Cimabue and the Eclipse of the Painter
Entry 3 March 11, 2013. Of the 168 painters I have looked at so far, 104, or not quite 62% of them, are represented in the collection by only one picture. The reproductions of their single works vary in size considerably, but most are no larger than three inches by three inches, and some are less than two inches by two inches. The information provided is typical of the documentation that accompanies paintings in a gallery: name of painter, with life dates, name of painting, with date of composition, dimensions, materials, location in the museum, and inventory number.
When the painting itself and these statistics are all I have to go on, I often find something about the image I want to mention, but I also often feel the same frustration I feel when looking at a painting in a gallery. I want to know more and, more important, have a method for storing the information for future use. I am grateful when a gallery provides me with further details about the works presented, whether in the form of brief commentaries on individual paintings or a convenient catalogue of an exhibit. The Louvre book contains brief commentaries, usually 200-300 words, but for only 400 of the 3,022 works.
Most of the commentaries are accompanied by images that are substantially larger than three inches by three inches; for example, the Mona Lisa gets a whole page in the book, and the image is 10.5 inches by 7.25 inches. In addition, an artist whose work gets a commentary is often, although not always, represented in the Louvre book by more than one painting, and sometimes more than one of these is accompanied by a commentary. The larger reproductions and the multiple commentaries are helpful, but even with them I find myself inclined to pass over an artist represented in this way in favor of writing about a single work that is presented without such accompaniment. It’s due in part to rooting for the underdog, but I also feel, even with all the help the book offers, that what I have to say about a well-known artist’s work will add little to what is widely available. For the one-painting artists, on the other hand, I have more of a chance to add to a viewer’s knowledge.
The very first one-painting artist I looked at, and I have chosen to write about here, is Cimabue (Cenni di Pepe, active 1271-1320), whose painting Virgin and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Six Angels (circa 1280) is the first work presented in the Italian section of the book, which after a brief introduction to the section as a whole presents each of the Louvre’s paintings from Italian artists in chronological order by artist life dates. Cimabue is not only the earliest Italian painter but also the earliest painter by life date in the Louvre; by comparison, the largest section, the French, begins with a painter known only as the French Painter, from the mid-14th century, half a century, therefore, after Cimabue. The Spanish section begins with the Master of St. Ildefonso from the late 15th century, as does the Northern section.
In Cimabue’s painting, the Christ Child and his mother, the Virgin Mary, are seated on a massive golden throne supported by angels. Unlike most single paintings, this one is presented in a large format and accompanied by a commentary, which emphasizes that Cimabue’s work combines elements of the Middle Ages just ending and the Renaissance about to begin. Medieval features noted include the gold background, in the style of a Byzantine icon, and the placement of the angels, which are lined up as parallel two-dimensional front-facing images rather than placed within a three-dimensional space; new techniques are at work, according to the commentary, in the humanized gestures and expressions of the figures, particularly Mary and the Christ Child.
In Dante’s Purgatorio (XI.94-96, translation Mark Musa), Cimabue is mentioned as one who “thought to hold the field/as painter; Giotto now is all the rage,/dimming the luster of the other’s fame.” In the Louvre, too, he must cede the stage at once to Giotto, whose panel containing four scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi is the next painting in the book’s Italian section.