Piero della Francesca's fresco Madonna del
Parto is not in the cemetery chapel in Monterchi (in the province of Arezzo) as stated below. It was removed from the chapel
wall many years ago and is now safely housed in a purpose-built museum in Monterchi.
An Italian author has stirred controversy within the Roman Catholic church with a new theory linking one of the most intriguing traditions in western art to the suppression of the enigmatic
A string of artists working from the middle of the 14th century near Florence painted the Virgin Mary as they imagined her to have been while she was pregnant. The best-known of these swelling Madonnas is by the great 15th
century Tuscan artist Piero della Francesca. It shows an apparently dejected mother-to-be with one hand resting on the burgeoning
front of her maternity gown.
Piero della Francesca's fresco, preserved in a cemetery chapel at Monterchi, near Arezzo, was not just the high
point of the tradition. It virtually brought it to an end.
Carvings and sculptures of pregnant Marys have a longer history before and after the early Renaissance. But the
painting of them by artists of stature is almost entirely confined to Tuscany in the 130 years ending around 1467, when Piero
della Francesco is reckoned to have created the fresco at Monterchi.
In a 40-page booklet published last month, Renzo Manetti, a Florentine architect and author of several works on
symbolism in art, argues that this is no coincidence.
"Florence was a major Templar centre and these Madonnas start to appear soon after the suppression of the knights
in 1312," he told the Guardian this week. The first by a celebrated artist is attributed to Taddeo Gaddi and dated to between
1334 and 1338.
"In virgin and child paintings, the child symbolises wisdom, knowledge, truth. So what the pregnant Madonnas represent
is a temporarily hidden truth," Mr Manetti said.
The Knights Templar were a military-religious order founded in the early 12th century to defend the kingdom the crusaders had carved out in the
Holy Land. From modest beginnings, the order grew to wield immense political and financial power not only in the Holy Land,
but also in Europe.
Pope Clement V ordered its dissolution after a campaign to discredit the order which saw bogus confessions extracted
by the use of often ferocious torture. Two years after the pope issued his decree, the last grand master of the Knights Templar
was burned at the stake on an island in the Seine in front of Nôtre Dame cathedral.
Controversy still rages over what secret knowledge, if any, the surviving Templars and their lay associates preserved.
The question surfaced most recently in Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code, where it is held to be evidence that
Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children whose descendants have survived to the present.
If that theory is to be believed, then Mr Manetti's interpretation raises the issue of which Mary is being depicted
by the creators of the pregnant Madonnas. Mr Manetti, a practising Catholic, dismisses The Da Vinci Code as "based on a complete
misunderstanding" of early Christian writings.
But with leading figures in the church denouncing The Da Vinci Code as subversive, sensitivity among clerics to
anything that echoes its contents is acute. And Mr Manetti's theory has run into vigorous criticism from the priest whose
church in Florence houses Gaddi's pregnant Virgin.
In a 15-page article due to appear soon in the diocesan periodical, Father Giovanni Alpigiano argues for the traditional
view that the expectant virgins represent the theological concept of incarnation. There is "no arcane secret" attached to
Gaddi's Mary, he insists, despite her cryptic, knowing expression.
"Great care needs to be taken in attempting to rewrite the history of art or literature solely with the help of
esoteric clues," Fr Alpigiano adds. An account of his counter-blast was splashed over the best part of a page in Avvenire,
the national daily newspaper owned by the Italian bishops' conference.
Yet a prominent Catholic cleric, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, took part in the launch of Mr Manetti's booklet. Mgr
Verdon, the American-born canon of Florence cathedral, is a distinguished Renaissance scholar and the author of monographs
on, among others, Piero della Francesca. "My own approach is that one should always look for the most universally accessible
meaning," he said yesterday. "Works of Christian art are meant to be understood by all-comers. But, that said, I find [Manetti's] work interesting, stimulating. It puts one
back in touch with a range of possibilities that might otherwise be forgotten."
Mr Manetti said: "I wouldn't want to say that Piero and the other artists who painted the pregnant Madonnas were
secret Templars, but they may well have been sympathisers".
Mr Manetti said there was evidence to suggest that a group of former warrior monks and their associates in Florence
had founded a new order, of St. Jerome, which was generously endowed by rich Tuscan families who had previously been close
to the Templars.
As the dispute gathers momentum, one question remains so far unanswered. What does Mr Manetti believe was the true
secret these great artists thought they were alluding to?
Mr Manetti is not telling. But he will be publishing a full-length book on the subject later this year.