- The Lives of the ArtistsOur PickBy Giorgio Vasari
- CimabueBy Luciano Bellosi and Giuliana Ragionieri
- CimabueBy Eugenio Battisti
Important Art by Cimabue
One of Cimabue's earliest works, this large size crucifix was commissioned by the Dominican order for the Basilica of San Domenico in Arezzo. It depicts Christ on the cross at the height of his suffering and in the throes of death. Christ's body is contorted and slumped turning to the left, his eyes are nearly closed, and his brow is furrowed, conveying to the viewer the agony of his crucifixion. The work is grandiose and richly decorated. Details such as Christ's red loincloth, accentuated by highlights of gold, create the appearance of a soft and supple fabric that gently falls over the tortured body. Two mourning figures, the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist, are presented as half-figures on the horizontal axis of the cross. On the top of the crucifix there is a small panel of the Blessing Christ, painted in accordance with the conventions of Byzantine art.
Cimabue was influenced by the works of his predecessors, Florentine painter Coppo di Marcovaldo and Pisan painter Giunta Pisano. The design of the Arezzo crucifix is closest to Pisano's crucifix commissioned by the Dominican order for their principal church in Bologna. However, although Cimabue preserves the schematic appearance of the muscles, arms and abdomen, he further develops the corporeal qualities of Christ's flesh. His strategic use of shade on the legs, torso, arms, and underarms add to the plasticity of the body. Cimabue's crucifix signified thus a departure from the stoical figures of Christ on the cross and anticipates the more expressive and naturalistic representations associated with the Renaissance period.
Tempera and gold on wood - Basilica of San Domenico, Arezzo
Cimabue painted the crucifix for the Franciscan order at the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. Although the work again reflects Byzantine iconography, the monumental crucifix also demonstrates Cimabue's gradual departure from tradition. But despite the compositional similarity to the Arezzo crucifix, Cimabue here creates a more expressive representation of Christ which invites the viewer to empathize more fully with Christ's human suffering.
Historian Luciano Bellosi summarized two significant innovations in the treatment of Christ's body which distinguish this work from the earlier crucifix in Arezzo. The first is the use of green that creates the effect of dead flesh; the second is the artist's deviation from the schematized rendering of the muscles. Christ's body is no longer composed of rigid forms, Cimabue's masterful use of shading creates flowing shapes that result in a much more naturalistic appearance of the muscles and skin than one would find in Byzantine art. Unfortunately, the work was severely damaged during the flood that hit Florence in 1966, and despite conservation efforts, it remains in poor condition.
Tempera and gold on wood - Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence
The Flagellation of Christ
This panel depicts one of the key moments of the Passion. Prior to being condemned to death by crucifixion, Christ was tied to a column and whipped by Roman soldiers. While Christ and his punishers occupy the foreground, the background is dominated by gold (reflecting his Byzantine heritage), with the two towers representing the architecture of ancient Jerusalem. The placement of the figures and the architectural elements demonstrate Cimabue's experimentation with illusionistic spatial effects, even if he would never fully master creating the full illusion of perspective.
This is the only work by Cimabue in a public collection in the United States. It was purchased for the Frick collection in 1950 on the initiative of Henry Clay Frick's daughter, Helen Clay Frick. At the time of the acquisition, scholars debated whether this work was painted by Cimabue or Duccio. Only a half a century later was the debate settled with the discovery of a panel, The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels, now at London's National Gallery, where obvious stylistic comparisons (size, materials, red borders, incised margins, etc.) firmly attributed The Flagellation of Christ to the hand of Cimabue. Technical examinations also revealed that the National Gallery panel and The Flagellation of Christ were once a part of a larger work, most likely an altarpiece. In 2019, Christ Mocked, a third panel of this larger work was recovered (and acquired by a private collector).
Collectively, the three panels share characteristics with Cimabue's fresco cycles at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. The arrangement of the architectural elements in The Flagellation of Christ being comparable to many of the frescoes in Assisi; especially the Saint Peter cycle and the Evangelist portraits in the vault of the Upper Church.
Tempera on poplar panel - The Frick Collection
The Virgin and Child with Two Angels
This small panel portrays the Virgin and Child seated on a wooden throne and presented to the viewer by the two angels. The image corresponds with the Byzantine prototype of the Virgin enthroned with the archangels Michael and Gabriel. The rich decorations on the angel's garments resemble the loros: embroidered and jewel studded fabric that was part of the ceremonial imperial costume of the Byzantine empire. In this way Cimabue formed a visual link between earthly rulers and the Kingdom of Heaven.
Although the panel is still rooted in Byzantine tradition, Cimabue altered the image in significant ways, creating a more naturalistic and impassioned representation for the religious worshipper. The throne is a three-dimensional structure that gives the space a sense of depth, while the pillow on the throne seems to curl under the weight of the Virgin and Christ, enhancing the physicality of the figures. Furthermore, there is a closeness and intimacy between infant Christ and the Virgin illustrated by the affectionate gesture of his grabbing of her hand. These innovations were influential on the next generation of Italian artists (notably Giotto and Duccio).
Unlike Cimabue's monumental depictions of the Virgin and Child, this panel provides insight into how the artist transformed Byzantine models on a smaller scale. After the discovery of the panel in 2000 (and its attribution to Cimabue) technical examination proved that together with The Flagellation of Christ and Christ Mocked (discovered in 2019), it formed part of a small altarpiece which was likely a private devotional object.
National Gallery, London - Tempera on poplar wood
In 2019, Cimabue made headlines when an extraordinary discovery was made in an elderly woman's kitchen in Northern France. A small icon above her hotplate was in fact a panel painting by Cimabue dating from around 1280. As historian and auctioneer Kay Carson observed, "It was discovered quite by chance, thanks to an auctioneer who was at the house in Compiègne, France, to value furniture". The scene, which depicts the mocking of Christ prior to his crucifixion, is set against a gold backdrop, with architectural elements that represent the city of Jerusalem. Cimabue employs an inverted perspective in the architectural elements, following many conventions of art at the time.
Christ is placed at the center of the composition, encircled by threatening figures of young and old men with swords and sticks. The dense composition of intertwining arms and legs creates multiple focal points that ultimately lead the viewer's gaze toward the suffering figure of Christ. Cimabue contrasts Christ's calm and mournful expression with the grimacing and hateful faces of the angry mob. Christ also appears to be standing above the crowd, a symbol of his moral superiority. Italian art historian Andrea De Marchi emphasized the importance of this newly discovered panel: "for the first time, we have one of Cimabue's greatest qualities, that of choral narration, of the crowding of figures - so evident in his frescoes at Assisi - in a small-scale panel painting". What has become known as "the Compiègne panel" sold for a record price of £20.7 million at auction.
Tempera and gold leaf on poplar panel - Private Collection
Virgin and Child Enthroned, and Prophets (Santa Trinita Maestà)
Cimabue painted several versions of the Virgin and Child enthroned (also known the Maestà ("majesty")). The image is set against a gold background that symbolizes the divine light and suggests an otherworldly dimension in which the scene occurs. Seated on a lavish throne, the Virgin holds Christ on her lap, with eight angels holding up the throne. Their halos are decorated using punches (tools used to create indentations) for gemstones. The Virgin gestures toward her son with her right hand thus following the Byzantine model of the Virgin Hodegetria, indicating that Christ will lead the way to salvation.
Cimabue remains influenced by Byzantine models, but his adaptation of these models introduced novel elements. For instance, the gilding of the Virgin's robe is achieved by using a traditional Byzantine technique called agèmina: the inlaying of different metals into one another. Yet, the treatment of the robe also deviates from Byzantine tradition. It drapes loosely over the body with its delicate folds and reveals more of the Virgin's undergarment. The Virgin's veil falls vertically from the top of the head, creating a sense of movement caused by the folds. The throne, meanwhile, is incredibly intricate, covered as it is with wooden carvings and gems. Indeed, an important difference emerges in the presentation of the throne: it is no longer drawn sideways as in other depictions of the Maestà by Cimabue. Instead, it is seen from a frontal position, following the rules of centralized perspective, which were adopted by Giotto, Duccio and other 14th century artists. The rendering of the throne, especially the carefully carved steps, enhance the spatial depth of the composition.
But it is perhaps the base that has caused most interest amongst historians. Dr. Holly Flora writes: "Founded in the eleventh century by the Florentine knight Giovanni Gualberto, the Vallombrosans [monastic religious order] sought to bring monastic life back in line with the values of Saint Benedict of Nursia". The members of the Benedictines order celebrated the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah, Abraham, David and Isaiah in their literary and devotional traditions. Flora notes that "Cimabue's placement of David [identified through the bright red mantle and crown] and the other figures at the base of Mary's throne was a completely original visual element and may have been part of the artist's efforts to create a new spin on the Maestà in celebration of the Vallombrosans, creating their own signature' Madonna" while adding that the "spectacular and innovative Maestà that Cimabue created would certainly have brought new attention and prestige to the Vallombrosans at Santa Trinita".
Tempera on panel - The Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Saint John the Evangelist (detail)
Created for the apse of the Pisa Cathedral, the mosaic of Saint John the Evangelist is the only chronicled work by Cimabue. Documentation shows that Cimabue was working on the mosaic in Pisa between September 1301, and February 1302. It is likely the last work he completed before his death. The mosaic in its entirety depicts the Enthroned God at the center of the composition, with the Madonna on his left and Saint John the Evangelist on his right. Several artists contributed to the mosaic (an artist named Francesco executed the Enthroned God, Cimabue worked on the figure of Saint John, while the figure of the Madonna was completed by Vincino da Pistoia).
While Cimabue is primarily known as a painter, he was evidently highly skilled in mosaic work, so much so that the mosaic almost appears as one of his painted panels. The colors are not rigidly divided, instead the placement of tiles creates a gradient effect. The evolved shading is most evident in the delicate treatment of the skin tones and the elaborate robe. The complex folds of the drapery with their clean and neat edges give the impression of rustling silk.
The mosaic shares attributes with Cimabue's mature paintings. The positioning of Saint John's hands holding a book, for instance, resembles the hands of Saint Francis in the fresco Virgin and Child with Angels and Saint Francis of the Lower Basilica in Assisi. Elements such as the Saint's voluminous hair are also characteristic of the artist's mature style. Art historian, Luciano Bellosi also noted how "the inclination of the head, which is melancholy without any sense of sulking, compares favorably most of all with the Santa Trinita Madonna".
Pisa Cathedral, Pisa - Mosaic