Friday, 11 January 2013

A Stylistic Analysis of Two Crosses by Cimabue

Santa Croce, Florence.
In order to help us think about the difference between works Cimabue did in Florence and those in other centres, it is helpful to conduct a stylistic analysis of two of his crosses, one created for a church in Arezzo; the other for the church of Santa Croce in Florence, sadly damaged during a flood that hit Florence in 1966. 

Berlinghiero, (signed by him) Crucifixion, Pinacoteca, Lucca, panel, about 1220, dimensions unknown.
 However, before we do that, it's necessary to say something about crucifixes that antedate Cimabue.One of the earliest examples of a painted Crucifix is by the Berlinghieri, at least it's signed by one of them. Housed in a museum in Lucca, it is a heavily illustrated structure with two standing figures -the Madonna and St John the Evangelist- on the apron - the middle part of the wooden structure that supports the Saviour- symbols of the four evangelists on the outer panels, and  a Madonna and Angels at the top.  The Lucca Crucifix probably dates from as early as 1220, and it was to influence the painting of the type in Florence about four decades later. 

Coppo di Marcovaldo, Crucifix, c. 1260, Tempera on panel, 293 x 247 cm., San Gimignano, Pinacoteca Civica.
Looking at a Crucifix by Coppo di Marcovaldo dating from about 1260, the decade he was most active in Florence, we can see the influence of the earlier Lucchese type, although there are significant differences. Coppo was a soldier who was taken prisoner by the Sienese and persuaded to paint a Madonna, which impressed the inhabitants of both cities. His Crucifix has evolved from Byzantine art which treats Christ body in an abstract way; muscles are flattened out, and his loincloth becomes a vehicle for the patterning of folds, some of which dip down sharply.This abstraction will be slowly eliminated as the century moves on and culminates in Giotto's version, of which more later. 

Cimabue, Crucifix, 1268-71, Tempera on wood, 336 x 267 cm, San Domenico, Arezzo

 Cimabue, Crucifix, 1287-88, Panel, 448 x 390 cm, Museo dell'Opera di Santa Croce, Florence.
Turning to the two crucifixes painted by Cimabue, the first thing to note is that the Florentine version (from the 1280s) is more refined:  its proportions are less strict; the S curve of Christ is more pronounced; note how the right hip touches the edge of the right apron, the structure which houses the pictures, only here they have been exchanged for a patterned design. The hard, vertical accents of the Arezzo cross ( 1260s) are lacking in the Florentine version. In the Florentine version, the arms are stretched right out rather than bent downwards as they are in the Arezzo version. The Florentine figure seems less inert, and because it is raised higher, the downwards tendency is avoided. Note differences in the structure too: the mouldings are moved lower in Florentine version, the feet touch the frame. Moving on and comparing the colour in both versions. There seems to be more knowledge of colour science in the Florentine version. Christ’s body is painted in livid yellow and greens, with brown shadows, counterpointed by various bright colours and other shades. Light is used inventively to show up anatomical detail, e.g. the tibia, instead of rendering anatomy in a streamlined manner. 

In situ at Santa Croce- 60% of paint loss.
As a postscript to this post, Cimabue's Santa Croce Crucifix has had an extremely troubled life. It not only endured floods in Florence during 1333 and 1557, but lost over 60% of its paint as a result of the infamous Arno flood in 1966.   These photos show what a sorry wreck it was until Umberto Baldini and a team of restorers re-painted it using a pointillist technique with the aid of computer modelling. Since its re-appearance in 1976, the work has enjoyed a new found popularity, even going on tour to much acclaim. I like Waldemar Januszczak 's description of Cimabue's post-restoration, post-modern celebrity: "part original artwork, part masterpiece of modern science...a thirteenth century—twentieth-century hybrid."
Surveying the damage in 1966.

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