In 2000, The Frick Collection's Flagellation of Christ was confirmed to be by the artist Cenni di Pepo (c. 1240–c. 1302), known as Cimabue, following the discovery ofThe Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels (now in the National Gallery, London), a panel known to have been painted by the Florentine master. Visitors to the Frick had the rare opportunity to see these two panels side by side — the first time they have been together in America — when The Virgin and Child traveled to New York for this special exhibition. A selection of panels, manuscripts, and verre églomisé (painted and gilded glass) were also on view, illustrating the various forms of small-scale devotional art with which Cimabue and his contemporaries experimented.
The Frick Collection purchased The Flagellation of Christ in 1950, and it remains the only painting by Cimabue in the United States. At first glance, the Flagellation and the Virgin and Child appear different owing to the presence of a modern-day varnish on the National Gallery panel. Their carpentry, condition, style, and technique, however, attest to their origins as part of the same work, either a small altarpiece, diptych, or triptych. The grain of the wood, the thickness of the panels (both of which have been thinned down since they were first painted), the pattern of craquelure in the paint, and even the worm holes in the wood are comparable. Both feature a similar punched border in the gold ground, consisting of two rows of pinprick-like punches surrounding a delicate scroll pattern formed by tiny punch marks. Such parallels between the two panels confirm that both were once part of the same ensemble. At an unknown date, the larger work was cut apart, probably so that smaller pieces of it could be sold individually, a fate that befell many early Italian pictures during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Without question, the Frick and National Gallery panels rank among the finest known works of thirteenth-century painting. Although vastly different in emotional tenor, both emphasize Christ's humanity, a theme particularly important to members of the Franciscan order, the most powerful religious group in Italy during the thirteenth century and likely the group that commissioned the work. The engaging expressions of Christ, the Virgin, and the angels combined with the delicacy of both paintings' execution attest to Cimabue's ability to create powerful, timeless images truly revolutionary in their day.
Cimabue and Early Italian Devotional Painting was coordinated for The Frick Collection by Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow Holly Flora in conjunction with the Frick’s Associate Curator Denise Allen.