The first time that I stood beneath Cimabue’s powerful depiction of Christ on the cross in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy, I was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed with grief and with hope.
What could cause one to simultaneously feel these conflicting emotions? Cimabue’s crucifix has an amazing story to tell.
Cimabue was one of the most important artists of the 13th century. Born around 1240, he began to break away from the Italian Byzantine style that had dominated Christian art in prior decades.
His crucifix, which hangs in Santa Croce, was probably painted around 1272. It is a magnificent piece of tempera on wood measuring 14′ 3″ X 12′ 7″. Today it stands alone and powerful under dramatic lighting.
Prior Italian Byzantine depictions of Christ on the cross presented a flattened, abstract figure showing little emotion. Cimabue’s Santa Croce Christ appears more natural and human. His body is softer and more fluid. Blood flows from his hands and feet. His arms are stretched out straight rather that sagging as in other depictions, helping to give the appearance of a floating figure. His hip touches the apron of the frame of the cross, as do his feet, giving the figure dimension and life. There is an elegance to his pose and his face is completely at peace. How can a painting that evokes so much peaceful emotion come to be a sign of tragedy?
Cimabue’s crucifix had survived nearly 700 years of floods and war. It had suffered some flood damage in 1333 and in 1557. During World War II, it was removed from Florence for protection. But on November 4th, 1966 the Arno River swelled and exploded beyond its’ banks, pouring gushing water and muck onto the city of Florence. It was the most devastating flood since Cimabue had painted the masterpiece crucifix. Thousands of pieces of art and manuscripts were destroyed or damaged in the mighty flood. The Crucifix of Cimabue was one of the most damaged, and – aside from the tragic loss of lives – was probably the most precious casualty of the flood.
Nearly twenty feet of water filled Santa Croce and the magnificent Christ was covered in the mixture of water, mud and oil up to the nimbus. The cross was so soaked that it grew by 3″ and doubled in weight. Over 60% of its’ paint was lost – washed away and peeling. The wood was cracked and mold was growing. Cimabue’s suffering Christ was now suffering what appeared to be nearly irreparable damage.
This is the tragedy-now where is the hope? Enter gli Angeli dei Fango–the Mud Angels. Because of the fact that Florence holds such a wealth of the world’s beautiful art, the world came together to help clean up and restore the city and its’ treasures. Volunteers poured into the city and they became known as the Mud Angels. Some of them waded through the water around the crucifix and picked up pieces of paint with pliers.
There was much controversy over restoration techniques and which to use on the piece. It was finally decided to repaint it using a technique known as trattegio – a kind of hatching technique using a fine brush. It took years for the crucifix to dry out and return to its’ original size and weight. It was not returned to public viewing until ten years later in 1976.
While the tragedy of Cimabue’s crucifix is heartbreakingly evident, the hope lies in the fact that it represents the coming together of so many souls and minds in an effort to restore it to its’ original glory. Today, the damage is extremely visible, but the energy and beauty that the piece emits are undeniable. It is a beautiful symbol of survival and a combination of the talent of a 13th century master with the technology of the modern era and the passion of people who love the art of Florence with all of their hearts.