Cimabue was a renowned and influential Italian painter and mosaicist whose work has largely influenced and shaped the Italo-Byzantine style. Cimabue’s artistic approach and aesthetics were in open rebellion against the conventions and traditions of the artistic societies of the conservative 14th century, and his art and endeavors gave way to newer traditions and a more natural style to the 14th century western European painting. His works make the largest contributions to early medieval Italian art and most of his surviving works are frescos such as ‘Madonna Enthroned with St. Francis’, ‘Sta. Trinita Madonna’, and the New Testament scenes in the upper church of S. Francesco.
Cimabue, whose birth name was Benicivieni di Pepo, is said to have been born around 1250 in Italy. Details of his life have been recorded from different discourses and writings of other prolific artists such as Dante and Lorenzo Ghiberti who describe Cimabue as arrogant and haughty, yet extremely talented. However, Giorgio Vasari relates incidents that show Cimabue’s generosity and good will, for instance, when he saw Giotto for the first time, working as a shepherd and drawing on a flat stone, so taken was Cimabue with the young artist’s devotion that he offered to take him up as san apprentice.
According to Vasari, Cimabue was given the responsibility to design, monitor and organize all the decorations and ornaments for the Upper Church, and it was under this commission that he created some of his most remarkable and highly acclaimed works, a wide and rich array of frescoes that were to adorn and embellish the Upper Church of S. Francesco, Assisi. The large Crucifixion depiction is indeed Cimabue’s masterpiece among his extensive work in frescos, this particular piece takes its inspiration for Byzantine iconography and fills the fresco with Cimabue’s unique and distinctive flair for drama and expression. Cimabue’s unique and powerfully evocative style became immensely popular and acclaimed for breaking away from traditions and developing a more natural approach of painting.
The Evangelist’s portraits that adorn the vaults of the crossing are another remarkable exhibit of Cimabue’s natural talent and his evocative style of expression and creation of plastic forms. The widely acclaimed and praised frescos, ‘Madonna Enthroned with Angels and St. Francis’, is another example of his raw and naked talent. Although worn and torn with the ravages and trials of time, for centuries, this painting has influenced generations of artists on the Byzantine style.
Towards the peak of his career, Cimabue began to evolve his style and outgrow the influence of the traditional Italian-Byzantine approach, and began experimenting with linear definitions, gold striations and discovered a new softness of modelling. For instance, his work at the Sta Croce, Florence, which mainly consisted of murals and frescoes, marks a clear abandonment of the Byzantine conventions and signifies a move towards naturalism. Sadly, these remarkable works were destroyed in 1966.
The huge and expansive ‘Madonna Enthroned’ that adorns the walls of the Church of Sta Trinita, Florence, is indeed the best and foremost example of Cimabue’s talent and skill. This painting is an intermingling of the traditional Byzantine motifs with a softer, more natural and warm depiction of a loving, easily approachable and earthly mother.
Cimabue is said to have died in 1302.