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Cimabue

Cenni di Pepi; Cimabue is a nickname meaning ‘ox-peak’. Vasari says he was born in Florence in 1240, and lived in Borgo Allegri in the Sant’Ambrogio quarter of the city. He is recorded in Rome in 1272, and is likely to have been influenced by the school of painters and mosaicists there, including Pietro Cavallini. His only surviving documented work is a mosaic of 1301-2 in the apse of Pisa Cathedral. No surviving painting can be ascribed to him with complete certainty. Of fourteen paintings listed by Vasari in his Life of Cimabue, five are lost and five (including Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna) are now given to other artists. The remaining four, which correspond fairly closely in style, are generally accepted as Cimabue’s, and a few other attributions have been made on the strength of stylistic affinities with these core works.

Cimabue died in February or March 1302. Vasari places him at the beginning of modern art, as one who ‘all but succeeded in bringing the art of painting back to life’ and as the teacher of Giotto. This estimate of Cimabue as a great innovator is not altogether borne out by his attributed works, which are still largely Byzantine in style.


Arezzo. San Domenico.
Crucifix. Wood, 336 x 267.
There are no early references to this crucifix, which was first recorded, hanging over one of the entrance doors, in a guidebook to Arezzo of 1838. It has been attributed to Cimabue only since 1917, when it was restored and moved to the main chapel. It probably dates from the 1260s, and is his earliest attributed work. The composition, with Christ’s body slumped sideways on the cross, repeats that of a signed crucifix by Giunta Pisano from San Domenico in Bologna. Another similar crucifix, in Pistoia, was painted by Coppo di Marcovaldo and his son Salerno in 1274.

Assisi. San Francesco.
Lower church. Fresco of Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels and St Francis. 320 x 340.
Vasari says that Cimabue was invited ‘in company with certain Greek masters, to paint the vaults of the Lower church of San Francesco, together with the life of Jesus Christ and that of St Francis, on the walls.’ The fragmentary Passion scenes and the Life of St Francis in the nave are now attributed to an anonymous artist, known as the ‘Maestro di San Francesco’ from these frescoes. This fresco, in the south transept, is the only one still attributed to Cimabue. It was probably originally part of a cycle, but is now surrounded by later works by followers of Giotto. Until 1875 it was partly concealed by a seventeenth-century frame and altar, which covered the figures from the knees upwards. There was probably originally another saint on the left (Anthony of Padua or Chiara). The fresco has been restored many times and the faces, in particular, are overpainted.
Upper Church. Frescoes in choir and transepts.
In the choir are frescoes of the Life of the Virgin, already in Vasari’s day ‘worn away by time and dust’.
Better preserved were the frescoes in the vaulting, praised by Vasari for the freshness of their colours. These represent the Evangelists and the regions of the world in which they preached (Judea for Matthew, Italy for Mark, Greece for Luke and Asia for John). The section containing St Matthew collapsed during the earthquake of 26 September 1997. Shattered into 120,000 fragments, it was painstakingly reconstructed, and the restored fresco was unveiled in 2006.
The frescoes in the transepts are very ruined, and have taken on the appearance of photographic negatives because the whites were painted with white lead which has oxidised and turned black. The great Crucifixion and scenes from the Apocalypse in the left arm are attributed to Cimabue himself. The apostolic scenes (Fall of Simon Magus; Martyrdom of Peter; Martyrdom of Paul; Healing of the Cripple; and Driving out Devils) and another Crucifixion in the right arm are usually given to his workshop. Opinion on dating ranges from the late 1270s to the early 1290s.
The thirty-four scenes from Old and New Testament history on the upper walls of the nave were also ascribed to Cimabue by Vasari. They are now usually regarded as partly by followers of Cimabue, partly by Roman painters (Jacopo Torriti and his workshop) and partly by the ‘Isaac Master’ (sometimes identified as the young Giotto).

Bologna. Santa Maria dei Servi.
Madonna and Angels. Wood, 218 x 118.
The panel has been trimmed at the sides and the top arched, and the surface has been damaged by caustic cleaning and candle burns. It was presumably painted, not for the current church (which was built in 1346), but for the Servites’ earlier church in Borgo San Petronio. There are no old sources or traditions linking it to Cimabue. The attribution, made by Thode in 1885, was viewed more sympathetically after the panel was restored in 1937, but it is still disputed. A dating of 1287 has been proposed on the grounds that the earlier church was partially consecrated that year. The composition of the enthroned Mother and Child is closely related to that of a Madonna by Coppo di Marcovaldo which was painted for the mother church of the Servites in Siena in1261.

Castelfiorentino. Pinacoteca.
Virgin and Child Enthroned. Wood, 68 x 47.
The arched panel was originally rectangular; it is possible that there were originally two little angels in the upper corners, as in the similar Crevole Madonna (attributed to Duccio). From the church of San Verdiana (formerly Santi Lorenzo e Ippolito). It was little known until 1933, when it was included in the Mostra del Tesoro di Firenze Sacra exhibition. The attribution has shifted between Cimabue and Duccio (or their circles). It has even been considered a work of collaboration between the two artists. Luciano Bellosi (1998) thinks the Madonna is by Cimabue but the Child was painted in his studio by the youthful Giotto.

Florence. Uffizi.
Madonna and Child with Angels and Prophets. Wood, 385 x 223.
The Virgin’s throne is supported by eight angels; it rests on four niches, in which stand the four prophets (Jeremiah, Abraham, David and Isaiah) who foretold Christ’s coming. This huge altarpiece originally stood over the high altar of the church of Santa Trinità, which was begun in 1268. It was probably moved from the high altar in 1471 and replaced by Baldovinetti’s Trinity (now in the Accademia). According to Vasari, Cimabue’s picture was removed to a side chapel of the left aisle. It was later moved to the second chapel of the right aisle, then to the convent’s infirmary and finally to the sacristy. It was taken to the Accademia in 1810 and transferred to the Uffizi in 1919. The attribution has almost never been doubted, but there is no agreement on dating.

Florence. Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce.
Crucifix. Wood, 448 x 390.
This famous crucifix may slightly pre-date the foundation of Santa Croce in 1295. (A near replica by Deodato Orlandi of Lucca is dated 1288.) It was probably originally topped by a tondo showing God the Father blessing. The attribution to Cimabue, unsupported by documents but vouched for by Albertini (1510) and Vasari, was doubted in the early twentieth century but is generally accepted today. Early sources describe it hanging either in the left transept or on the entrance wall, but it was probably originally placed either on the iconostasis or in the main chapel.
During the Second World War, the crucifix was taken for safety outside Florence to the Castello di Oliveto, where it was stored propped against a wine cask in the castle's cellar. It was transferred to the Uffizi in 1948 but returned to the Santa Croce Museum in 1959. Some 60-70 per cent of the paint surface was destroyed in the 1966 flood when the museum was filled with oily water twelve feet deep. In the ten-year restoration, no attempt was made to reconstruct what was lost. The gaps were filled with yellow, red and green hatching (tratteggio). 

Florence. Baptistery.
Mosaics.
The mosaics in the octagonal vault are by different artists of different periods (from about 1225 to 1313), and are much restored. Cimabue is not mentioned in any of the documents or early literature about them: it was Adolfo Venturi, in 1907, who first suggested that he worked on them. Among the scenes most often ascribed to him (or a skilled follower) are the Naming of the Baptist and the Baptist going into the Desert (in the fourth register) and Joseph sold by his Brothers and Joseph’s loss mourned by his Parents (second register).

London. National Gallery.
Madonna Enthroned with Two Angels. Wood, 26 x 21.
This tiny panel is a simplified, miniature version of the monumental paintings in the Uffizi and Louvre. It was discovered in the Gooch collection at Benacre Hall, East Suffolk, and acquired by the National Gallery in 2000. It has been shown to have belonged to the same altarpiece (probably diptych) as the Flagellation in the Frick Collection, New York. The two panels are similar in size, style and technique, have similar punched borders, and have similar patterns of craquelure in the paint surface and grain in the wood.  

New York. Frick Collection.
Flagellation. Wood, 25 x 20.
This tiny panel probably came from a diptych, which could have included several other scenes of Christ's Passion. Shortly after its acquisition in 1950 from the Knoedler collection in Paris, it was attributed to Duccio (as an early work) by Milliard Meiss and to Cimabue by Roberto Longhi (who complained that it had been over-cleaned). Subsequent opinion remained divided, with Carli, Pope-Hennessy and Boskovits for Duccio and Volpe, Bologna, Berenson and Bellosi for Cimabue (or workshop). The issue appears to have been settled by the discovery in 2000 of the Madonna Enthroned with Two Angels (now National Gallery, London), which was immediately attributed to Cimabue and then shown to have belonged to the same ensemble as the Flagellation. The two panels were brought together for a special exhibition at the Frick in October-December 2006.

Paris. Louvre.
Madonna Enthroned with Six Angels. Wood, 424 x 276.
This huge painting – the seated Virgin is over eight and a half feet high – is the second largest thirteenth-century altarpiece, after Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna. The frame includes twenty-six painted medallions, representing the four Evangelists in the corners, the twelve Apostles along the sides, Christ Blessing and four Angels in the gable at the top, and five Saints along the bottom. From the church of San Francesco at Pisa, where it was noted by Vasari as a picture by Cimabue. It may date from about 1301-2, when, towards the end of his life, Cimabue held the office of capo maestro of the mosaics of Pisa Cathedral, although some critics have regarded it as much earlier (about 1270-80). It was expropriated by Dominique Vivant-Denon, director of the Musée Napoleon, during his mission to search out works ‘by the painters of the primitive Italian school’, and was shipped to France in October 1812. Damaged by over-cleaning, retouched and regilded. The execution is sometimes attributed, at least partly, to Cimabue’s workshop.

Pisa. Cathedral.
Mosaic in the Apse. Figure of St John the Evangelist.
Francesco di San Simone, a Pisan artist, worked first on the mosaic of Christ in Glory between the Virgin and St John. He was succeeded by Cimabue, who (according to cathedral records from 2 September 1301 to 19 February 1302) was paid ten soldi a day for executing the figure of St John. The mosaic was completed by Vincino da Pistoia in 1320 and has been restored on at least six occasions. The St John is Cimabue’s only documented work, and almost certainly his last work.