European Art

Much Ado About a New Cimabue

Here’s a fun piece of news to make things interesting in the art world. A painting attributed to early Italian Renaissance artist Cimabue was recently found in an elderly French woman’s kitchen. That definitely doesn’t happen every day!

Cimabue Christ Mocked
Cimabue (attributed), The Mocking of Christ, c. 1280. Private collection. Photo via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

The painting is being called The Mocking of Christ and dated to c. 1280 CE. It depicts an New Testament scene in which Christ is ridiculed during His Passion, shortly before His Crucifixion. It’s believe that this painting was originally part of a polyptych (multi-panel artwork), probably an altarpiece. Two other Cimabues, The Flagellation of Christ at the Frick Collection in New York and The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels at the National Gallery in London, likely came from this same polyptych.

Apparently, the owner inherited the piece from a family member, and she believed that it was an antique icon. Icons are small images of religious figures that are part of Orthodox Christian worship.* The Cimabue is indeed similar to an icon in its religious subject matter, tempera paint, wooden panel, and gilt background. She displayed the piece for many years in her kitchen above a hot plate. (Not recommended!) It wasn’t until she asked an auction company to assess her property for a moving sale that she learned otherwise.

*One of my fellow DailyArt Magazine writers will tell you everything you need to know about icons here.

Cimabue

Besides the fact that everybody loves a good hidden-treasure-found story, why is this discovery important? Cenni di Pepo, aka Cimabue (c. 1240-1302), was an Italian artist in the early Renaissance. He is one of a few painters credited with starting a great transformation in western art.

Cimabue Maestà
Cimabue, Maestà, 1280-90. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Photo by Steven Zucker via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

From the fall of Rome until Cimabue’s time, European painting was very flat, with little sense of space, mass, or individuality. Figures looked more like cardboard cut-outs than three-dimensional forms. Faces were generic, without individualized features or emotions. Compositions had no appearance of depth or believable sense of some things being behind others. You can see examples of this style, which is actually quite lovely, in early Christian, Byzantine, and non-Italian medieval art, including icons, mosaics, frescoes, and manuscripts.

In the 13th and early-14th centuries, Cimabue and a few others, including his more famous student Giotto (1266/76 – 1337 CE), added perspective, volume, and individuality to their artworks. Their forms appear to have some mass, backgrounds give an indication of receding into the distance, and faces show glimmers of individuality and emotion for the first time in Christian art history. To modern viewers familiar with later artists’ more sophisticated naturalism, these paintings might still look naive. Cimabue’s generation has sometimes been called “the Italian Primitives” for this reason, but it represents a major moment in western art history. It was the beginning of a process that culminated in the naturalism and emotion of Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi
Frescoes in the Upper Church of the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy. (Not all the frescoes in the church are by Cimabue.) Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

The number of paintings attributed to Cimabue is in the low double digits, so this new one joins a rare and special group. Like most medieval and early Renaissance painters, he specialized in religious paintings, mostly of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. His most famous work is the Maestà, a beautiful image of the Virgin and Child enthroned and surrounded by angels. It was originally painted for Santa Trinita church in Cimabue’s hometown of Florence but is now in the Uffizi Gallery. Another of his famous works is a painted crucifix that was badly damaged during Florence’s devastating 1966 flood. Cimabue also painted spectacular frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy; he was one of several important Italian artists to decorate that basilica.

The Attribution

On October 27th, 2019, The Mocking of Christ will become the first Cimabue to ever be sold at auction… if it actually is a Cimabue.

Cimabue The Virgin and Child With Two Angels
Cimabue, The Virgin and Child with Two Angels, c. 1280-5. National Gallery, London. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

In the art world, no attribution (expert’s decision that a certain artist likely made a certain artwork) is ever accepted without controversy. Nor should it be. When you get right down to it, attributions are based on opinion – educated opinion, to be fair, but opinion nonetheless.

It’s important to understand that paintings do not suddenly reveal hidden signatures that definitively tell the world who made them. Old Masters did not typically sign their work. Instead, it’s up to knowledgeable art experts to make attributions. These attributions rely primarily on stylistic evidence to decide how closely the work in question matches the style of accepted works by a given artist. Such evidence is usually very subtle and subjective, and not all experts interpret it the same way. It’s probably more common for key scholars to disagree (often vehemently) about a new attribution than to have an easy concensus.

Paris-based experts Jerome Montcouqil and Eric Turquin are responsible for attributing The Mocking of Christ to Cimabue. I wasn’t able to find published opinions from anyone else, but Frick Collection chief curator Xavier F. Salomon seemed pretty convinced when quoted in the Washington Post. Since the Frick owns one of the work’s supposed companion pieces, Salomon’s opinion is quiet relevant. Additionally, scientific tests seem to connect the wood panel onto which The Mocking of Christ is painted to those of the Frick and National Gallery Cimabues. This suggests that all were originally the same piece of wood. Back in 2000, similar evidence determined that that the Frick and National Gallery pieces were connected.

Acteon auction house, which will auction the painting later this month in France, predicts that it could sell for as much as 6 million Euros or 6.59 million U.S. dollars. Obviously, that would be a heck of a lot less without the Cimabue attribution. Jonathan Jones, art writer for The Guardian, has questioned the attribution, calling it hasty at best. Eric Turquin also claims to have discovered a lost-long Caravaggio in 2014, and Jones thinks he might be prone to some wishful thinking. Regardless, the sale will be a big event. Cimabue paintings are so rare, and most are in Italian museums or churches, so this auction will be a rare chance for museums and wealthy collectors alike. I’m really looking forward to seeing the results of the sale and of continued research into this newly-discovered painting.

Update 10/7/19: In this Facebook video, Frick Collection Chief Curator Xavier F. Salomon talks about the Frick’s Cimabue (The Flagellation of Christ) and how it relates to this new one.

The Verdict (Added 10/28/19)

On October 27, 2019, Cimabue’s Mocking of Christ sold for a total of €24.1 million ($26.7 million) in hammer price plus fees, well exceeding all estimates. According to The Art Newspaper, that is the highest price ever paid for a painting made before 1500 CE. The winning bidder was a British art dealer working on behalf of an anonymous private collector. What an exciting event!

Sources

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