CIMABUE

5 December 2004

Cimabue was a famous artist.  He lived between about 1240 and 1300 or so in what is now called Italy. I have seen him called Cenni di Pepo (Giovanni) Cimabue, and Bencivieni di Pepo or in modern Italian, Benvenuto di Giuseppe.

He was an Italian painter and creator of mosaics in Firenze and in Tuscany in general.

The thing about him was that he broke with the norm. He tried to paint in a style that was portraying things closer to what they actually and naturally were. In this he was pioneering and in this he has affected all art ever since — so he is incredibly important, historically.  What a guy!

Seriously. Until Cimabue, fine art was pretty “flat” — it was symbolic or stylised.  It did not really attempt to capture a natural likeness or anything like that!

Cimabue used shading to provide an illusion or trick of the eye to make his paintings more lifelike, more real, more three-dimensional. He also tried to get things to be life-like in proportion. His attention to drapery has affected painters ever since

He is considered in arty circles as the last great painter of the Byzantine tradition. He also got really famous — and Dante mentioned Cimabue in his Divine Comedy as being famous, haughty and arrogant!

Back then everyone had apprentices, and Cimabue’s pupil got really famous too — Giotto, who is considered the first great artist of the Italian Renaissance. Lorenzo Ghiberti and later, Giorgio Vasari, tell of the famous legend where Cimabue discovered Giotto as a shepherd drawing on a flat stone,  and offered to train the boy in the artist’s craft suggesting that Cimabue might have had more to him than just arrogance and big-headedness, that he had a charitable side too.

So the change-over from Byzantine to renaissance is captured in these two, Cimabue and Giotto, and in Florence. Mind you, Cimabue is also known to have influenced Duccio.

cimabue_01Just look at some of Cimabue’s surviving work — look at the craftsman’s gold leaf work. This is shimmering stuff. I love this stuff; no-one is smiling, everyone is so glum! Just look at the “real person” expressions — and that’s the point; this is not stylised, this is glum people and a three dimensional throne. Angels are behind the chair.  The halos are wonderful, even going behind the throne (although Mary’s and  the two uppermost angels’ halos are lost in the gold leafwork) — but the angel feathers are things of wonder and beauty, even today! Mind you the baby Jesus looks like he’s ordering another round of drinks for the lads!

cimabue_02In the second, the angels are more distant, and Cimabue seems to have given them microphones for singing praises, but then in the other one, there are angels wearing Christmas socks!

Once again, there’s not much smiling, and there is a problem with scale — but one has to understand that lifelikeness aside, importance play a role too.

You know, I LIKE these paintings; they are Byzantine, they are old, and weird and everyone is glum, but they are painted with care and love.  The composition is wonderfully balanced, the colours distributed well and the proportions pleasing.  They do not upset, challenge or disturb in the way that we are used to in modern art, yet they were pushing the envelope in a really important and earth-shattering way in their day!

I can imagine the average Italian peasant coming across these back then and feeling that bit closer to the Virgin Mary and her baby as a result of the artist’s attempt to relate naturally with the viewer.

At the end of the day, these are (and were intended to be) public works.  They are religious, but they also tell the tale of a mum and her boy (and in the second picture I always think that Jesus is holding a wee baby rattle toy), and that is a very special relationship indeed, and it was done for the first time.  It must have caused Mary such grief to know what was in store for her little soldier, hence her look is glum or sad, but , maybe it’s resignation, maybe it’s defiant strength?

I love the fact that the baby’s feet are shown, but not the mother’s. This is most likely because we have to see the hands and feet of the man who was crucified using big nails hammered through his hands and feet.

I personally think that Cimabue was a bigger influence on my hero, Picasso, and on Michelangelo in his almost mannerist approach to proportion. I like the fact that they are half pictorial and symbolic and half real and natural.

Knowing that Blue as a pigment/ colour was the most expensive, just illustrates how lavish these works were with respect to the mother of God. The gold makes a big statement too, but what must be realised is how difficult and finicky this work was — they didn’t have oil-based paint back then, it was real egg tempera — which means that there was absolutely NO room for making a mistake.  You cannot just paint over a mistake because of it’s transparent quality, and this stuff dries almost as soon as it is applied — to a matt finish.  It cannot be layered nor applied thickly, so it cannot ever give a lush, richness or saturation of colour the way oil or modern acrylics do.  These guys had to actually make everything — the brushes, the panels and all the paints too!

The main difference between the two is two central figures and the back of the throne, which illustrates the effect of sparseness versus crowdedness. Having said that, the crowd scene, especially with the pointed top, make the throne seem as though it is floating in a sea, making this throne stand out more than the second one.

Cimabue apparently means bull-headed, which might refer to how he looked, but could equally refer to his bull-headed approach to painting and mosaics.

If you can see a Cimabue in “real life” or “in the flesh”, then jump at the chance; it’s soul-enriching and entirely worthwhile. His apse mosaic, St. John the Evangelist, is in the Pisa Cathedral, and is well worth a look (although they have ropes and such around it; you are no longer allowed to walk on this stuff).

I adored Cimabue’s work in Assissi — The large Crucifixion scene in the left transept being his masterpiece! I nearly cried when I saw it.  The fresco has turned monochromatic over time (something to do with lead in the pigments used) and is as powerful as anything you can imagine — like a photographic negative! Warhol would be impressed let me tell you.

The two shown here are similar to the Maestà, I saw with my pal Michele Valente in The Ufizzi a few years back.

For me, all art starts with Cimabue — he’s a star in all senses of the word!
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2 Responses to “CIMABUE”


  1. […] For it’s sheer size, the detail is extraordinary, and together with the gold leaf, one cannot help but to draw comparisons with Cimabue. […]

  2. Sylvia Says:

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03771a.htm

    This web site has a new opinion of Cimabue and the legend!


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