This is one of only two small-scale works by Cimabue, rediscovered in 2000. Soon after this, a link was made between it and a panel in the Frick Collection, New York, which depicts the Flagellation. They were both probably part of a much larger panel painted with small images showing the events leading up to Christ’s death.
Two angels with long feathered wings present the Virgin and Child to the viewer. This scene references Christ’s suffering and death through the cloth on which the Virgin is seated. It resembles the kind placed upon an altar used for the Eucharist – the ritual at which Christians remember Christ’s death by drinking wine and eating bread together. This scene is based on a Byzantine model which Cimabue has altered: he has made the throne three-dimensional and included an affectionate gesture between mother and child. These adjustments catered to western Christians for whom a personal relationship with God was key.
This is one of the earliest paintings in the National Gallery’s collection and a rare surviving work by Cimabue. Until this work was rediscovered in 2000, Cimabue was known only for large-scale works including frescoes, painted crucifixes and monumental images of the Virgin and Child enthroned.
Cimabue was working at a time when Italian artists were adopting and adapting images and motifs from the religious art of the Eastern Christian empire, Byzantium. Cimabue transformed these traditionally formal images into representations that were more accessible to western Christians who were concerned with developing a personal relationship with God. His experiments with three-dimensional settings and gesture were highly influential on the next generation of Italian painters such as Giotto.
The Virgin Mary is seated on a wooden throne, holding the infant Christ on her lap. The cushion beneath her curls up slightly at the edges, giving an impression of their weight. This, along with the three-dimensional structure of the throne, creates a sense of real presence before a worshipper.
Two angels with long feathered wings present the Virgin and Child to the viewer, gripping the throne with their slender fingers. They wear red and white headbands, red stockings and black shoes. Between their pink tunics and pale purple robes are decorated strips of brown fabric studded with pearls. These decorated bands resemble the loros – an embroidered and jewel-studded textile that was part of the ceremonial costume of the Emperors and Empresses of the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Christian Empire. Cimabue uses the visual language of earthly power to reflect the Christian idea of the Virgin and Christ as the Queen and King of Heaven. The entire image is comparable with a Byzantine prototype where the angels are identified as the archangels Michael and Gabriel.
The Christ Child grabbing at his mother’s hand, as any baby might, creates an intimate image of motherhood. The image also has a complex message to aid the devotions of the viewer: while Christ is absorbed in this activity the Virgin and the angels look towards the viewer, with whom they share a knowledge of Christ’s divine nature and his fate as an adult. The cloth on which the Virgin is seated, with its decorated border, also hints at Christ’s suffering and death. It resembles the kind placed upon an altar used to bless the bread and wine of the Eucharist, shared by Christians at Mass in commemoration of Christ’s death and renewal of their faith.
The panel is damaged at the left and upper edges, most likely due to the removal of a frame. The other edges remain intact, with painted red borders. This suggests that it was framed together with a number of other scenes, all painted on the same piece of wood separated by red lines. After the National Gallery bought it, the panel was connected with another of equal scale at the Frick Collection, New York, which shows the Flagellation. These two works allow people to study, for the first time, how Cimabue applied his innovations in transforming Byzantine models for western Christians on a small scale.
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