944, many masterpieces were put into storage to safeguard against war damage but the local people refused to allow removal of their Madonna for spiritual reasons: they had been praying to her since time immemorial and gave thanks to her always for a safe maternity and for her care of their children.
In 1990, the chapel of the Madonna della Momentana was restored and the Piero masterpiece was moved to Monterchi’s s former primary school which was transformed into a museum:
From the top of the steps in front of the Church of the Madonna della Momentana, I could see Monterchi across the road.
Piero’s mother, Monna Romana di Perino, was born there: she is the link of Piero to the town. Some romanticized interpretations view the painting as a tribute to her at her death.
But this still does not resolve the mystery of who commissioned the fresco.
Perhaps a wealthy citizen, grateful for the health of wife and child after an arduous childbirth?
Muse on options yourself when you take in the Madonna del Parto in Monterchi.
Read here about Piero della Francesca.