A Momentous Reunion at the Frick

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The New York Sun

Cimabue’s masterpiece “The Flagellation of Christ” (c. 1280), a painting in tempera and gold leaf on panel roughly 10 inches high by eight inches wide, has been, since its acquisition in 1950, one of the crown jewels of the Frick Collection. Now “The Flagellation” has been reunited at the Frick with Cimabue’s “The Virgin and Child Enthroned With Two Angels” (c. 1280). On loan from London’s National Gallery, “The Virgin and Child” is also in tempera and gold leaf and the same size as “The Flagellation.” Both pictures, it was confirmed six years ago, are not only Cimabues but were once parts of the same larger panel or ensemble, perhaps an altarpiece that was made up of six or more scenes from the Life of Christ. Their reunion in New York, the first public exhibition of the two paintings together in this country, is a momentous event and cause for celebration.

“The Flagellation” and “The Virgin and Child” are part of “Cimabue and Early Italian Devotional Painting,” a tiny exhibition that packs a wallop of a punch. The handful of other works in the show, which was curated by Holly Flora and is installed in the Frick’s intimate Cabinet Gallery, are on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Morgan Library and Museum. The ancillary objects — early Italian devotional panel paintings, manuscript leaves, and a reliquary diptych — are very fine works of art; but, compared to the two Cimabues, they are mere icing on the cake, providing art historical precedent and context for a work of art that is just beginning to be known.

The Florentine painter Cenni di Pepo (c. 1240–1302) is better known by his nickname Cimabue, which translates as “ox head” or “dehorner of oxen.” This could be a reference to his proud and arrogant manner or to his ability to slay lesser artists and to lead. In any event, Cimabue, the most admired and famous Central Italian painter of his day, is the pinnacle of the Medieval, Italo-Byzantine tradition and an essential bridge that led to the naturalism of Giotto (c. 1277–1337).

Legend has it that Cimabue discovered the boy Giotto drawing a sheep on a rock and, duly impressed, took him under his wing as his apprentice. The first modern artist, Giotto put Christ and the Virgin on earthin our space and with our feelings, an act that in art almost singlehandedly launched the Renaissance. Cimabue, though not as innovative (think of him as Cézanne to Giotto’s Picasso) was one of the greatest of 13th-century painters. His paintings in the Upper Basilica of San Francesco of Assisi, though in disrepair and damaged in the 1997 earthquake, make up one of the most complete and important fresco cycles made in Italy before Michelangelo’s “Sistine Ceiling.” Cimabue’s fame and his “hold in the field of painting,” as recorded by Dante in “The Divine Comedy,” were eclipsed only by Giotto himself.

There are only six extant small panel paintings by Cimabue. We have long known him as the master of the large. Now we are beginning to get to know him also as a master of the small. And the story of how Cimabue’s “The Virgin and Child” resurfaced is the stuff art historians must lie awake at night fantasizing about. It gives hope to all of us who scrabble through bins of junk looking for that rare item.

In 2000, while cataloging a group of pictures from an estate in a Palladian villa in Suffolk, England, Sotheby’s employees came across a small painting of an unidentified Madonna. Thinking it might be by Cimabue, Richard Carlton-Jones, a specialist in old masters at Sotheby’s, contacted the curator of early Italian paintings at London’s National Gallery, Dillian Gordon. At first Ms. Gordon hesitated, as she was leaving for Italy the next day and did not want to take time to consider yet another Italian picture found under a staircase. But, when Mr. Carlton-Jones told her the painting might instead go to New York, she made time to see the picture that afternoon.

After diligent research, and looking for clues, Ms. Gordon noticed that the transparent cloth in the “Virgin and Child” was similar to Christ’s loincloth in Cimabue’s “St. Croce Crucifix.” Later, she compared the panel to a picture of the Frick’s “Flagellation.” Eureka! A few months later she was in New York, looking at both pictures side by side. Further tests of the paint and wood supports proved that the paintings were in fact separate scenes from the same panel. Of course the questions remain: How many scenes were there originally: six, eight, a dozen? And, more important, under whose stairs are they hiding? For now, at least, we will have to be content with the two works at the Frick.

Looking at both pictures side by side, one of the first things you will notice is that “The Flagellation,” which has been cleaned of its varnish, is brighter and more colorful than “The Virgin and Child,” whose pink and violet angels would have echoed the clothing worn by the figures flanking Christ in “The Flagellation.”

“The Virgin and Child Enthroned,” even in its dim light, reveals the genius of Cimabue. The Virgin, both weighty and diaphanous, is wedged straight down into the throne, as she also floats on her pillow like a deep blue translucent mist. The flanking angels appear to stand in the same plane of depth as one another and the Virgin; but then, as if shoved behind Christ, the Virgin, and the throne, they also feel suddenly locked back, held to the gold plane.The gold plane, in interaction with the angled splaying throne, acts almost as swinging doors that shut off and enclose mother and Son. Christ, in turn, floats above his mother’s knee, and his halo also snaps forward in space, as if he is being pulled toward us and away from the Madonna.

“The Flagellation,” a scene from the Passion, depicts Christ as the center vertical support in the painting. He is stripped to his transparent loincloth, tied to a pole, and flanked by his two whip-wielding tormentors. But Cimabue makes it subtly clear who in this story ultimately has the upper hand. Christ’s arm cuts through the pole, as if he could easily break away. And again the artist creates a malleable space in the gold leaf, a reflective plane that, though visible in our world, belongs to the realm of heaven. Cimabue forces Christ diagonally back, as if he is leaning into the gold and out of harm’s way, and he pulls the torturers to the front of the picture, to our space. The artist even has the figure touching Christ’s hip look as if he is groping at him or pushing him back, rather than holding him captive.

Cimabue also makes their flailing weapons inert. The figure to Christ’s right, seems to have pushed his own whip through his head, as if blinded and impaled with a spike. The whip then bends back in space, as if held diagonally by the side wall of the building. To Christ’s left, the whip, also angled oddly in space, is wedged between the distant architectural pillars. Both buildings, splaying outward like the Virgin’s throne in the companion panel, rise, tilt forward, and lock the tormentors in place. In a beautiful and fluid dance, the whips appear to be flowing together in a one-two rhythm; but, held at an angle to one another and diagonally to Christ’s space, they dance in a realm that is forever behind or in front of the Savior.

The Cimabue ensemble is as yet incomplete, and we cannot look at this mysterious dance by flickering candlelight, as devotees would have done in the 13th century. Thanks to the Frick, however, while we wait for the remaining panels to surface, we can still experience part of the mystery.

Until December 31 (1 E. 70th St., between Fifth and Madison avenues, 212-288-0700).

The New York Sun

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