The discovery in a French kitchen of a 13th century panel, attributed to Florentine master Cimabue, is set to revive interest in a pioneering artist dubbed the “father of Western painting” – and whet the appetites of art collectors around the world.
Early in June, French auctioneer Philomène Wolf showed up at a designer home in the northern town of Compiègne for a routine house clearance. The property’s owner, an elderly woman, had asked Wolf to value her belongings and sift through a pile of junk bound for the dump. Little did she know she was poised to make a discovery that would send ripples of excitement across the art world.
Hiding in plain sight above the bar in an open-plan kitchen, a small wooden panel caught the young auctioneer’s eye. Exquisitely crafted, it was an unsigned painting depicting a scene from Christ’s Passion.
“The lady said she thought it had belonged to her family for a long time, but that it was just a religious icon,” Wolf recalls. “It could well have been destined for the bin.”
The auctioneer thought there was more to the small poplar panel and its vivid portrayal of Jesus surrounded by an angry crowd. Measuring just 24 centimetres by 20 and painted in egg tempera, it bore the hallmarks of the work of late Medieval Italian artists, known in France as primitifs italiens, and appeared to have been sawed off a larger opus.
Following her hunch, Wolf took the painting to Eric Turquin, a prominent Paris-based expert in Old Masters. After examining the find, Turquin’s team stated with “certitude” that its author was none other than Cimabue, the legendary Florentine master whose known works are so rare – and so jealously guarded – they have never been auctioned in modern times.
A giant in art history
The “Mocking of Christ”, Turquin concluded, was part of an eight-part diptych painted by Cimabue around 1280, of which only two other pieces are known: the “Flagellation of Christ”, part of the Frick Collection in New York, and the “Madonna and Child Enthroned between Two Angels”, found under a staircase in an English country house two decades ago and now at the National Gallery in London.
Turquin said there was no doubt about the authenticity of the painting, as it reflected the innovative style pioneered by Giotto’s master.
“We can see the likeness in the facial expressions, the movement and the tentative perspective that define Cimabue’s contribution to art,” said Stéphane Pinta, an art specialist with the Cabinet Turquin in Paris. Furthermore, tests using infrared light prove that tunnels made by woodworms in the panel match those on the other two Cimabue paintings, he added.
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