Cimabue's Maesta: Primitive or Stylized?

Updated: Apr 20

Maesta, Cimabue, c. 1280 (housed at the Louvre)

Cimabue would go on to paint many iterations of the Maesta in his lifetime, most famously his Santa Trinita Maesta. However, this particular painting is believed to have been done around 1280, preceding his most famous version by 10-20 years. This painting and its later versions would usher in a new way of depiction for the Madonna and child in the Byzantine era. The stylings of this painting are interesting because there are signs of primitive painting, but also early developments in what would go on to shape the masterpieces of the Renaissance and Baroque. Similarly painted scenes litter the churches of the next 150 years until the Renaissance ushered in around 1420.

Hieratic scale and a heavy use of Gold to symbolize the heavens are the two trademark primitive stylings of this painting. Hieratic scale is a method used similarly across time, all over the world and it simply means that the more important a character is in a painting, the bigger they are. The Madonna is massive in comparison to the surrounding angels, and the child is around the same size as the angels even though they appear to be full grown adults. Now this size difference could potentially be explained as a spatial difference between characters, the angels being further back in the scene thus making them appear smaller, but this painting doesn’t truly define its space. That brings up the second primitive element, one that was a staple in the byzantine era, and that is the heavy use of gold as a symbol for space. Gold has always been referred to as a divine material, so its use in paintings could easily be used as a symbol for the heavens or any heavenly reference (i.e. the halos). Cimabue didn’t truly have to define a space or any particular set piece, because he could simply surround the characters in gold and get the same message across.

However, this painting isn’t totally primitive in its spatial definition. Notice the rendering of the throne that the Madonna is seated upon, it utilizes a primitive form of perspective. Now this isn’t the perfect mathematical perspective that would be refined about 100 years later but it’s an early rendition. The lack of definition in the space or characters doesn’t allow the throne to carry the weight of setting the scene but it shows that painters had an idea of how to depict space in the years leading up to the Renaissance, they just hadn’t mastered it yet. Cimabue’s use of lines especially begins to push the scene back, placing the angels further back in the scene but then confusing choices like the angel in the bottom right’s hand position compared to the angel in the bottom left’s confuse the space of the scene again. The way that these two angels have their hands placed makes them look like they’re on the same plane, but the depiction of the throne shows that the angel on the left has its hand on the rear of the throne while the angel on the right has its hand on the front. So even though the lines are starting to illustrate perspective, choices like this really flatten out the work, thus illustrating how underdeveloped the depiction of perspective was.

This painting is interesting because it’s a big step in two developments, one short term and one long term. On one hand, there is a short term development in that it set a new scene for Byzantine painting and was a huge development in more primitive painting styles. Then in the long term it was a step in the development of perspective and the mastery of space that later painters would develop. But it raises an interesting question, and one that may be overlooked, are these primitive painting styles brought on by a lack of spatial understanding or a divine form of stylization? The easy answer is the former but the latter is a real thinker because there’s signs of elegance in painting and spatial understanding. This is by no means early art, and the Roman’s were masterfully capturing human life hundreds of years before this and while, again, this could be easily explained away as a set back in artistic understanding, wouldn’t it make more sense that artists were trying to depict a better defined, stylized, perhaps “heavenly” image. Look at the folds in the robes, they’re beautiful, well shadowed, and while not totally naturalistic, they show that Cimabue understood painting, texture, and space better than the overall work would tell. So with the understanding that Cimabue could display space and form to some degree, then take a look at the faces. The Madonna and the top four angels all have the same face, the bottom two angels have a similar face with a different head angle, so could this not be what Cimabue thought of as the perfect female face? Or a comic book like stylization and simplification of character?

This is by no means to suggest that Byzantine work was some masterful depiction but it does beg the question of intent. A lot of art historians lazily classify work as simple, or just go to say that “this is this, and that is that,” because of what the art of a period of time depicts. They tend to just classify work in an order along a timeline and not take in the bigger picture. This fails to see some of the intricacies of the work, it lacks the determination to question why things were done a certain way. It makes a lot of sense that these characters are an achieved stylization. To look at other historical examples, the Egyptians, who also used a lot of hieratic scale, had a set depiction of body and form, the Romans had a set height for sculptures and often depicted characters with unattainable musculature. Throughout time art has often depicted the idea of “perfect” as opposed to just depicting life, especially in a religious capacity. So it would be valid to assume that while Cimabue did understand space and the depiction of character, he used stylized, almost cartoonish, depictions to symbolize what he thought the saints, or the perfect humans should look like. There’s obviously meant to be a separation between the average person and the characters in this scene, and a stylized view to make them seem “perfect” as well as surrounding them by gold is an easy way to do that.

Intent is an interesting concept and, as previously mentioned, it’s one that’s often overlooked in art history. Artists should look back at master paintings with a more critical eye and question why things were done in certain ways, or analyze how one thing developed into another. This painting is no doubt a stepping stone to a more naturalistic class of painters but why did it progress that way? Why didn’t this stylization continue? Was it indeed just a primitive understanding of depiction? None of these answers could ever truly be known but the debate is certainly an interesting one. Artists and historians should question work far more often than they do, the idea of just slapping a painting on a timeline because the scene is more deliberate than some of the more abstract contemporary work is lazy. There’s a lot that can be learned in the stylings of early painting, especially work that deviates from the natural depiction, it may not be as wacky and abstract as contemporary work, but there’s a lot there.