Cimabue and Giotto: From Medieval to Renaissance Art

In Purgatorio 11, while commenting on the fleeting nature of artistic reputation, Dante notes that
"Cimabue once thought that he held the field in painting, and now Giotto has the praise, so much so that the other's fame is obscured."
Why did Giotto so quickly surpass his teacher? Art historians have noted that while Cimabue began to break away from the Byzantine style of painting that had dominated Europe since the beginning of the Middle Ages, Giotto's innovations were much more radical and systematic. Giotto's use of perspective and his portrayal of figures as individuals, each with a distinctive personality, resulted in a realism that would have appealed to the fourteenth-century Florentine middle class.


Unlike most Byzantine art, both of the two paintings below use perspective (a hallmark of Renaissance art) to represent three-dimensional space. The throne in Cimabue's painting sits on a curved platform. In Giotto's painting, on the other hand, the three dimensional throne above the Madonna's head not only adds depth but also projects the figure toward the viewer. Giotto's Mary is also more firmly anchored to the ground, while Cimabue's Mary seems almost to float in space.

The Representation of the Human Form

In the first painting, Mary, Jesus, and the angels are painted without much attention to individual physiognomy or expression. Each of the angels on the left has an almost identical counterpart on the right. The four apostles depicted at the bottom of the painting are much more individualized in their features and poses. In Giotto's painting, Mary, Jesus, and the angels are all different from each other. The angels are still symmetrically arranged, but each angel on the left is subtly different in expression from its counterpart on the right. The Holy Mother is holding her Son in a much more realistic position.

Madonna with Child by Cimabue Madonna Enthroned by Giotto
Madonna with Child by Cimabue Madonna Enthroned by Giotto

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