In the background stands the family castle, which was named after Sigismondo (1417-1468), who was an Italian nobleman of the Malatesta family, and from 1432, lord of Rimini and the surrounding area in Emilia-Romagna. Florentine architect Leon Battista Alberti, who met Piero della Francesca in Rimini, was commissioned in the late 1440s to convert the thirteenth-century Gothic building. As a military commander as well as patron of the arts, but also a man of violence and cruelty, Sigismondo would have been keen to be depicted as a devout figure kneeling before his patron saint. Frescoes like this were normally produced by applying powder-pigment ground in water to fresh plaster, and then allowing it to become one with the wall.
Piero della Francesca was an early Renaissance painter who was at his peak from the mid to late fifteenth century. His interest in other disciplines, such as geometry, led to an understanding of perspective that he explored in his work. In this fresco, planned before application to the wall, the two figures and the dog inhabit their own spaces separately from the building structure, and the castle, with clear details that stand out, is authentically placed at the edge of this Adriatic town.
Born around 1415 and living until 1492, the artist's early influences were Domenico Veneziano and Antonio di Giovanni Anghiari, to whom he was apprenticed. Della Francesca was already using his skills as a mathematician to develop two-dimensional compositions, and this, together with an understanding of classical composition, and the Renaissance interest in humanism, gave strength to paintings like the 1451 Malatesta fresco. The serenity that this style brought to his work made it ideal for churches.
Piero della Francesca settled in Rimini in the late 1470s when he stopped working, but he inspired others like Luca Signorelli and Perugino, who visited his studio. During his lifetime, there was more interest in his mathematical theories than in his paintings, many of which were on church walls and so required travel. Now, he is regarded as an iconic and influential painter of the early Renaissance, and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta Praying in Front of St Sigismund is typical of his output.