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Between Human and Divine: Cimabue and the Santa Trinita Maestà

  • Between Human and Divine: Cimabue and the Santa Trinita Maestà

    What was a sacred image supposed to communicate to a man of the Middle Ages?

    Between Human and Divine: Cimabue and the Santa Trinita Maestà
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    The Santa Trinita Maestà, 1290-1300

    This large panel (3.85 m x 2.23 m) was created by Cimabue in around 1300 for the Vallumbrosan Order of the Church of Santa Trinita, where according to Vasari it was placed on the main altar.

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    The painting within the Uffizi collection

    In 1810, it was moved to the Accademia Gallery in Florence, before finally coming to the Uffizi in 1919. The original monumental frame was lost in the nineteenth century and replaced by a painted and gilded moulding.

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    The Maestà in Medieval art

    The paintings known as "Maestà" (Italian for "Virgin Mary sitting on a throne") are large vertical panels, generally cuspidate. The form spread throughout central Italy between Umbria and Tuscany in the latter half of the thirteenth century as major architectural transformations began to affect mendicant churches and cathedrals.

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    The model of Byzantine icons

    Mary presents the Child to the faithful: this formula is derived from a Byzantine icon called the Hodegetria, meaning "she who shows the way". The Child's pose is typical – He is turned towards His Mother, with one leg bent so as to show the sole of His right foot.

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    The golden background

    The golden background alludes to the divine light of the face of God, and serves the purpose of placing this sacred scene in a different dimension, outside of earthly time and space. The background and halos were decorated using punches.

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    The gilding on the robes of the Virgin and Child was added using a traditional Byzantine technique called "agemina", from the Latin "ad gemina metalla" ("with two metals"). This indicates gilding using two filaments.

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    The innovation of Cimabue's pictorial language

    Cimabue offers up some novel aspects also seen in the work of Giotto, breaking with the rigid traditions of Byzantine art. The facial expressions are endearing and the faces themselves, shaped with a delicately-shaded chiaroscuro, show a hint of a smile.

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    The meaning of the throne

    The grandiose throne is reminiscent of the Tuscan churches of the time, covered in marble and decorated with mosaics. The central perspective suggests an inhabitable space housing the Mother of the Church and the Prophets in the bays formed by the arches.

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    Symbolism of Old Testament Prophets

    The Old Testament Prophets are symbolically placed at the base of the painting, acting as the foundation for the New Testament. Within their scrolls, Jeremiah, Abraham, David and Isaiah allude to the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Virginity of Mary.

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    Giorgio Vasari's praise

    In that work, at great pains to respond to the fame already attributed to him, he showed more invention, and a fine approach to the disposition of Our Lady, who he shows with her Son in her arms, surrounded by many angels who venerate her in a field of gold.” (Giorgio Vasari, "The Life of Cimabue")

Between Human and Divine: Cimabue and the Santa Trinita Maestà

What was a sacred image supposed to communicate to a man of the Middle Ages?

The Uffizi displays in a single room three imposing Maestà (i.e. “Virgin Mary sitting on a throne”) painted between the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries by three preeminent masters of the time: Duccio, Cimabue and Giotto. For those who enter that room the overview of the three impressive works is striking and moving. The astounding size and the iconicity of the figures cannot but raise, even in the most distracted and hasty visitors, that sense of awe and respect for the sacred and the divine, which was indeed a prominent part of Medieval culture. In Byzantine tradition, icons are sacred images where form and symbol coincide, which is a medium to reach closer to the Divine, in other words, the very link between man and God. Their execution needed a lot of time, and artists used to prepare themselves to paint through fasts and prayers. The considerable sizes of the Maestà make us assume that those panels, like crosses, used to be set very high, facing the people so that they could be seen also from afar, turning out to be the visual focuses of the whole church or cathedral they were placed in.  

Today, thanks to modern technologies, we are able to watch those paintings from a privileged point of view, lingering on details, gold stampings, transparencies and topcoats that artists executed and dedicated to God, and which the churchgoers were not able to perceive from afar.  

This virtual tour aims at closely analyzing the Santa Trinita Maestà, a late work of the most important painter of Central Italy in the second half of the 13th century: Cenni di Pepo known as Cimabue. In that work, he reckons with the innovations brought about by his illustrious pupil Giotto and succeeded in blending them with the Byzantine-like old tradition, which was the root his art sprouted up from.     

So let’s get closer to ancient art with the modern eye provided by digital technology, and let’s re-discover symbols and meanings of religious art, which at one time were so familiar to the common man of the Middle Ages.


Curated by Patrizia Naldini

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