Uffizi Sala dei Dugento: Enthroned Madonna with Child by Cimabue, Duccio and Giotto 1/2

Uffizi Sala dei Dugento Giotto left and right Cimabue Duccio left 
Uffizi Sala dei Dugento Giotto Cimabue Duccio left 

The beginning of painting according to Vasari with painters like Cimabue, Duccio and Giotto. According to Vasari, true art, like painting, disappeared after the decline of classical civilisation. It is only around the year 1300 that painting is seeing a revival. Before this there was talk of the maniera greca or the Greek style (Byzantine), in which Vasari in his preface of the ‘Lives’ points to the mosaics in the Duomo of Pisa and the San Marco in Venice, but also to numerous paintings and sculptures in Florence.1

‘[…] in this style, with figures looking possessed, hands outstretched, on toes […] and on sculptures, Vasari notes that: […] certain figures seem so awkward, so ugly, and in their coarseness and lack of style seem so deformed that one would not know how to imagine anything worse.’

Giorgio Vasari, De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part I p. 46-47 (original edition 1568).

Enthroned  Madonna with Child Baptistery apse calotte Florence
Enthroned  Madonna with Child Baptistery apse calotte Florence

Here, art is accused of not being naturalistic. Byzantine art is much more complex than Vasari suggests. In fact, Byzantine art in the thirteenth century was the foundation for Giotto and the proto-renaissance.2 In his life on Cimabue by Vasari, he already refers to this artist as the painter who made a start with modern, and therefore good, painting.3 However, it is mainly Giotto who revived painting. Vasari considers Giotto to be the true father of painting who drew on his own strength and from nature, and he could rightly be called a pupil of nature, and not of others.’4 What Vasari particularly appreciated was that he was the first to be able to produce well resembling images of existing persons, working according to nature, something that had been out of use for more than two hundred years […]’5 The yardstick for good art is the extent to which an artist succeeds in depicting nature faithfully. Something that is no mean feat, given the limited resources available to an artist: a flat surface (plastered wall, panel or canvas), some pigments with a binder and brushes.

Madonna del Popolo artist unknown
Brancacci chapel detail and whole
Madonna del Popolo artist unknown Brancacci chapel

Giotto has not only been a pupil of nature, but has also learned the trade as a painter from Cimabue.

Vasari shares an anecdote of Cimabue meeting a ten year old boy.

‘[…] and as he, with these animals [sheep], crossed the estate and had them graze the fields every now and again, he was drawn by his natural aptitude to the art of drawing and everywhere, on the stones, on the ground or in the sand, he drew something he saw in nature or something that just popped up in his head. One day Cimabue was on his way from Florence to Vespignano, where he had some business, when he saw Giotto, who, while his sheep were grazing, was depicting a sheep with a slightly pointed stone on a flat and smooth boulder, true to nature, without learning how to do it from anyone, unless it was taught by nature itself. Cimabue stood still, stunned, and asked the boy if he wanted to go with him and live with him; the boy replied that he would like to go with him, if his father was okay with it.’

Giorgio Vasari, De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part I p. 68 (original edition 1568).

According to Vasari, the young boy not only quickly reached the level of his teacher, but it was he who put an end to that awkward Greek style and reintroduced respectable, modern painting.6

In the Uffizi, Sala del Dugento (thirteenth century), room two, we not only see a modern work by Giotto, Enthroned Madonna with Child, but also two other panels with the same subject. One by Cimabue and the other altarpiece by a painter from Siena, Duccio. In addition, in the choir vault of the Baptistery in Florence, there is a mosaic with an Enthroned Madonna and Child from the middle of the thirteenth century, made in the Greek style. A comparison between these works only makes it clear how pioneering Giotto’s Enthroned Madonna with Child really is.

The mosaic in the Baptistry shows all the characteristics that Vasari thought were so bad. Figures looking possessed […] on the toes, body proportions that are no good, in short this representation of Madonna with her child on the throne is absolutely unrealistic. The three large panels by Duccio, Cimabue and Giotto – the first two were made around 1285 and the last about twenty-five years later – were painted for churches in Florence. Duccio painted his work for the high altar in Santa Maria Novella. Cimabue for the Santa Trinita and Giotto for the Ognissanti. These kinds of images were popular and had an important function for the believer. Mary was prayed to on the knees in front of the painting,  The believer sought support in difficult times and was able to call on her help. As the mother of her son, she could ask Christ to help the believer.

1. Video Khan Academy Cimabue Cimabue Madonna with Child Santa Trinita (7.29 minutes)
2. Video Khan Academy Duccio Rucellai Cimabue Madonna with Child Santa Maria Novella (4.15 minutes)
3. Video Khan Academy Giotto Cimabue Madonna with Child Santi Ognissanti (4.04 minutes)
4. Video Khan Academy A comparison: Madonna’s with child by Cimabue and Giotto (10.59 minutes)

Cimabue Enthroned Madonna with Child
Santa Trinita ca. 1285 Uffizi
Large size Google Art Project
  Duccio Enthroned Madonna with Child
Santa Maria Novellaca. 1285 Uffizi
Large size Google Art Project
Cimabue Enthroned Madonna with Child Santa Trinita ca. 1285 Uffizi   Duccio Enthroned Madonna with Child Santa Maria Novellaca. 1285 Uffizi

The monks of Vallombrosa ordered an altarpiece with an Enthroned Madonna from Cimabue. In the fifteenth century, this work on the main altar in Santa Trinita was replaced by a painting by Alessio Baldovinetti and was then hung in a side chapel. Initially, Cimabue’s altarpiece was the most important painting in the church. When entering the church, the eye of the churchgoer fell directly on the Enthroned Madonna. On the speech scrolls are texts from the Bible that refer to the conception of the child of Mary from Isaiah 7: 11

How long will you keep stalling?
How much longer are you going to stay stubborn, Lady Israel?
The Lord will create something new on earth

Large size

A woman is courting a man.
No, I’ve been quiet
I have calmed my soul.
Like a child on his mother’s arm,
As a child, my soul is within me

Jeremiah 31: 22 and the Psalm of Mary 131: 1

The child is wearing a Roman robe and a pallium. In his left hand he holds a scroll with the holy laws. The angels are symmetrically arranged on both sides of the throne. In Cimabue’s work, Mary sits with her child on the throne and it immediately becomes clear that she and her child are central to the work. The believer can turn to her in his or her prayer.

Worship of Mary now and in the past
Maria verering

This is also the case in Duccio’s panel. His panel was only attributed to this artist from Siena in the twentieth century. Given the size of the panel, it was probably painted in Florence itself. The transport of such a work, 450 by 292 cm, is not an easy task. In addition, the father of Siena painting used a technique to apply the nimbus clouds that were common in Florence’s studios, but not in Siena. After creating a halo, tools were used in Siena to carve into the gold. In Florence, granules were applied as with engraving.7 Like Cimabue, Duccio starts from the Byzantine prototype, as can be seen from the ovoid face of Mary. Yet Duccio allows himself more freedom The blessing gesture of Duccio’s child is much more spontaneous than that of Cimabue’s child.

Duccio “Enthroned Madonna with Child”
Large size Google Art Project
Duccio "Enthroned Madonna with Child"

Duccio copied a lot from Cimabue, but he did add a number of elements from the Gothic period, such as the bright glossy colours, the undulating contour line, the gold stitched edge on Mary’s garment, which waves along very elastically, and the way in which the seam falls down, gives the blue cloak of Mary its weight.

This renewal was also introduced in Siena after Duccio had made this work. The throne is clearly influenced by the Gothic style north of the Alps. What is also new is that the angels who hold the throne are no longer arranged as one group, but stand apart from each other and look at the Madonna.

The panel by Giotto was probably painted between 1306 and 1310, so about twenty-five years later than the two other works by Duccio and Cimabue, but what a world of difference! This is a revolution in painting. It is for good reason that Giotto has been praised so often. Writers, artists and historians such as Dante, Boccaccio, Ghiberti, the chronicler Giovanni Villani and of course Vasari praise this painter. Khan Academy video: Giotto  Ognissanti Madonna with child (4.04 minutes). Khan Academy video: a comparison between Cimabue’s Santa Trinita Madonna and Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna (6.58 minutes).

Dante describes how Cimabue thought he was at the forefront of painting, but Giotto quickly caught up with him so that the other’s fame quickly disappeared.8 In his Decamerone Boccaccio praises Giotto as follows:

‘The other was called Giotto and was genius at the fact that in all of Nature –  the mother of all things created and maintains this by constantly turning the sky – there was no thing that he could not depict so strikingly with pencil, pen or brush, unless anyone who saw it began to suffer from delusion and took for granted what was actually painted. It was precisely because he had restored this art to its former glory, which had been darkened for centuries by the whining of people who painted before the eyes of the ignorant rather than before the wise men, that one can rightly call him one of the stars of the Florentine firmament, … ‘9

In another one of his works, Boccaccio even compares Giotto to the famous classical painter Apelles.10 The new realism that Giotto introduced into painting after 1300 is what is most praised. This is echoed by all writers, including Ghiberti in his, I Commentarii’: ‘He introduced the new art [of painting]. He rejected the primitive art of the Greeks and became the best [painter] in Etruria.11

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