Cimabue was a Florentine painter who lived from 1251 until 1302. He is significant in that he is one of the first painters to shift from stylistic representations popular during the medieval ages, signifying a turning point in Art History toward the Renaissance.
Paintings before Cimabue were flat with little or no depth and figures had a highly stylized look. What do we attribute this to? During the middle ages, artists had limited understanding of correct body proportions or an understanding of how to communicate three-dimensionality. But, also artists were not all that interested in creating actual depth and replicating the human experience. Rather they were interested in creating a divine realm that reflected an otherworldly quality through the shimmering gold reflections and highly stylized figures floating in unreal spaces. They were also greatly influenced by Byzantine art. As a result, they created paintings on wooden panels using egg tempera, the backgrounds of which consisted mainly of flat surfaces burnished with thin sheets of real gold.
But, at the time Cimabue began painting, artists were on the cusp of a new age. This is marked by a new interest painting in a more naturalistic way. Cimabue started to pay closer attention to the real world making the individuals in his paintings less elongated and less stylized. We begin to see more monumental well developed forms that are described by light and shadow. Also the placement of figures begins to make more sense to us. They seem to exist more realistically in a three-dimensional world that fits our own experience instead of a made up ethereal realm that defies human logic.
Why did this shift in ways of seeing and painting occur at this time in Florence? There are several theories, one being that artists were starting to move away from Byzantine styles due to their Islamic forces that were growing stronger in the Eastern Empires. They returned to Italy and were prompted to think more innovatively. Also, there was a renewed interest in studying languages and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, thus giving rise to a more humanistic approach in art; there was more concentration on human activities and possibilities, instead of focusing only on the extreme importance of God.
Cimabue was one of the first to give a hint of this new artistic vision. We can see him making this transition in two crosses he painted. One Cross was done in 1240 for the Church of San Domenico in Arezzo (painting on the left). The other was painted for the Franciscan order in 1268 to hang in Santa Croce in Florence (painting on the right)
Both paintings feature Christ as the central image of the Virgin and John the Evangelist who flank him in small rectangular panels on either side of his outstretched arms. Comparing the two, the first thing to note is that there are still traces of the Byzantine style evident in the use of hammered gold backgrounds. But in both versions, we see a shift away from a triumphant Christ on the Cross, to a more graphic portrayal of human suffering. He is less mystical and seems to share the burden and pain of humanity. This stylistic and philosophical shift in art will later be picked up by his student Giotto, and will go on to influence artists like Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Velázquez.
Further comparisons make us realize the maturing of Cimabue’s style away from flat representations to a more humanistic one. In Florentine version, for example, the figure is more refined; its proportions are less strict; the S curve of Christ is more pronounced. Note also how his foot extends the frame. Also, the coloring and shadowing seem more defined and sophisticated. In the Florentine version, Christ’s face is longer and his nose less idealized.
Today you can still see both these crosses. The one in Arezzo is well preserved. The one in Florence has suffered from several floods over the past few years – one in 1333, one in 1557 and the most recent in 1966. During that flood, which is described in the book Dreaming Sophia, the waterline in Santa Croce church reached the height of Christ’s halo. The wooden frame swelled causing the paint to expand and bend and crack off. The Crucifix lost 60% of its paint.
Thanks to the work of Umberto Baldini a team of restorers spent ten years reapplying paint that they found floating around the piece after the flood waters resided. It was also necessary to separate the original gesso and canvas from its wooden backing to prevent further buckling as the reapplied paint dried. In 1976 the painting was close to its initial appearance and was put back on public display.
Looking closely at both Crucifixes painted by Cimabue, we realize they indeed are communicating volumes. They tell a story about an artist who was beginning to see the world in a new way, indicating a pivotal turning point in Art History. But it is also fascinating to learn about the trials and tribulations Cimabue’s Crosses have undergone over the years just to survive to tell their tale.
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