Cimabue and Giotto compared

Cimabue, Santa Trinita Madonna and Child Enthroned, 1280-1290, tempera on panel, 151 1/2 x 87 3/4″ / 385 x 223 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence); Giotto, The Ognissanti Madonna and Child Enthroned, 1306-10, tempera on panel, 128 x 80 1/4″ / 325 x 204 cm, painted for the Church of Ognissanti, Florence (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)

[0:00] [music]

[0:04] So we were going to do a comparison of two great proto-Renaissance masters, Cimabue and Giotto, and compare them by looking at two paintings of the “Madonna Enthroned,” so exactly the same subject.

[0:17] These are both in the Uffizi in Florence, but originally, of course, they were altar paintings, panels, which are very large. In fact, the Cimabue is…

[0:26] More than 12 feet.

[0:27] …yeah, it’s 12 feet tall. It’s huge. That was so that it could be seen the full distance of the church nave.

[0:32] The Giotto, too, is more than 10 feet high.

[0:34] The Cimabue is a little earlier, and Cimabue is the very first artist that Vasari talks about at the very beginning of this incredible tradition of Italian painting.

[0:43] Cimabue is really seen to make this first step away from a medieval style toward a more human-focused Renaissance style.

[0:51] Yeah, and there’s a lot of controversy and interest in terms of why the Renaissance has its roots at this particular moment in this particular place. I mean, why in Florence and why right here at the end of the 13th century?

[1:04] One of the theories that’s been put forward is pressure that was being felt in the Byzantine Empire to the East by Islam and some of the artists perhaps fleeing the great traditions of the East and coming to Italy, and perhaps prompting it to think beyond the traditions of the medieval.

[1:18] The first thing to say is that this is just a really standard subject that we see all the time: Mary, the mother of Christ, holding the Christ child, surrounded by angels and/or saints and prophets, lots and lots of gold. These are tempera paintings on wooden panels.

[1:31] It’s egg tempera, and it’s using minerals that are suspended in that egg media. It’s good for little lines. It doesn’t blend well, it dries quickly.

[1:39] There’s a really linear aspect to this painting which may in some respects result from the tempera. This is gold that’s been flattened out…

[1:45] Pounded very thin.

[1:45] …it’s a very thin gold leaf. And in fact, even tooled, that is to say patterns have been pounded in to make it even more interesting.

[1:52] And then it’s been glued onto the wooden panel.

[1:54] It’s been burnished and sometimes there’s a clay layer underneath which you can sometimes see, a little reddish, but the gold itself is really meant as this ornamental reflective material that had a symbolic quality in that it was meant to reflect the light of heaven.

[2:07] Neither of these are set in any earthly realm. The flat gold background indicates a kind of divine, heavenly space for these figures to occupy.

[2:15] That makes sense when you look at the Cimabue because the Madonna, for instance…maybe because she’s defined by line…if she stood up, she would be so tall.

[2:24] She would be very elongated and her drapery is defined by line primarily and not as much by modeling from light to dark, although a little bit.

[2:33] There are some distinct medieval or Byzantine elements that are still visible here. Her fingers are very long. Her mouth is very small. The nose is very long, a kind of symbolism of the body, not a representation of a real person so much as a representation of a kind of ideal, heavenly form.

[2:47] The angels are all stacked on top of one other.

[2:50] It’s a good thing they have wings, isn’t it?

[2:51] Yes.

[2:52] What are they standing on?

[2:53] I don’t know, but we do begin to get some sense of the beginnings of an illusion of space in Cimabue.

[2:59] A little bit. She’s got a little modeling under her chin. You’re right, the throne on which she sits does sort of recede.

[3:06] Except, here’s the funny thing, when you look at the throne carefully, it looks as if we’re looking across at the Virgin Mary, but we’re looking down at the seat on which she’s seated. And in some ways, we’re also looking up at her. There’s not a single perspectival point in which the viewer is situated.

[3:20] We have multiple viewpoints. That’s something that, of course, will disappear more than a century later when we get to Brunelleschi in the early Renaissance.

[3:28] But I’m not comfortable with the idea that Cimabue couldn’t do it.

[3:32] No.

[3:34] What about the four figures underneath?

[3:34] It’s interesting that they’re behind there. It does show some illusion of space.

[3:39] It does. It frames them as well.

[3:41] It does. They’re adorable down there, those prophets. You can always tell the prophets because they’re holding scrolls.

[3:47] These are Old Testament prophets.

[3:48] Right, who would’ve predicted the coming of a Messiah, of Christ.

[3:53] Here, in the Catholic tradition, of course, that would’ve been understood as Christ, as you said.

[3:56] Exactly. Let’s look over now at the Giotto. Things have really changed. [The] Madonna just looks so massive and bulky. Look at how her hips and her thighs cover that seat of the throne.

[4:07] Her knee projects forward, her breasts and her knees.

[4:10] Look at how differently the drapery is indicated instead of by these tiny lines.

[4:14] The gold striations.

[4:14] Right. We now have real modeling from light to dark to indicate her knees, and her lap, and even how the drapery pulls across her chest and her breasts.

[4:24] It’s so interesting. Looking back at the Cimabue now, the Madonna looks so thin, almost as if she’s a paper cutout. The Giotto looks so substantial, so solid. It’s also interesting if you compare the angels.

[4:35] In the Cimabue, in the earlier painting, the angels are stacked up. They don’t respond to gravity. They’re also all very similar. There’s an idealized face.

[4:45] If you look at the angels in the Giotto rendering from a few decades later, actually what’s really interesting is Giotto is willing to put the angels in back of each other, even obscuring their faces.

[4:56] The way that they seem to go back behind the throne. He’s peeking his head through in the back there.

[5:02] The prophets aren’t in some impossible basement now.

[5:04] Look at how much more modeling is in her face and in her neck.

[5:07] There’s one aspect of the painting by Giotto that I think is really significant and really interesting. In the Giotto, there’s a very particular single point that the viewer is looking at this from.

[5:18] If you look, for instance, at the steps moving up to the Virgin, you’re looking down at the top of the step, clearly. So you know your eye is above that, but you’re also looking up at the ceiling of the throne, so you’re somewhere in between.

[5:31] That’s true.

[5:31] In fact, you’re looking down at the seat, but you’ll notice that just where the prophets’ chins are, that’s where everything is exactly horizontal. That’s the line at our height. That makes sense because that would put us just below Christ, a nice, humble position.

[5:47] There’s a kind of left-right axis, too, which is to say that I think we can see a little bit more of the right window…

[5:53] A little bit more of the right.

[5:54] …so I think we’re facing Christ.

[5:55] This begins to situate the viewer.

[5:57] This is not linear perspective. It’s almost as though…

[5:59] It’s a more awareness of the human presence in front of the painting.

[6:03] …I think that’s exactly right.

[6:05] One of the things I like to think about is how similar these two images are, despite their differences, and the ways in which the understanding of originality was so entirely different than in our own culture.

[6:17] This is not so much derivative in a negative sense as we might think.

[6:21] In fact, there was a real tradition of the ways that you represent these figures because these are holy figures.

[6:25] That makes sense, and also, this is very universal. This is something that then says…

[6:31] It’s transcendent.

[6:31] …it transcends time. It transcends space.

[6:33] Even within that, Giotto is still creating this new image because, obviously, things are beginning to change in the early 1300s.

[6:40] He must be responding to cultural changes, that is, putting an emphasis on the here and now…

[6:44] And on the human.

[6:45] …in a way that will, of course, blossom into the Renaissance.

[6:47] Exactly.

[6:47] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Cimabue and Giotto compared," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed April 20, 2024,