Cimabue’s Painting “Christ Mocked”
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Categories: Medieval

Cimabue’s Painting “Christ Mocked”

a cracked and dirty painting of Christ mocked.  The crowd wear a mix of Roman and medieval clothing, and two carry sheathed swords in hand.  The background is gilt.
“Christ Mocked” by Cimabue, a panel painting on poplar wood. Public domain photo care of

In January the Scholarly Skater reminded me of the panel painting of Christ mocked found in France and attributed to Cimabue of Florence who died in or after 1302. The panel is not in the best shape, but if you have seen the Maciejowski Bible or some 13th century French sculpture its nothing special. Panel paintings from the 13th century are rare but not as rare as many things. So why the fuss?

a knight in armour kneels before a bishop holding a chalice, with more knights on horseback and civilians on foot in the background. The picture is framed by architectural details and a representation of rocky ground
Folio 3 of the Maciejowski Bible, illuminated in Paris around 1244-1254 (so about 30 years before Cimabue was active)

Italian painting before the Black Death was strongly influenced by Byzantine painting rather than the French Gothic. That is why the previous owner thought it was a Russian icon, because Russian icons also owe a lot to Byzantine painting. Artists in the middle ages were just like any other skilled workers: they were known to their peers and their customers, but were normally forgotten after they died or retired. So when Giorgio Vasari wrote his book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (first edition 1550) he picked Cimabue as the first painter to receive a biography. Cimabue was from Florence, and Vasari was a Tuscan patriot.

THE GREAT FLOOD of misfortunes, by which poor Italy had been afflicted and overwhelmed, had not only reduced to ruins all buildings of note throughout the land, but what was of far more importance, had caused an utter lack of the very artists themselves. At this time, when the supply seemed entirely exhausted, in the year 1240, by the will of God, there was born in the city of Florence, Giovanni, surnamed Cimabue, of the noble family of that name, who was to shed the first light on the art of painting.

I think that to Vasari, it didn’t matter when the barbarians beyond the Alps started to move away from Byzantine models, but it did matter when Florentines began to move away. And so even today, Cimabue has a big place in the history of art, not necessarily because he was very important, but because he serves as a symbol of changes in art during his lifetime. For some people he can stand in for the transition of painting in Italy from a Byzantine style to indigenous styles and eventually the International Gothic. Medievalists can name a few other painters of the 13th century by reading contracts and urban records, but Cimabue is the only one at the center of a story: the story of the rebirth (renaissance) of Italy, or Tuscany, after the Dark Ages. That story has an ugly side, because the fight between Italians and Byzantines over who were the real Romans lead to the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and 1453, but it is a powerful story.

On a basis I do not understand, the government of France banned the export of this panel for 30 months in December 2019 in hopes of keeping it in France. Its not a French painting and has no documented history until an owner sold it upon moving to a retirement home in 2019, and the two panels which it may belong with are in London and New York City. Its not obvious to me why any state has a claim upon it. Do any of my gentle readers know whether the painting was exported or sold to a buyer willing to keep it in France? And are there any debates about the attribution to Cimabue?

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Further Reading

(scheduled 22 January 2023)

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