Cimabue’s Corpus

Cimabue and the Franciscans

by Holly Flora
2019 Harvey Miller Publishers, 287 pages, $150.00
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Holly Flora has written an intelligent and insightful book about the thirteenth-century painter Cimabue. Most of his known works were for Franciscan churches, including Santa Croce in Florence and the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. Flora, a dean in the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University, examines his extant work in light of Franciscan history, theology, and science.

Cimabue’s paintings in the vault of the upper church of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi were damaged in the 1997 earthquake. Photo:

The Upper Church

Her most impressive observations and analyses deal with the horribly damaged frescoes in the transept and apse of the upper church in Assisi. Much of the damage was self-inflicted by the painter, though unintentionally, due to his extensive use of white lead and the fact that he painted on largely dry walls. (One fourth of the vault over the high altar was destroyed by the 1997 earthquake.)

Flora makes a convincing argument that Cimabue’s use of white lead was an attempt to introduce to painting the new aesthetic of light that Saint Francis introduced through his rejoicing in natural light (Brother Sun) as well as his belief that Christ was the light of the world. Beginning shortly after Francis’ death in 1226, friars, especially in England, were studying and explaining light in new ways.

She also relates the main themes of the transept and apse frescoes to elements of the Franciscan mission and Franciscan theology. These frescoes have been much written about because of the importance of the basilica in Assisi, but Flora’s analysis makes them central to understanding the overall themes of the upper and lower churches in Assisi and will force some, like me, who have been studying the church for almost fifty years to bring our binoculars and notebooks and her book with us on our next journey to Assisi.

The other most important chapter of this book focuses on Cimabue’s extraordinary cross in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence, which was also badly damaged in modern times, in this case by the 1966 flooding of the Arno. Her analysis of how Cimabue takes a Franciscan “invention,” showing Jesus dead on the cross, and deepens the specifically Franciscan understanding of the crucifixion as well as of light and the human body, is a major advancement of understanding the Franciscans as well as the art they commissioned and countless works that were influenced by it.

There were narratives of Francis’ life painted to surround a large image of the saint as early as 1235 (Bonaventura Berlinghieri in San Francesco, Pescia), only nine years after Francis’ death and seven after his canonization. Surprisingly, she fails to mention Berlinghieri’s work which profoundly shaped the tradition she discusses in works from Florence (Santa Croce), Pisa (Pinacoteca), and the Vatican Museum.

Flora provides an analysis of all Cimabue’s surviving works and of works for which we have only descriptions or contracts. This makes the volume more complete for people who want a complete view of Cimabue, whom Giorgio Vasari sees as the first artist to break from a purely Byzantine style and thus take that first, sometimes tentative step, toward what became the great developments of the Renaissance.

She is able to look freshly at works, including those not done for Franciscans, in order to give friars, scholars, and lovers of medieval art a new way of viewing Cimabue’s corpus. Furthermore, those who study the next generation of painters, especially Giotto, will gain new insights about what they learned from Cimabue and how they moved his innovations forward.

On occasion, Flora’s analysis goes beyond the evidence. I am not persuaded of what she calls, “ocular communion,” for example. The photographs are excellent and high quality, some printed as many as three times so one does not have to hunt for works discussed in multiple chapters. Holly Flora’s work will soon enter into all serious subsequent discussion of Cimabue and of thirteenth-century Italian painting.