Why was Cimabue so Important?

A Medieval-style painting of the Madonna sitting on a golden throne holding the Christ child. She is surrounded by four angels on either side, and below her throne there are four bearded men in robes. Golden halos surround the heads of each figure in the painting.

Maestà di Santa Trinità (1280–1285), Cimabue

Reader question: “Consider explaining how or why Cimabue is considered important—what were his influences on art and WHY was he considered great? Why is this perfectionist trait important? Did his pride influence others?” – asked by Eric

Cimabue was an Italian (more specifically, a Florentine) painter who was active in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, right before the Renaissance period started. As you correctly write, he is considered to be a very important figure in European art history. If I were to explain why, I would say that it’s for these two main reasons:

  1. He was the teacher of Giotto, considered to be the first truly great Renaissance painter, and
  2. He is seen as a kind of “transitional” artist between the Medieval and the Renaissance periods.

You’re also correct in that there are anecdotes suggesting that he was a “haughty and proud” artist who would destroy his work if there were any flaws in it. Before explaining why that legacy is so important, though, let’s look at why being Giotto’s teacher is such a big deal.

The Renaissance and Giorgio Vasari

First, let’s talk about the Renaissance for a quick minute, because Cimabue’s importance hinges on our understandings of what “the Renaissance” actually is. The word “Renaissance” means rebirth. It was a period in European art history from the 14th – 17th centuries, when art was “reborn” after the Medieval period. The Renaissance was characterised by a rediscovery of Classical art and philosophy, and a move towards more naturalistic (realistic) art. Our traditional understanding of the Renaissance is based on the idea that Classical art (from Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome) was the pinnacle of artistic achievement, and that Medieval art was a dip in quality. This is, of course, based on highly subjective ideas of what “great art” is.

The Italian writer Giorgio Vasari, often called the first art historian, was the first writer to use the word “Renaissance” to describe this period in his 1550 bookThe Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. In this book, he established and popularised the idea that Medieval art was inferior to the art of the Renaissance. He created a narrative wherein 16th century Renaissance art – that is, the art of his own time – was the culmination of a period of evolution that started in the 14th century (the “Low Renaissance”) and ended in the 16th century (the “High Renaissance”). Since he was from Florence, he also emphasised that Florentine painters were the ones who spearheaded this evolution, mostly ignoring artists from the rest of Europe and other areas of Italy.

A painting depicting a crucifix. Jesus, clad in a loose loincloth and with a halo around his head, is spread out with his arms out on the crucifix, symbolising his crucifiction.

Santa Croce Crucifix (1287 – 88), Cimabue

This narrative – based on the ideas of this one art historian – actually still forms the fundamental basis of our understanding of the Renaissance today. It’s a big reason why two of the most famous artists of all time, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, were 16th century Florentine painters. It’s also a big reason why Cimabue is considered important and, believe it or not, it’s a big reason why his infamous pride is considered to be important too.

Cimabue and Giotto di Bondone

A bright and colourful fresco depicting a scene from the Bible. Jesus, symbolised as the only figure with a golden halo, is standing in the middle of a large crowd holding wooden poles and torches, clearly angry. He is being held by another man to stop him moving.

Kiss of Judas at Scrovegni Chapel (1304–06), Giotto di Bondone

Part of Cimabue’s importance comes from the fact that he was Giotto’s teacher. Giotto di Bondone was a Florentine painter and architect who is generally considered to be the first great Renaissance painter. Giotto’s widely understood greatness comes from the fact that his art was naturalistic, moving away from the supposed awkwardness of earlier, less realistic examples of European art. His figures have been praised for having form and weight as well as realistically detailed faces and expressions. He is also known for his more realistic perspective, making use of the vanishing point. He is famous for his bright and colourful frescoes.

So Giotto is famous, and Cimabue, being his teacher, is famous through association. (Some art historians dispute the claim that Cimabue was Giotto’s teacher, by the way.) More than this, however, Cimabue plays an important art historical role in emphasising the linear evolution narrative of the Renaissance. This narrative generally starts with Giotto, in the Low Renaissance, whose work is considered to be the first step in the evolution towards High Renaissance. Cimabue is the important “transitional” step in this evolution, bridging the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

Vasari, for example, wrote that Cimabue was, “in one sense, the principal cause of the renewal of painting”. Cimabue’s art, while still influenced by the Italo-Byzantine style, was in many ways more naturalistic than other examples of Medieval art. He was also clearly an influence on many other Italian artists at the time, such as Duccio di Buoninsegna. His works are therefore said to showcase the ongoing evolution of Italian art.

Two paintings, side by side, of the Madonna on a throne with the Christ child. The painting on the left is the Cimabue painting from the very beginning of this article. The painting on the right is by Giotto. It also depicts the Madonna on a golden throne surrounded by angels, with an additional two angels kneeling at her feet. Compared to Giotto's unrealistic, Medieval-style painting, this work is more realistically painted.

Cimabue’s Madonna (left) is often compared with Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna (c. 1310) (right) to illustrate the differences in style between the two, positioning Giotto’s work as an evolution from Cimabue’s more Italo-Byzantine style.

So what does Cimabue’s alleged pride have to do with this? Well, his reported failings allow Giotto to be considered as an even greater artist. Vasari, again, greatly contributed to this idea, writing: “Giotto truly eclipsed Cimabue’s fame just as a great light eclipses a much smaller one.”

Following along with this narrative, Cimabue is sometimes depicted as a great artist who was thwarted by the immense artistic revolution caused by Giotto’s art. The poet Dante, for example, in Canto XI of his Purgatario, writes:

Here, we can see the characterisation of Cimabue as a proud man, who “thought he held the field” due to the “vanity of human powers”. It is, of course, entirely possible that Cimabue really was a proud and haughty perfectionist. His name, Cimabue, is said by some to be a nickname meaning “bull headed”. Vasari also describes how Cimabue was so proud that he would destroy his work if he found it flawed in any way, which could very well be true. This behaviour, however, can also be seen in other artists – Monet, for example – without it becoming one of their lasting legacies. I’d argue that the reason Cimabue’s alleged pride is so important in art history is that is makes Giotto’s artistic achievements even more triumphant. In many ways, the figure of Cimabue stands in for the older artistic establishment as a whole, being blindsided by this new, “reborn” art.

Cimabue and Giotto were both amazing painters, without a doubt. It’s useful, however, to remember that history is an incredibly subjective thing. Our understandings of art history will always be influenced by historians, such as Vasari, who recorded history according to their own ideas. Looking at how and why Cimabue is considered important can really illuminate this.