In 2019, a small painting found in the kitchen of an elderly Frenchwoman sold at auction for almost 27 million dollars. The high price reflects the work’s rarity; it is one of only 11 works attributed to the Florentine artist Cimabue (ca. 1240–1301), cited by Dante and celebrated by Vasari as the harbinger of Italian Renaissance painting. Painted with bright tempera and shimmering gold leaf, it depicts a scene of incredible violence. A captive Christ stands in the center of a city, surrounded by angry men who strike him with sticks and swords.
About the size of a piece of typing paper, the painting is a fragment of a larger work. During the 18th and 19th centuries, old Italian gold-ground paintings featuring multiple scenes were frequently cut apart and sold to Grand Tourists and collectors. Miraculously, there are two known surviving panels from the same work: a Flagellation (Frick Collection) and Virgin and Child Enthroned (National Gallery, London).
In their original, intact state, these might have formed part of a small diptych used for personal meditation on Christ’s life, a practice described in devotional literature of the period. Around 1300, a Franciscan friar composed the Meditations on the Life of Christ for a nun in his spiritual care, telling her, “Sister, you must place yourself in the presence of whatever is related as having been said or done by the Lord Jesus, as if you were hearing it with your own ears and seeing it with your own eyes, giving it your total mental response.”
The reader of Meditations was also encouraged to become involved emotionally in the stories recounted, weeping alongside the Virgin Mary, for example. Narrative images such as the Cimabue panels likewise invited viewers to experience the life of Christ intimately and personally, the ultimate goal being mystical union with Christ, maybe even the kind that Francis of Assisi attained when he received the stigmata, Christ’s wounds expressed in his own flesh.
With its highly unusual take on the traditional iconography of the Mocking of Christ, the newly discovered Cimabue panel fits perfectly with the vivid contemplative mode described in the Meditations. Like many of the anecdotes described in the Meditations, this public humiliation is an imagined moment, implied but not described in the biblical accounts. Typically, artists of the period depicted the scene of Christ’s Mocking in an interior setting, with Christ seated, blindfolded, receiving insults and blows from his torturers in a private space. Here, instead, Christ is jostled and jeered at through a city square.
The viewer is therefore urged to imagine herself witnessing Christ’s psychological suffering as well as his physical pain. Nearly invisible now, but confirmed by technical analyses, a blindfold originally covered Christ’s eyes. Cimabue’s presentation of the Mocking in an outdoor setting therefore underscores the torture of Christ’s disorientation. Unable to see, he cannot know where he is being led or from where or whom the next strike or insult will come.
Implied here is another lesson for the late medieval Christian viewer, a lesson on sight and faith. Christ remains calm in the midst of the chaos, accepting his fate despite the fact that he cannot see what will come next. During the 13th century, new scientific theories about how vision works, including ones formed by the Franciscan Roger Bacon, prompted greater theological emphasis on the importance and limits of sight, and the primacy of faith over it. Contemplating Christ’s blindness here, a viewer then would be at once invited into his human suffering and inspired by his faith, perhaps recalling the letter to the Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.”1
Far from being an outdated or purely religious idea, “the evidence of things that appear not” drives much of our modern life. Art historians and collectors rely on evidence, but not proof, that this is indeed a work by Cimabue, since no documentation or signature exist. Faith gives us hope too, that more fragments of this fractured work might someday be found.
- Hebrews 11:1, Douay-Rheims version.