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 is a large distemper on wood construst by the Florentine painter and mosaicist Cimabue, dated to c. 1265, and one of three surviving painted crucifixes attributed to him. It has hung in the Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence since the late thirteenth century, but is in poor condition, especially since flood damage in 1966. The Crucifix was commissioned by Franciscan monks at Santa Croce, Florence, and built from a complex arrangement of five main and eight ancillary timber boards. It is one of the first Italian artworks to break from the Byzantine style of the late medieval period, and is renowned for its technical innovations and humanistic iconography.

Cimabue maintains the Byzantine tradition by retaining the rich gilding and monumentality of earlier works. His static pose reflects this tradition while also adding newer, more naturalistic aspects. It consists of a lifelike and physically imposing depiction of the passion at Calvary. Christ is nearly naked, his eyes are closed, his face lifeless and defeated. His body slumps in rigor mortis, contorted by prolonged agony and pain. A graphic portrayal of human suffering, the painting is of seminal importance in art history and has influenced painters from Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Velasquez to Francis Bacon.[1]


Representations of the Virgin and John the Evangelist flank christ in small rectangular panels at either end of his outstretched arms. Both are dark skinned, bear agonised expressions and rest their heads on their right hands, facing inwards. In keeping with the Franciscan idea, the gilding surrounding the mourning saints is kept to a minimum. The size and positions of the two ancillary panels are reduced compared to usual Byzantine iconography[2] in order to maintain sole focus on the passion of Christ.[3]

Christ is presented as a limp, defeated corpse nailed to a cross. His body arches, forcibly raised against the cross on which he is nailed. Blood pours from the wounds in his hands as his head falls to the side from fatigue and the physical reality of approaching death.[4] His is naked except for a sheer loincloth that barely covers his thighs and buttocks. His undress highlight his vulnerability, reinforces his humanity and humility. It seems influenced by a thirteenth-century Franciscan Meditation on christ that emphasised pathos and human interest in the suffering of the Passion; "Turn your eyes away from His divinity for a little while and consider Him purely as a man".[5]

Detail, Crucifix, c. 1268-1271, San Domenico, Arezzo

The painting contains a number of elements typical of a Cimabue representation of Christ, including the illusionism of the drapery folds, the large halo, long flowing hair, dark angular faces and dramatic expressions.[6]

Cimabue achieves a masterful handling of colour. Pale tonalities dominate, with the main contrast found in the the dark areas of Christ's hair and beard, which are utilised to make the features of his face stand out more, and position his head as the focal point.[7] Compared to earlier works of this type, his body is more physically corporeal and his anatomy more closely rendered. His hands and feet seem to extend beyond the pictorial space, which is delineated by the flat, coloured borders of the cross,[2] in turn made up of at least six boards. Both Christ's body and his semi-circular nimbus are placed at angles which rise outwards and above the level of the cross.[8]

The work in a number of ways surpasses his c 1268 Arezzo crucifix. It is more human and less dependent on specific physical and facial types,[9] while Christ's anatomy is more convincing. His head hangs in exhaustion, his hands bleed from the puncture wounds suffered during his nailing to the cross.[4] His arms are placed higher above his head and strain to carry the weight of his body, which visibly slumps.[9] His body takers on a dramatic, almost feminine curve, the result of the contortions forced upon a body nailed to a vertical support.[10]


In situ, Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence

The construct measured 448 cm x 390 cm before the 1966 damage. It consists of five basic components; the vertical board which reaches from the base to the cymatium onto which Christ is nailed, two horizontal cross-arms and two vertical pieces acting as aprons adjacent to the central board. There are another eight minor pieces; mostly terminals, bases and framing devices.[11]

The structure is reinforced by two full length vertical battens. The horizontal cross-arms extend the full width of his arms, slotting into to ridges in the vertical supports. The timber work would have been cut and arranged by carpenters before Cimabue applied his design and paintwork.[11]

Its dimensions are highly symmetrical and proportionate, probably influenced by the geometric ideals, ratios and rules of design of the ancient Greeks. The balance of measurements, especially between the width and height of the cross, seem derived from the sides and diagonals of squares, and dynamic rectangles.[12] Yet Cimabue was not rigid in his placement, to accommodate the sway of Christ's body, he altered the positioning of some of the boards on the lower half to maintain the overall compositional effect.[13]

Influences and commission[edit]

Crucifix, Cimabue c 1268-71. San Domenico, Arezzo. The earliest of the three crucifixes attributed to Cimabue
Giotto, Crucifix, Rimini. 1310-1317

Each of Cimabue's three exant crucifixes were commissioned by Franciscan orders. Founded by Saint Francis of Assisi, the order was reformist; his religious and social 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 to take up preaching. He venerated poverty and developed a deep appreciation for the beauty of nature. Earlier Byzantine depictions tended to show Christ as invincible, even in death. His imagery in 13th c art tended to reinforce Francis's ideals of simplicity and naturalism. They had a strong impact on the iconography of the period, infusing painting with the new values of humanism.[2][14]

Christ hangs on the cross with his eyes wide open, with unblemished skin, and a body full of power: symbolic of everlasting life. This style, known as the Christus triumphans ("Triumphant Christ"), for contemporary, especially Franciscan, taste, lacked verisimilitude and bore little relation to the actual suffering likely endured during a crucifixion, and overly distanced the divine from the human aspect of Christ.[15][16] From about 1240, painters favoured the Christus patiens ("Suffering Christ") style: a saviour who shared and carried the burden and pain of humanity. The Santa Croce Crucifix is one of the earliest and best known examples of the type. Contemporaries such as Dante believed that Giotto, Cimabue's pupil, developed and perfected the innovations of his master.[17]

The church at Santa Croce was the third the 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,[16] which would typically have contained a representation of the Crucifixion. At other times, it hung at the north transept, the sacristy and by the entrance on the southern flank.[18]


Due to lack of written record, it is difficult to attribute unsigned works from the period with any degree of certainty. Although Crucifix's origin has often been contested, it is generally thought be by Cimabue based on stylistic traits and mentions by Vasari[19] and Nicolò Albertini. The work is relatively primitive compared to established Cimabue works from the 1290s, and is thus believed to date from his early period. It is considered an important transitional piece, however "antiquated".[20]

Vasari records that it was successful enough that it began Cimabue's career, leading to the commissions at Pisa, Tuscany that established his reputation.[19]

Damage and restoration[edit]

Photograph taken pre-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 Florence (see 1966 flood of the Arno River). 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 took large tracts of paint when it retreated. 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.[21]

Photograph of the work taken by Ivo Bazzechi after damage in the 1966 flood

A team of restorers led by Umberto Baldini at the "Laboratario del Restauro" in Florence[21] spent ten years reapplying paint. They worked in an almost pointillist manner, with the aid of computer modeling. The wooden frame had significantly weakened, and it was necessary to separate it from the both the gesso and canvas to prevent buckling as the reapplied paint dried.[21] The restorers succeeded in returning the work close to its original appearance, and it was put back on public display in 1976.[4]

The success 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."[22]



  1. ^ In interview, Bacon said: "You know the great Cimabue Crucifixion? I always think of that as a worm crawling down the cross." See Sylvester, 14
  2. ^ a b c Kleinhenz, 224
  3. ^ Hourihane, 229
  4. ^ a b c Larson, Kay. "Survival of the Greatest". New York Magazine, 27 September 1982
  5. ^ Paolettii, 52
  6. ^ Bologna, 333
  7. ^ Chiellini, 15
  8. ^ Farthing, 43
  9. ^ a b Paolettii, 52
  10. ^ Paolettii, 51
  11. ^ a b Brink, 646
  12. ^ Brink, 647
  13. ^ Brink, 651
  14. ^ Paolettii, 49
  15. ^ Paolettii, 50
  16. ^ a b Thompson, 61
  17. ^ Osbourne, 245
  18. ^ Jack, 492
  19. ^ a b Magill, 272
  20. ^ Crowe; Cavalcaselle, 18
  21. ^ a b c Brink, 645
  22. ^ Januszczak, 175-76


  • Bologna, Ferdinando. "The Crowning Disc of a Duecento 'Crucifixion' and Other Points Relevant to Duccio's Relationship to Cimabue". The Burlington Magazine, Volume 125, No. 963, June 1983
  • Brink, Joel. "Carpentry and Symmetry in Cimabue's Santa Croce Crucifix". The Burlington Magazine, Volume 120, No. 907, October 1978
  • Cole, Bruce. Italian Art, 1250-1550: The Relation of Renaissance Art to Life and Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1987 ISBN 0-06-430162-1
  • Chiellini, Monica. Cimabue. London: Scala Books, 1988. ISBN 978-0-9357-4890-1
  • 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
  • Farthing, Stephen. 1000 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. London: Cassell Illustrated, 2011. ISBN 978-1-84403-704-9
  • Hourihane, Colum. The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture, Volume 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-1953-9536-5
  • Jacks, Philip. In: The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Modern Library, 2007. ASIN: B000XU4UR6
  • Januszczak, Waldemar. Sayonara, Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Restored and Repackaged. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1990 ISBN 0-201-52395-7
  • Kleinhenz, Christopher (ed). Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia. Volume I: A-K. New York; London: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-93930-5
  • Messina, Isaac, "A New Approach to the Restoration of Cimabue’s Santa Croce Crucifix". Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects, 2014
  • Osbourne, Harold (ed). The Oxford Companion to Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970. ISBN 0-19-866107-X
  • Paoletti, John T.; Radke, Gary M. Art in Renaissance Italy. London: Laurence King, 2005. ISBN 1-85669-439-9
  • Sylvester, David. Interviews with Francis Bacon. London: Pantheon Books, 1975. ISBN 978-0-3944-9763-1
  • 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
  • Viladesau, Richard. The Beauty of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts, from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-518811-X

Further reading[edit]

  • Magill, Frank. The Middle Ages: Dictionary of World Biography, Volume 2: Middle Ages Vol 2. London: Routledge, 1998. ISBN 978-1-5795-8041-4