We are in thirteenth century Florence – the birthplace of the ‘Renaissance’ meaning ‘rebirth’. It refers to a period in European art history, from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, characterized by a rediscovery of Classical Medieval art and philosophy. But who were the forebearers of this realistic rendition? Art historians would answer in unison – Cimabue and Giotto.
In today’s painting we shall consider the first pioneer and study his work of art. Cimabue, also known as Cenni di Pepo, was born in Florence in c 1240. Although majorly influenced by the Byzantine style of art, Cimabue chose to be flexible, shading flat figures so as to naturally endow them with life. Cimabue was also the teacher of Giotto, the first great proto-Renaissance painter.
The art of Cimabue is best exemplified in today’s painting. Titled ‘Santa Trinita Maestà’, the picture originally stood on the high altar of the Church of Santa Trinita in Florence. The date and the patron of the composition is disputed. Executed in tempera on wood, the painting is currently displayed in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence.
Let’s now take a closer look at the canvas. We are greeted by a glistening gold panel indicating that this scene transcends space and time. It is heavenly and glorious. Before us lies a larger-than-life enthroned Virgin and Child surrounded by angels. An adaptation of the traditional Byzantine icons, this popular theme was called a Maestà, meaning, ‘Majesty’.
Notice the stylistic features of Mary – her long nose, almond shaped eyes and elongated hand can be traced to the Eastern traditions. However the gold lines on the drapery hint at the three-dimensionality of the Renaissance. Christ Child looks at us, His fingers raised in benediction. Intriguingly, as was the norm then, His facial features are presented in a mature manner. He is depicted as an all-knowing God, a symbolism that would soon disappear in the Renaissance.
A striking element of the painting is the inclusion of the four Old Testament figures at the base. This includes the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah under the lateral arches and Father Abraham and King David under the chair of the throne. Each of the bust-length figures hold an open scroll that pronounces the coming of the Messiah.
This painting has been highly praised by art historians for its fresh perspectives that mark the beginning of illusionism. The Virgin is seen seated, though not rationally, in space. The sides of the throne appear closer to us while the upper portion seems further away. Notice that the curved steps of the throne recede into fictional space thereby affirming that the characters occupy real ground. Notice the hints of chiaroscuro here – in the neck, the nose and the rendering of the angels that stack around the throne.
Undoubtedly the focus of the painting is the devotion towards the Blessed Virgin. Pay heed to the unspoken dialogue here. While Mary gazes at us she points towards her Son – the Christ Child reiterating those famous words at the Wedding Feast of Canna – ‘Do whatever He tells you to do’. Throughout her life our Blessed Mother showed us the path to salvation. Throughout our life she continues to do the same.
© – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum