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Cimabue and Early Italian Devotional Painting

A Special Exhibition Review by Stan Parchin

Special exhibitions don't always have to be grand in size to describe a significant accomplishment by an artist. Such is the case with Cimabue and Early Italian Devotional Painting. This small-scale presentation of two religious works by the Italian master, joined by others produced by some of his anonymous contemporaries, is on view at New York's prestigious Frick Collection through December 31, 2006. Two rare paintings, parts of a dismembered and largely lost altarpiece, are both now firmly attributed to Italian Proto-Renaissance artist Cimabue (ca. 1240-ca.1302). The panels are displayed together again since their first joint public appearance in Reunions: Bringing Early Italian Paintings Back Together at London's National Gallery from November 12, 2005 to January 29, 2006. The Frick Collection's show describes religious painting in fourteenth-century Italy and the advancements that Cimabue made in painting that helped to pave the way for his successors' artistic achievements.

The painter Cenni di Pepi was more commonly known in late-medieval Florence by his nickname, Cimabue. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the Trecento (fourteenth-century) master of Italian vernacular poetry, subtly ridiculed the artist in his writings. In Canto XI of his Purgatory, the second of the poet's three volumes that comprise his Divine Comedy (1308-1321), Dante asserted that Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1267/75-1337), Cimabue's legendary pupil, surpassed his master in talent. The Frick Collection's exhibition succeeds in liberating Cimabue from Dante's brief yet stigmatizing criticism of the artist's work.

Cimabue's Flagellation of Christ (ca. 1280) is set against a gold background, reflecting the painter's Byzantine artistic heritage. The hands of Jesus Christ are bound to a thin column that vertically divides the panel's cityscape. Cimabue had not yet fully mastered the concept of perspective, hence his rudimentary rendering of the architecture and space in the panel's composition. The Savior's elongated and tortured body is scourged by whips clutched by two clothed tormentors. Cimabue's attention to anatomical detail is most evident in the musculature of Christ's torso. The artist's sense of naturalism and pathos anticipates the later refinements of fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance painting.

Image © The Frick Collection;
Used with permission
Cenni di Pepo (Italian, ca. 1240-ca.1302)
The Flagellation of Christ (ca. 1280)
Tempera on poplar panel
9 3/4 x 7 7/8 in. (24.77 x 20 cm)
© The Frick Collection

In his Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels (ca. 1280), Cimabue painted the Blessed Mother with Christ Child in hand, flanked by two angels while seated majestically in an oversized wooden throne. The four figures (who do not interact with one another) form a static and iconic devotional work. Along with the panel owned by The Frick Collection (above), recent scientific studies have revealed that the National Gallery's painting was also part of the same lost altarpiece painted by Cimabue.

Image © National Gallery, London;
Used with permission
Cenni di Pepo (Italian, ca. 1240-ca.1302)
The Virgin and Child Enthroned with
Two Angels
(ca. 1280)
Tempera on poplar panel
9 3/4 x 7 7/8 in. (24.77 x 20 cm)
© National Gallery, London
Photograph provided by
The Frick Collection

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Morgan Library & Museum have lent contemporary works to The Frick Collection's exclusive exhibition of Cimabue's two panels. Their inclusion in this show gives the artist's paintings a deeper spiritual context.

Many art historians are fond of creating artificial lines that conveniently separate periods of time and artistic movements. As exemplified by Cimabue's works on display in New York, his career defies such demarcation. While firmly rooted in the artistic traditions of Late Gothic Italy, many of Cimabue's groundbreaking innovations prepared Western European civilization for Giotto's revolution in painting.

Special thanks to Anne-Marie Jacobus, About Art History's London Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, for information related to "Reunions: Bringing Early Italian Paintings Back Together" one year ago.

About the catalogue:

Flora, Holly. Cimabue and Early
Italian Devotional Painting
(exh. cat.).
New York: The Frick Collection, 2006.

Holly Flora's catalogue succinctly describes what scholars know about the enigmatic Cimabue and his role in the development in religious painting in the opening years of the Italian Renaissance.

For further reading:

Kanter, Laurence B. and Giovanni Morello.
The Treasury of Saint Francis of Assisi (exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999.

Describes the art and culture of medieval Italy around the time of Cimabue and Giotto.

"Cimabue and Early Italian Devotional Painting" is on view from October 3 through December 31, 2006 at The Frick Collection, 1 East 70 Street, New York, NY 10021-4967 (Telephone: 212-288-0700; Website). The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM and Sunday from 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Admission is $15.00 for adults, $10.00 for senior citizens (62 years of age and over), $5.00 for students and pay as you wish on Sunday from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM. Children ages 10 to 15 years of age must be accompanied by an adult.


From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history, and a regular contributor to About Art History. You may read all of his Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews here.

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