Cimabue, Virgin and Child Enthroned,
from the Church of Santa Trinita, Florence
c 1280. Tempera and gold on wood, 12' 7"x7'4"
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Byzantine Style (maniera greca)
painted during the Gothic Period
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Form: The overall composition of this work is symmetrical. The largest figures of Mary and Jesus are at the center of the composition and they are flanked by two rows of angels overlapped as if they are standing on bleachers. Beneath the structure of the throne are several representations of older men with halos. In order to create space, Cimabue uses the same convention of vertical perspective we saw in Pisano's pulpit. The figures that are highest up in the picture plane are furthest back.
This painting was rendered with tempera paint and gold leaf. Tempera is a medium which is made from egg (sometimes just the yolk sometimes the whites) glue and ground up minerals that serve as pigment or colorant. The egg actually glues or binds the pigments to the surface. The paint is applied in small distinct brush strokes that show the brushwork when looked at closely.
According to the Brittanica,
Tempera originally came from the verb temper--that is, "to bring to a desired consistency"; dry pigments are made usable by "tempering" them with a binding and adhesive vehicle. Such painting was distinguished from fresco painting, the colours for which contained no binder. Eventually, after the rise of oil painting, the word gained its present meaning.The standard tempera vehicle is a natural emulsion, egg yolk, thinned with water. Variants of this vehicle have been developed to widen its use. Among the man-made emulsions are those prepared with whole egg and linseed oil, with gum, and with wax.The special ground for tempera painting is a rigid wood or wallboard panel coated with several thin layers of gesso, a white, smooth, fully absorbent preparation made of burnt gypsum (or chalk, plaster of Paris, or whiting) and hide (or parchment) glue. A few minutes after application, tempera paint is sufficiently resistant to water to allow overpainting with more colour. Thin, transparent layers of paint produce a clear, luminous effect, and the colour tones of successive brushstrokes blend optically. Modern tempera paintings are sometimes varnished or overpainted with thin, transparent oil glazes to produce full, deep-toned results, or they are left unglazed for blond effects.
The background is gold leaf on a wooden panel that has been painted with a a combination of glue and marble dust or chalk referred to as gesso. The gold leaf is then incised and punctured with designs. Gold leaf has also been added to the drapery as a means to highlight the folds.
The rendering of color and value in this painting is fairly limited. There is no distinct source of light and very little tonal variation on the faces or drapery of the individual figures and there are no real differences of character or appearance from one face to the next.
Cimabue's rendition of the Virgin is very similar to the one from Auvergne. This painting, like the sculpture, is both naturalistic and stylized. Again the rendering of the face and hands was an attempt by the sculptor to represent convincing human forms however, the faces show no real expression and the bodies are completely covered with an almost Byzantine style of drapery that almost completely conceals both figures' bodies. The child Jesus is not rendered as a child buy rather a stiff looking miniature adult. The poses of both figures are stiff and fairly wooden but in the case of Mary, this is appropriate if you look at her role in terms of the work's iconography.
Iconography: As in the French Gothic sculpture Mary is depicted as the "Throne of Wisdom." The arrangement of the composition places Mary at the center of the image and in the most important location. So the use of symmetry and the placement of figures can indicate their status. Notice that Mary is framed and as such "backed up" by the angels. The less important figures of the prophets are literally beneath her and Jesus.
Color and the gold leaf used also serve as iconographic reminders of Mary and Jesus' status. Gold leaf and red and blue pigments were made from precious stones and materials and are symbols of there status.
Context: Stokstad relates that this work probably set the standard for monumental panel paintings. Cimabue was one of the best known and sought after artists of his day and although he stuck to the old Byzantine conventions of depicting the human figure in a caricaturish manner he was still innovative in his illusionistic techniques. He was also an artist of the times and the production and patronage concerning such works of art was going through a bit of a change at the end of the Gothic era.
Artist's during the late Gothic and early Renaissance periods were reliant on three major groups for patronage, the church, the aristocracy and the new wealthy merchant class. Wealthy merchants, such as the Enrico Scrovegni, often would contribute frescoes and altar paintings to churches as a form of indulgence. Often these merchants were wealthy enough to and commission artists to decorate a private altar for their own homes.
During the Gothic period, artists and fine furniture makers were on the same social and economic level. Each group belonged to guilds that one paid dues to and were governed by certain rules. A master who would often have a group of assistants and apprentices working for them ran these shops. Apprentices were children anywhere between the ages of 11-20 years old. Sometimes the parents of a child would pay the master of a shop a monthly or yearly fee in order for the master to teach the child a trade. The child was expected to do work in the shop and when they had earned enough respect or mastery of skills, the master would then advance them on to more complex tasks. After learning these skills for a long enough time, an exceptional child might learn enough to open their own shop; however, some apprentices, as adults remained as an assistant in their master's shop.
How Paintings were commissioned and bought.
The patron and artist negotiate the price. The cost is established by how many figures are present in the painting, the size, the amount of gold leaf and the colors that are used.
The artist orders a wood panel from a furniture maker. It is very important that the wood is "gassed out." This means the older the wood, the more petrified, the better. This can be the most expensive part.
Panel is prepared by apprentices or an assistant by coating it with gesso. Gesso is a mixture of chalk or calcium carbonate (marble dust) mixed with rabbit skin glue.
Now the paint is made. For tempera, egg yolk is mixed with ground-up minerals (sometimes even semiprecious stones) to make a very durable paint.
When all this is done and the painting is complete, there is a procession from the artist's studio to the church.
At this time the altarpiece for the high altar was finished and the picture which was called the "Madonna with the large eyes" or Our Lady of Grace, that now hangs over the altar of St. Boniface, was taken down. Now this Our Lady was she who had hearkened to the people of Siena when the Florentines were routed at Monte Aperto, and her place was changed because the new one was made, which is far more beautiful and devout and larger, and is painted on the back with the stories of the Old and New Testaments. And on the day that it was carried to the Duomo the shops were shut, and the bishop conducted a great and devout company of priests and friars in solemn procession, accompanied by the nine signiors, and all the officers of the commune, and all the people, and one after another the worthiest with lighted candles in their hands took places near the picture, and behind came the women and children with great devotion. And they accompanied the said picture up to the Duomo, making the procession around the Campo, as is the custom, all the bells ringing joyously, out of reverence for so noble a picture as this. And this picture Duccio di Niccolò the painter made, and it was made in the house of the Muciatti outside the gate a Stalloreggi . And all that day persons, praying God and His Mother, who is our advocate, to defend us by their infinite mercy from every adversity and all evil, and keep us from the hands of traitors and of the enemies of Siena.
This account reminds us how we should remember the integral role of a major work like this in the civic life of the city. Notice also how the adoration devoted to this new image is comparable to that shown the relics of a patron saint of a community. It is important to remember that the Virgin was the patron saint of Siena, and as such she was the center of the civic and religious life of the city. Kneeling beside the throne of the Virgin are the other patron saints of Siena: Ansanus, Sabinus, Crescentius, and Victor. The order of the altarpiece and the privileged position given to the Sienese saints, especially the Virgin, would have been clearly understood to reflect the ideal order of the city of Siena which would stand before it in the Duomo. The civic implications are further brought out by the original inscription: HOLY MOTHER OF GOD BESTOW PEACE ON SIENA AND SALVATION ON DUCCIO WHO PAINTED THEE.
The reference in the account above to the Madonna with the Large Eyes , or in Italian --Madonna degli Occhi Grossi-- relates to a painting done about 1200:
This work was seen to be a miracle working image. The Sienese appeals to this image of their patron saint were believed to have lead to the salvation of the city from the Florentines in the Battle of Montaperti in 1260. Why do you think the Sienese would have wanted to have replaced such a revered image with the Duccio altarpiece?
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