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Cimabue’s Crucifix

The Basilica of San Domenico houses one of the most precious works of medieval art history and one of the unmissable stops for those visiting Arezzo’s artistic heritage: the “Crucifix” by Cenni di Pepo, better known as Cimabue.

The work, datable to 1265-71, is considered the youthful masterpiece of Giotto’s master, indicated by Giorgio Vasari as the first great innovator of western painting.

The imposing cross shaped and painted in tempera and oil on wood proposes the iconography of the “Christus patiens”, with eyes closed, head resting on the shoulder, body arched to the left and marked musculature, although the anatomy is less simplified than in previous examples and the chiaroscuro helps to increase volume and three-dimensionality.

The work has always been considered akin to Giunta Pisano’s great “Crucifixion” made for the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna, a point of reference for painters who tackled the theme of the crucifixion from the mid XIII century onwards. The artist was in fact the first Italian to depict Christ suffering and with his eyes locked on the cross, rather than with his eyes open and triumphant, as was typical of Byzantine tradition. At the same time, Giunta Pisano had Jesus’ body bent to the left, emphasising the sense of torment.

With his shaped panel, Cimabue was able to take a further step forward, leading his art away from the Byzantine pictorial language, in favour of a greater realism and expressionism that his apprentices later developed decisively.

The Crucifix in the Basilica of San Domenico presents the figures of the two “mourners” at half-length at the ends of the horizontal arm of the cross. Both – the Madonna on the left and St. John the Evangelist on the right – rest their heads in their hands in sign of suffering.  The thin golden streaks of their robes are an expedient to increase their luminosity.

Above the head of Jesus, in the cymatium, one can read the classic Latin inscription  “Hic est Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum”, or “This is Jesus Nazarene King of the Jews”, usually abbreviated to I.N.R.I.. Above is the circular clipse, with the blessing Christ, still portrayed in half-length.

The part of the moulded panel from the chest to the calves is enriched with a refined geometric motif. There are no figures at the base of the cross, only the red rivulets of blood falling from the wounds caused in the feet by the nails. The red of passion is also evoked by the colour of the loincloth.

The colours used by the Tuscan master in his early work are brilliant. With his intense work, Cimabue aimed to stimulate the viewer’s emotions, heightening their sense of compassion and participation in Christ’s pain. It is no coincidence that the panel was commissioned by the Dominican friars, who together with the Franciscans and other mendicant orders born in the thirteenth century advocated a more humanised religiosity.

The church, in Gothic style, has an asymmetrical masonry facade which includes a bell tower with two bells. The interior has a single nave with a trussed roof and receives light from 12 single-lancet windows (6 on each side) whose mutual distance decreases as one approaches the apse, thus giving a greater sense of depth to the hall. The internal pictorial decoration dates back to the second half of the fourteenth century and was created by Spinello Aretino and his son Parri di Spinello. The construction work began in 1275 and ended in the 14th century, however, in January 1276, the church hosted what was the first conclave in history for the Church of Rome.