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Cimabue, Santa Trinita Madonna

Cimabue, Maesta of Santa Trinita, 1280-1290, tempera on panel, 151 1/2 x 87 3/4" (385 x 223 cm), Uffizi, Florence Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(soft jazzy music) - [Steven] We're in the Uffizi in Florence looking at a really tall painting. This is the Madonna and Child Enthroned by Cimabue, sometimes known as the Santa Trinita Madonna, and that's because it was commissioned by a confraternity that was associated with the Church of Santa Trinita in Florence. - [Beth] When you walk into this room, you are confronted with three enormous images of the Virgin and Child Enthroned, similar in many ways, but also different in many ways. - [Steven] All three panel paintings are enormous. The Virgin Mary is seated on a throne. The Christ child is seated on her lap on her left side and he's shown blessing in each of the three images. Now there's a reason that these are similar. The painting that we're looking at by Cimabue may have been commissioned by this confraternity for lay people. These are people who were probably excluded from the most sacred part of the church and were intent with paintings like this on creating a spiritual focus within the more public part of the church that they could occupy. And they wanted a painting very much like a painting that had recently been produced for another confraternity, that is Duccio's Rucellai Madonna. - [Beth] There was a sense of competition. One of the obvious things that makes this painting different to me is that here, the Virgin Mary, instead of holding Christ with her right hand, gestures toward him to say this is our Savior, this is the path to salvation. - [Steven] But Mary is the largest figure, and this is a reflection of her increasing importance at the end of the medieval period, what is often referred to as the cult of the Virgin Mary. In France and Italy, Mary is increasingly seen as the intercessor, as a bridge to Christ. Christ was too aloof, too powerful, but Mary was seen as more accessible. - [Beth] There was a way in which we could appeal to Mary in order to have Christ hear our prayers. - [Steven] Christ seems to be responding to our prayers. His fingers are in the position of blessing. He holds with his other hand a scroll, a reference perhaps to the Old Testament, to the ancient Judaic tradition. - [Beth] To the idea that the Old Testament prophets had prophesied the coming of a Savior for mankind and Christ is understood as that Savior. - [Steven] And that's why Cimabue's paints four Old Testament prophets at the bottom of this painting. - [Beth] And we recognize them as prophets because they hold scrolls. - [Steven] The stylization of the human body and of the throne of the forms in general, what we're seeing is an adaptation of the style of the East, of the Byzantine, the long fingers, the impossibly long body. But here, we're at this critical moment in Italy where there's an increasing interest in bringing the spiritual down to earth. - [Beth] While we do have a sense that the throne is somewhat three-dimensional, the angels move back behind the throne, so we do have a sense of a foreground and a little bit of a background. And if we look closely at the gold, it gives us a sense of the folds of the drapery. - [Steven] I see that especially around her forehead. Look at the way that there seem to be folds that crease in and out, where highlights of gold alternate with recessionary areas in shadow. - [Beth] And I see it especially around her knees, her lap, her belly. - [Steven] But all of those gold striations are also highly decorative, so there is a kind of conflict. There are these efforts at creating a sense of dimension, a sense of volume, a sense of even mass. At the same time, there are aspects of this painting that work against that, that create a sense of two-dimensionality. And what we'll see as we move from Cimabue to his most famous student, Giotto, is an increasing interest in favoring illusionism. - [Beth] What we're seeing here in the late 1200s and in the 1300s is the birth of a new kind of painting in Western Europe, this influence from the Byzantine, from the East, the increasing naturalism that we see in Gothic sculpture coming together in Italy, creating divine figures who are newly accessible to us. (soft jazzy music)