The Lost Cimabue: Reflections on a Medieval Master

Written by: Tristan Craig

‘Woman discovers Renaissance masterpiece in kitchen,’ declares The Guardian on 24 September 2019. This was announced upon the surfacing of a rare painting by thirteenth-century Florentine artist, Cimabue, in the home of an elderly woman in northern France. Christ Mocked, one of only eleven known wood panel paintings attributed to the artist, was found hung inconspicuously above the stove of the anonymous woman’s home. Here it had remained – unassumingly and undisturbed – for many years. The arrival of this artwork into public knowledge has garnered much intrigue; however, there remains a great deal of mystery surrounding this discovery – especially how it came to be hung on the wall of a kitchen in Compiegne. I hope in this article to shed a little more light on this once lauded artist. His fall from celebrity has seen him almost erased from the artistic canon in contemporary scholarship, and I write this article in the hopes that this exciting discovery will help restore some of his artistic legacy.

Cimabue was born Bencivieni di Pepo in 1240 in Florence, Italy. Both a painter and mosaicist, he was credited by Giorgio Vasari in his seminal 1550 text, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects as being the artist ‘who spread first light upon the art of painting’. This accolade helped to cement Cimabue’s reputation as a forerunner in propelling the Italo-Byzantine style forward, which in itself was heralded as a welcome return to the high artistic style of Classical antiquity. He was amongst the first to explore perspective and naturalism in painting. He especially focused on enhancing the largely stylised iconography of his predecessors, with such examples found in the frescoes of The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. Whilst many have been extensively damaged over the centuries, the surviving frescoes reveal his fantastically developed style and skill for figurative depiction.

A Changing Fashion

It would be inappropriate to discuss the life and work of Cimabue without giving mention to the artist – of arguably greater renown – believed in some scholarly circles to have been taught by the master, Giotto di Bondone. Giotto received great fame both as a painter of frescoes, a number of which adorn the walls of The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi alongside Cimabue, and as an architect. His artistic talent earned him the title of ‘caput magister’, or ‘Headmaster’, at Florence Cathedral with his accomplishments including the design of the campanile in 1334. Why Giotto has come to overshadow Cimabue is largely due to his enormous renown in life rather than the mastery of his craft – something immortalised by Dante in his epic Divine Comedy. In Purgatorio, Canto XI, he introduces the Italian painter, Oderisi da Gubbio, who laments the fleeting fame of artists, remarking that ‘Cimabue thought / To lord it over painting’s field; and now / The cry is Giotto’s, and his name eclips’d’. With a declining reputation amongst his contemporaries and with so few artworks comparative to Giotto, it is perhaps of little wonder why Cimabue receives such limited recognition today.

It will take some time and several expert opinions before we are able to say with certainty whether or not this is indeed the work of the medieval Florentine artist. Additionally, it is made only more difficult by how few of his works have survived. Whilst there is little doubt that the artwork bears an unmistakable resemblance in style and content to other Cimabue wood panels, a more nuanced analysis will be required before it can be considered indubitable and not the work of a follower. How it came to end up in the ownership of this family – who believed the artwork to be a substantially less valuable Russian icon painting – is perhaps more difficult to discern and will invite a great deal of speculation. Mirroring the 2014 discovery of a painting by Caravaggio in the attic of an apartment in Toulouse, there are a number of theories as to how the Cimabue could have come to rest on a kitchen wall. The socio-economic upheaval of revolutionary France, coupled with a growing veneration of classicism as the epitome of ‘high art’, would have seen a medieval artist such as Cimabue fall out of favour. The lack of a signature on the artwork aided its fall into obscurity – and into the hands of an unwitting dealer.

Restoring an Artistic Legacy

If experts are able to confidently agree that this ‘tatty old artwork’ – as coined by Metro News Online – is indeed a Cimabue, then this discovery is an immensely important one. Whilst Cimabue might not be the household name that Caravaggio or Giotto are, the fact that so few of his works exist adds great significance to this find. His crucial role in art history at the transition from the homogeneity of iconography to the elaborate sensibilities of the Renaissance, ought not to be neglected. Yet, Cimabue is repeatedly omitted from prominent academic works. Perhaps this is due primarily to a lack of attributable works, or perhaps the debate surrounding the validity of Vasari’s account has further diminished his reputation as the teacher of Giotto. Perhaps Giotto simply propelled the Byzantine style further forward than Cimabue ever did, often exemplified by a comparison of the Santa Trinita Madonna of Cimabue and Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna. Let us set aside the writing of Vasari and Dante, and the questionable manner in which the press has chosen to relate this find (choosing to erroneously refer to the late medieval artist as ‘Renaissance’ – but therein lies another article). Instead, let us focus on restoring the reputation of Cimabue to artistic canon and how the discovery of an unassuming icon painting in a small French kitchen might just help us do that.

Image: Christ Mocked, Cimabue. Image from https://news.artnet.com/market/rare-cimabue-painting-discovered-kitchen-france-fetch-6-million-auction-next-month-1660327

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