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Cimabue and the Franciscans: by Holly Flora

Cimabue and the Franciscans: by Holly Flora

Reminds current audiences of the fascination generated by such careful design and such a command of the manner in which pigment and hue imbued within wood reveal delicate life.

Cimabue and the Franciscans: by Holly Flora

4 / 5

At first, this pricey academic monograph on arguably the earliest Renaissance master painter, published at the start of last year, likely roused little attention outside of a few curators and art historians. By last summer, Holly Flora’s topic was making headlines. Her subject, Cimabue, aka Cenni di Pepo (roughly translated to “hard-headed” in proto-Italian slang), had attracted astonished attention when a Frenchwoman of 92 wanted to reduce clutter. Her family (who has remained anonymous), decided to have her possessions appraised before selling them off or carting them to the dump. A small icon, all of eight-by-10 inches, had hung over her kitchen hotplate for decades. Nobody knew where it came from; its religious depiction of Christ being taken by his jeering captors in the Mount of Olives appeared to belong to the static Russian Orthodox style, sternly solemn.

The designated appraiser recognized the cracked miniature as genuine. Soon, experts in Paris used infrared spectography to identify it as part of a diptych painted by Cimabue. Wormholes in the wood matched those of surviving pieces from two other verified artifacts on display. What scholars christened “Christ Mocked” dates to 1280. Works (unsigned) attributed to Cimabue totaled only 11. The 12th, auctioned on October 27th, fetched $25 million, perhaps bought by a museum. This opportunity to purchase a Cimabue proved serendipitous. What remains mysterious, as Professor Flora explores, is the life of this irascible talent. Therefore, Franciscan contexts within which Cimabue worked merit investigation for the clues they reveal about him.

This friar learned the Greek Byzantine tradition, still surviving in Italy then, as a student of art. What Cimabue added captured the admiration of his own student, and supposed soon-rival, Giotto. Cimabue’s perfectionism pursued precision in lifting out from the two-dimensional surface increased verisimilitude in facial expressions. Instead of the rigid postures and fixed gazes of Orthodox imagery, Cimabue, as Flora shows in her chapters on “sensory engagement and contemplative transformation,” took the Eastern conventions into Western individualism.

Albeit primitive compared to later Renaissance creators, Cimabue’s intensified concentration on the lineaments of emotion enlivened the transepts decorated in honor of Francis at Assisi. Flora devotes a separate section to the Marian Apse and the Vault of the Evangelists at that location. By placing Cimabue, as a follower of Francis, within the very setting embellished to commemorate that saint’s legacy in his native city, Flora directs readers beyond the few “facts” memorably recorded about him early in the pages of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550-1568), the first book to channel the energy of the aesthetic and the excitement of the artist into print for a popular audience.

Similarly, Cimabue and the Franciscans gathers up what has been established about this under-documented figure. Flora as a modern historian, understandably, places Cimabue at the center of intersecting forces of emerging mercantile and restive political culture in his homeland. She turns to the presence of “memory and experience” outside Assisi. Sections devoted to the Franciscan Maestà, the dramatic Santa Croce crucifix in Florence and the series Vita Christi of the life of Jesus continue the richly illustrated presentation of the world within which Cimabue imagined and recorded his enhanced expression of the humanity within Christ personified.

Concluding with what she gleans from the “last transformations in Pisa,” Flora provides what precious works on this artist failed to do. She expands the scope beyond brief scholarship now 20-plus years old, and she enriches what in previous English-language books offered only a skimpy survey of pictorial samples from Cimabue’s career. Tragedy and chance both enter the contemporary search for meaning in the career of this cleric, who spanned the second half of the thirteenth century. As one who had inherited the task of capturing Francis comparatively soon after his death in 1226, Cimabue found himself in the right place to commemorate the man who roused so many medieval people to emulate the challenges of the Gospel and the Christ.

The losses sustained by an earthquake in Assisi in 1997 wrecked priceless beauty. But the restoration of these riches enabled science to benefit from the techniques employed and the details which remained beyond the analysis of earlier analysts, supplemented by science. Similarly, the unexpected discovery of the newest Cimabue, a half year after Flora’s book, reminds current audiences of the fascination generated by such careful design and such a command of the manner in which pigment and hue imbued within wood reveal delicate life.

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