Described by Aldous Huxley as ‘the greatest painting in the world,’ Piero della Francesca’s fresco of the resurrection of Christ was his gift to his native town. The painting celebrates two of the town’s most precious possessions: fragments of the tomb of Jesus, brought there in the first century by Sts Arcano and Egidio, and the Volto Santo, a large ninth century crucifix venerated in the cathedral. In that sense it is an icon of civic pride (the painting features on the city’s coat of arms). And yet it is much more. Three elements unite to make it one of the most startling and memorable of images.

The first is the haunting face of the risen Christ. Based on the bulging eyes and cleft beard of the Volto Santo, with its Byzantine intensity, this unlovely Jesus stares straight ahead, ignoring present reality, his eyes fixed on eternity and judgement.

The second is the geometry of the sleeping soldiers, in relation to the banner in Christ’s right hand. The recumbent arrangement of triangles, set against the horizontal of the tomb, is pierced by the vertical shaft of the Resurrection. The staff of the banner is firmly placed on the ground in front of the sepulchre (in the soldiers’ space). It is as though the majestic figure rising from the coffin is about to leap over the soldiers (and the observer) into another world.

The third is the careful sobriety of colour. At first a risen Christ in pink (white is the traditional colour of resurrection appearances and of the Easter season) seems strange. But its relation to the dull russets of the soldiers’ clothing is masterly. Theirs is the world of shadows and half-tones. Against the faltering dawn sky, Christ glows with life and light.

Mark Stevens