Crucifix (Cimabue, Santa Croce)

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Crucifix, 1287-1288. Distemper on wood panel, 448 cm × 390 cm (176.4 in × 153.5 in). Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence.

Crucifix (c. 1265) is a large, badly damaged, distemper on wood painting by the Italian painter and mosaicist Cimabue, one of his three surviving painted crucifixions. It is one of the first Italian artworks to break away from the Byzantine style. It is renowned both for its technical innovations and for its move towards a more humanistic interpretation of religious iconography and the representation of saints. Cimabue confronts the viewer with a mercilessly realistic depiction of the passion at Calvary and a limp, defeated body of Christ on the cross. In its graphic depiction of human suffering and physical pain, the painting is of seminal importance in the history of art and has influenced painters from Michelangelo and Caravaggio to Velasquez and later Francis Bacon.[1][2]

Cimabue's Christ possesses a more naturalistic and physically accurate appearance than its artistic predecessors. In contrast to other crucifixion scenes of the time, Christ's eyes are closed, his face lifeless and defeated, and his body slumped in rigor mortis, obviously contorted from the prolonged agonies leading up to death. The work anticipates that of Cimabue's pupil Giotto, in particular his great suspended crucifix at Santa Maria Novella (1300)[3] and his later Rimini crucifix (c. 1310-1317). While Cimabue mostly retains the static pose, rich gilding and monumentality of the Byzantine tradition, a number of elements in this work hint at a new, more naturalistic approach. The work reflects the influence of both architecture and sculpture, adding to the visual effect of the Christ rising above the cross.

The painting hung in the Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence from the late thirteenth century until 1966, when it was severely damaged in the Arno flood[4] and lost almost 60% of its paint. The restoration took ten years and required reapplication of nearly the entire painted surface and a complete dismantling and reconstruction.


Franciscan influence[edit]

In situ at the Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence. Note the extensive paint loss suffered during the 1966 floods.

Cimabue's three painted crucifixes were all commissioned by Franciscan orders. The order, founded by Saint Francis of Assisi, was reformist in many ways, and his religious vision was to have a profound effect on the visual arts in the century after his death. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis abandoned the worldly life in his mid twenties and took up preaching. He celebrated and even venerated poverty in his teachings, at the same time developing a profound appreciation for the beauty of nature. These ideals of simplicity and naturalism had a strong impact on 13th century iconography, infusing it with the new values of humanism.[5][6]

Giotto, Crucifix, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. c 1290-1300
Giotto, Crucifix, Rimini. 1310-1317

Earlier Byzantine depictions of the cross tended to show Christ as invincible even in death–his eyes wide open, his skin unblemished, and his body full of power, a symbol of everlasting life. This ideal had come to be known as the Christus triumphans ("Triumphant Christ"), however many felt it bore little relation to the actual sufferings endured during the crucifixion and thus only served to reinforce the perceived remove between divine and human.[7] It further conflicted with the Franciscan reverence for the suffering of Christ.[8] From about 1240 onward, artists increasingly depicted the scene in a style that became known as Christus patiens ("Suffering Christ"), a Christ who carries the burden and pain of humanity. The Santa Croce Crucifix is one of the earliest and best known examples of this type. Contemporaries such as Dante held the view that Giotto, who was most likely Cimabue's pupil, developed and perfected the innovations of his master and in the end outshone him.[9]

The church at Santa Croce was the third building Franciscans constructed at the site. It was begun in 1295, some 10-15 years after Cimabue completed his Crucfix, which is believed to have been commissioned for the earlier church, where it probably hung over the altar or above the rood screen,[8] which would typically have contained a representation of the Crucifixion.

The panel[edit]


Crucifix, Cimabue c 1268-71. San Domenico, Arezzo. This the earliest of the three crucifixes attributed to Cimabue.

Christ's body is shown nearly naked and contorted by the agonies of death. He wears a diaphanous perizoma (loincloth) that reveals his thighs and buttocks and almost accentuates his nakedness. His body seems almost raised against the flat cross on which he is nailed to. He is flanked on either side by representations of The Virgin and John the Evangelist shown in mourning in rectangular panels at either end of his outstretched arms. Both are shown with agonised expressions, resting their heads on their right hands. In keeping with the Franciscan idea, the gilding surrounding these two saints has been kept at a reduced, minimal level. In comparison to earlier works of his type, Christ's body bears more of a physical presence. His hands and feet extend beyond the canvas as delineated by the flat, coloured borders of the cross[6] which is made up of at least six panels. Both his body and semi-circular nimbus are placed at angles which raise them outwards and above the level of the cross.[10]

Christ's body is less stylised and more human that in Cimabue's c 1268 Arezzo crucifix, while the close attention to anatomy is more pronounced. His head hangs in exhaustion, his hands bleed where the nails have been driven in.[11] His arms are placed higher above his head, so that they visibly strain as carry the weight of his whole body, which is shown as slumped in a dramatic almost feminine curve[12] indicating the contortions and agony suffered before death.

Because of the lack of written record, it is difficult to unsigned attribute works from the period with any degree of certainty. Although Crucifix's origin has often been contested, it is generally still thought be from Cimabue, mostly owing to separate identifications given by Vasari and Nicolò Albertini. It shows a relatively primitive approach compared to identified works from the 1290s, especially after Giotto it could be considered as an important transitional piece but "antiquated". It is thus believed to date from Cimabue's early period.[13]

Damage and restoration[edit]

Photograph of the work taken by Ivo Bazzechi after damage in the 1966 flood and before the commencement of restoration.

The crucifix was installed in church of Santa Croce at the end of the thirteenth century and remained there until 1966, when the banks of the Arno river burst and flooded the Florence. Thousands of art works were damaged or destroyed, and the Crucifix–widely considered the most important piece affected by the flood–lost 60% of its paint. It had suffered earlier flood damage in 1333 and 1557. In 1966 it was on display in the lower Museo dell' Opera, closer to the waterline than it had been during earlier floods. The water level reached the height of Christ's nimbus, and when it retreated it took large tracts of paint with it. The water left the canvas stripped, with tiny specks of pigment floating around it (which were picked up with pliers by staff wading in the water after the torrents had subsided), and deposited oil, mud and naphtha on the wood frame.[14]

It took a team of restorers lead by Umberto Baldini at the "Laboratario del Restauro" in Florence[14] ten years to reapply the paint in an almost pointillist manner with the aid of computer modeling. The wooden frame had become weak, and it was necessary to separate it from the both the gesso and canvas to prevent buckling as the reapplied paint dried.[14] The restorers succeeded in returning the work close to its original appearance, and it was put back on public display in 1976.[11] The skill of the restoration brought the painting additional fame, and since then it has been loaned to galleries outside Italy, the first time it had left Florence since its inception. According to critic Waldemar Januszczak it was taken "around the globe in a curious, post-restoration state—part original artwork, part masterpiece of modern science...a thirteenth century—twentieth-century hybrid."[4]




  1. ^ In interview, Bacon said: "You know the great Cimabue Crucifixion? I always think of that as a worm crawling down the cross."
  2. ^ Richardson, John. "Tragedian". New York Review of Books, Volume 4, Number 4. 25 March 1965. Retrieved on 25 December 2011.
  3. ^ Cole, 125
  4. ^ a b Januszczak, 175-76
  5. ^ Paolettii, 49
  6. ^ a b Kleinhenz, 224
  7. ^ Paolettii, 50
  8. ^ a b Thompson, Nancy. "The Franciscans and the True Cross: The Decoration of the Cappella Maggiore of Santa Croce in Florence". Gesta, Volume 43, No. 1, 2004. 61
  9. ^ Osbourne, 245
  10. ^ Farthing, 43
  11. ^ a b Larson, Kay. "Survival of the Greatest". New York Magazine, 27 September 1982.
  12. ^ Paolettii, 51
  13. ^ Crowe, J. A.; Cavalcaselle, G. B. "A History of Painting in Italy, Umbria, Florence and Sienna, from the Second to the Sixteenth Century". London: J. Murray, 1903. 18
  14. ^ a b c Brink, Joel. "Carpentry and Symmetry in Cimabue's Santa Croce Crucifix". The Burlington Magazine, Volume 120, No. 907, October 1978. 645


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