Heaven on Earth Through the Eyes of a Trecento Maestro

Take a journey and explore some of Italy's most gifted artists who lived centuries ago.

With the legal name of Cenni di Pepi, and the common moniker of Cimabue, came a revolution in medieval Italian art. As the most celebrated Florentine artist of his generation, Cimabue (pronounced chee ma BOO ay) is hailed for transitioning Italian art out of the flatness of Byzantine icons to the beginnings of the naturalism that would culminate a few centuries later in the High Renaissance. Not working in a vacuum, his counterpart and sometime rival, Duccio (1250/1255-1318/1319) possessed similar creative greatness and regard in the competing artistic capital of Sienna. The 14th(trecentoor 300) and 15th(quatrocentoor 400) centuries saw Florence and Siena as the center of growth (Florence’s population doubled) and urbanization due to increased international trade and banking – becoming the banking center for not only all of Italy but also most of Europe – and as a result also art. Church and state were indistinguishable as the state sponsored the building and decoration of numerous churches and civic structures.  The most prestigious of projects for a trecentoartist was being awarded the commission of the high altarpiece for any of the region’s numerous churches and cathedrals. For one of Cimabue’s masterpieces (he is considered to have a few), we look to an enthroned Madonna and Child, referred to as the Santa Trinita Maestà.

As with the titles of most artworks form this era, it references the work’s initial placement and subject; Santa Trinita the Florentine church that commissioned it and maestàfor the portrayal of the Virgin Enthroned as Queen of Heaven. The Vallombrosans’ monks, a Benedictine order founded in 1038 in Florence, commissioned it for their church of Santa Trinita located in the piazza of the same name on the Via de’ Tornabuoni in Florence’s city center. From Vasari’s absolutely indispensable book from 1568, Lives of the Artists, we know this monumental Maestàwas placed at the main altar. Measuring12 feet, 8 inches high by 7 feet, 4 inches wide, it is nearly twice the size of the average 14thcentury altar painting. Santa Trinita was built in 1172 in the Romanesque style. By the last decades of the 1200s, the monks began what would be a century-long restoration project updating it into the Gothic style. This coincided with the commissioning of Cimabue to decorate the altar. Church documents state that the work was moved to a less prominent chapel within Santa Trinita sometime during the late 1400s to make way for a painting in the then contemporary and more fashionable style of the Renaissance. For reasons unknown it was relocated to Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia in 1810 and lastly to the Galleria degli Uffizi in 1919.

The 1300s through 1500s was a time of guild systems for nearly every occupation; for artists these were associations that determined apprenticeships, how many could be in an artist’s studio at one time, and even the pricing of projects. Having numerous apprentices was exceedingly beneficial for the more sought-after artists. Before the commonplace use of canvas, paintings were executed either as frescoes (painted directly on walls) or on panels. Preparation and execution of panel painting was a lengthy process. Carpenters first built the panels from numerous planks, for those working in Italy it was nearly universally poplar wood. (Given the numerous planks need for Santa Trinita Maestà’s size, it is astounding that it has not warped nor cracked more severely over the centuries.) Once created and framed to the size needed, it arrived at the artist’s studio where the assistants covered it with animal-based glue, then attached linen to achieve the smoothest surface possible. The linen surface was then coated with multiple layers of gesso (calcium sulfate) so the gold leaf (in 4-inch squares) could be attached. At this juncture, the master would become involved starting with an under-drawing in charcoal and incised lines over the charcoal for the gold leaf. The paint was a powder pigment combined with egg yolks and water creating tempera, also done by the assistants. A reddish-brown clay-glue was applied around the painted sections to allow the sheets of gold leaf to have a richer color, and finally burnished to glisten as a unified surface.

Art of this time was filled with symbolism as suggested in the bible and as a way to preach to a population that was mostly illiterate. The gold background is meant to place the scene in a different dimension, that of the sacred outside of mortal time and earthly space. Gold was a symbol of heaven, as was blue, so to further signify the holiness of the image backgrounds were covered in gold and the Virgin’s mantle was (and is) always blue. Several verses in Chapter 21 of the Book of Revelations, describe heaven on earth as a golden city, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth…Then I saw New Jerusalem, that holy city, coming down from God in heaven…The glory of God made the city bright…the city was made of pure gold, clear as crystal.” Stylistically the gold background was rooted in Byzantine icons, which universally featured gold surfaces and flat, stiff figures with strong outlines.

The trecento’sartistic revolution came in the practices of Cimabue and others working in Florence and Siena. They progressed into an Italian style marked by naturalism. It was the beginning of a more humanistic style of individualization and portraiture, modeling figures with highlights and shading for volume and form while also adding a sense of depth to the setting. Art became emotional and individualized and more complex. Specifically for Santa Trinita Maestà, Cimabue added a new grandeur to the Madonna and Child theme, through the throne, its support by floating angels, and the inclusion of the prophets below. The throne is reminiscent of a medieval cathedral with the sets of columns supporting rounded arches. Such architectural elements carry the viewer’s eye through several receding points into the scene and upward to heaven. These signs of perspective from the throne’s steps to the placement of the Virgin’s feet on two different steps and the flanking angels floating partially behind and in front of the throne were a striking departure from the flatness of the proceeding Byzantine icons

The Virgin is as resplendent as she is sweet. She gently balances Jesus on one knee, while encircling and supporting Him with one arm. With her other arm she gestures towards Jesus to say salvation can be found through Him. Typical of the era, Cimabue painted Jesus as more miniature adult than baby. As such Jesus raises his hand to bestow blessings to those viewing the painting. In the other hand, He holds a scroll alluding to the divine wisdom He receives from God the Father and foreshadows His teachings and the writings that will come from the prophets portrayed below their throne.

The angels and prophets possess variety and individualism to their depictions, symmetry to their placement, and color gradation of their naturally falling robes – in summation not only the beginnings of naturalism and but also a sense of humanity added to representations of the divine, a combining of the human with the divine. The 8 angels hold the throne aloft. The 4 Old Testament figures placed below are identified as Jeremiah, Abraham, David, and Isaiah. Each holds a scroll with writings from the bible telling of the mysteries of the Virgin Mary while also symbolically representing the foundation of the New Testament. Each of the figures has a sense of the body underneath their robes, such as the knees of Jesus, Mary, and the angels protruding out ever so slightly and the resulting folds in tandem with the highlighting and color modulation of their clothing.

Regrettably the exact life dates and many details of Cimabue are not known, typical of the time. However due to this massive commission from the monks of Santa Trinita, he is well documented as being active in Florence from 1272 to his death in 1302. Additionally, his most famous student was Giotto (1274-1337), considered the first virtuoso of Italian Renaissance art, which adds Cimabue to a few more writings of the time. Giotto quickly overshadowed his teacher with an even greater attention to naturalism when depicting the figure and landscape settings, which consequently pushed Cimabue and his work out of public prominence. The extent of this is forever noted by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) in Canto XI of Purgatorio, where he laments Cimabue’s falling star with the rise of Giotto’s:

            O vanity of human powers,

            how briefly lasts the crowning green of glory,

            unless an age of darkness follows!

            In painting Cimabue thought he held the field

            but now it is Giotto has the cry,

            so that the other’s fame is dimmed.

While the student may have surpassed the master, Cimabue’s work did remain treasured as evidenced by the spotlight with which Santa Trinita Maestàenjoys today at the Uffizi.

Marisa J. Pascucci is a curator and art historian. She has served as a curator at art museums across the United States throughout her career. She is currently an independent visual arts professional in greater Charlotte, NC.

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