The crucifix by Cimabue

The Crucifix by Cimabuetells the whole world about the extraordinary artistic wealth of Arezzo. The fame of this work would justify a stay in the city. Whether it is just a stopover or the main reason for your visit, the Crucifix by Cimabue is worth the trip.

In front of this work, which is safeguarded in the extraordinary Basilica of San Domenico,you will find yourself in the presence of a revolutionary masterpiece from the Thirteenth century.

Chiesa di san Domenico
Chiesa di san Domenico

The History of the Crucifix

In the upper part of the old city centre, in one of the more silent and magical squares of the city, theBasilica of San Domenicowelcomes you to enter.Cross the great nave covered by an imposing ceiling with wooden trusses up to the presbytery. The Crucifix by Cimabue, suspended in space, is there.

According to historians, Cimabue would have finished this wooden cross, which has never left the Basilica of San Domenico, between 1265 and 1271. The black and white stripes, which decorate the edges of the central chapel, behind the main altar, enhance and highlight the work by the Florentine painter.

Some time ago, it was believed that the suffering Christ of the Basilica of San Domenico was the work by Margaritone of Arezzo. Now the majority of experts claim that this is the first creation by Cimabue. Moreover, it is the oldest existing creation of this master of Florence and over seven centuries have passed since the artist, still young at the time, completed it.

The splendor which you see today is the result of two restorations, carried out in 1917 and 2005. The blue of the windows behind the cross and the warm colors of the work give life to a strong contrast. You are about to immerse yourself in the secrets of this masterpiece.

The most famous cross in Arezzo, briefly explained

Whether it is the first visit or you have already seen it, the Crucifix by Cimabue will always be a good reason to enter the Basilica of San Domenico. Seriously, you cannot give up looking at this work.

The cross with its unique shape has the figures of the Madonna and Saint John, which are painted at the end of the horizontal arm. Both the Virgin and the Saint mourn Jesus, who has his head hanging to one side, in a sorrowful pose. Cimabue inserted small golden strips on their robesin order to make them look brighter.

Above the Crucifix you will see the image of blessing Christ within a circle. The Latin text which you read below means: “This is Jesus from Nazareth, king of the Jews”.

Look down at the central section, which contains the torso and legs of Christ, embellished by a geometric pattern. The base of the vertical axis of the cross was left free except for the feet of the Savior.


The “Brothers” of the Crucifix by Cimabue in Florence and  Bologna

Did this work at first glance remind you of any other art work? You may have thought of the Crucifix in  Santa Croce, which Cimabue painted for the homonymous Basilica in Florence.

The Florentine work is bigger than the one in Arezzo and the artist finished it after the work in the Basilica of San Domenico. Unfortunately, the flood of 1966 irreversibly damaged the Florentine “twin” of the Crucifix in Arezzo.

It seems that the model to which the master was inspired is instead in Bologna, in the Basilica of San Domenico. This time the work is by Giunta Pisano.

The affinities between the two crucifixes underline the bond between the churches of the same order, but you will recognize that the Christ on the Cross by Cimabue has greater expressiveness because it is the character of Jesus who reveals the essence of this crucifix.

Unique for humanity

The colors of the Crucifix by Cimabue are so charged and shiny that they seem to have their own life. Look at the hot ones, especially red, the color of passion. Firstly,  your eyes will be drawn by the cloth which surrounds the body of Christ and secondly by the blood which comes out of his hands and feet pierced by nails.

 Jesus on the cross is a person, not a divinity. The Florentine painter chose the iconography of the suffering Christ encouraged by the Franciscans and gave an amazing turn to the history of art. The language, which was affirmed by the Byzantine tradition, is deeply renewed by this Crucifix: Jesus suffers just like a real man.

Gaze through the profile of the bones coming out of the chest. The abdomen resembles armor. Especially, this body area of the Nazarene has an evident three-dimensionality in the painting (but the hands are an exception, indeed they are very flat).

A use of chiaroscuro, which was never seen before Cimabue’s time, creates a visceral empathy between you and the painted Christ. This skilled Tuscan master obtained it with fine and dark lines, which are parallel to each other.

Slowly become familiar with the jewel in front of you and admire the innovations created by the artist. The chest is a bit disproportionate to express the suffering. The torsion of the body tells you the force of gravity and the physical torture of crucifixion. The hair and the beard are perhaps the most realistic detail of all, they are able to give silkiness even to the wood covered with tempera.

Within Jesus is a pain that you feel almost in yourself. Cimabue transmits it to you with the wrinkles of the face, the eyelids closed and the position of the head slumped on the shoulder. Before a Christ who seems truly human like you, you will find yourself engulfed by a sense of deep commonality.

This is the power of the universal beauty. Come to Arezzo  and let yourself be seduced.