This Europe: Judge to rule on primacy of art over religion

Peter Popham
Friday 25 April 2003 00:00

A row that crystallises the old argument about religious art – does its sacredness trump its value as art, or can it have different meanings for different people? – is to be settled by an Italian judge.

The work in dispute is the Madonna del Parto (also known as the Virgin Mother) by Piero della Francesca, one of the finest of Renaissance works. The judge was asked to step in when a committee, set up to resolve an argument over where the fresco should be displayed, failed to find an answer.

The committee admitted defeat on Wednesday after a six-month tug-of-war between Arezzo diocese and Monterchi, a small municipality near Arezzo. The painting, showing a pregnant, gravely frowning Virgin Mary, hangs in an unused school in Monterchi that was turned into a museum for the purpose.

The Bishop of Arezzo, Monsignor Gualtiero Bassetti, objects to the unholy setting, and to a fee being levied on the 50,000 people who beat a path there every year to see it. The work, he says, is a cult object at which expectant mothers have long prayed for safe deliveries.

"It is not right that a worshipper should have to buy a ticket to pray in front of a cult object such as the Madonna del Parto, which the faithful have venerated for centuries," the Bishop says.

For his part, the mayor of Monterchi, Gabriele Severi, is unhappy at the prospect of the picture leaving his domain. His proposal that it be housed in a "civic temple" was rejected by the bishop as anti-clerical; a compromise plan – a dedicated museum-cum-chapel, next to the church – fared no better.

Della Francesca painted the work in the church of Santa Maria di Momentana, outside Monterchi. For centuries it was neglected, and was nearly lost when most of the church was demolished. In 1944 it began its travels when two art historians, fearing the Nazis would steal it, removed it and concealed it behind a brick wall.

Visitors admiring the picture now may feel the Virgin's pained expression – where on earth is she going to have this baby? – has a new relevance.

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