Mother and Child Reunion: The Frick’s Tiny Blockbuster

Blockbuster exhibitions are defined by their scope and scale. A staggering array of objects meant to illuminate the accomplishments of an artist, culture or epoch has become the norm—at least for institutions with the clout to pull them off. Audiences are used to seeing (and sometimes tolerating) these ambitious undertakings, hoping there’s a proper aesthetic payoff for all the logistical hurdles, financial expectations and resulting spectacle.

What do we call exhibitions that contain only a handful of objects, but whose significance is historically and artistically huge? Perhaps we need a more inclusive definition of “blockbuster”—one that gauges intensity of pleasure rather than mere square footage. If so, Cimabue and Early Italian Devotional Painting, on display at the Frick Collection, is some kind of blockbuster.

Exhibitions where impact exceeds scale are an indispensable tradition at the Frick. There isn’t space there to mount humongous shows, so the museum’s curators have focused their efforts on the particulars of this or that achievement: Memling’s portraits, Goya’s late work, Parmigianino’s drawings and a solitary canvas by Raphael. The Cimabue show, though it contains a smattering of related objects, has as its foundation two tiny pictures: The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels and The Flagellation of Christ (both ca. 1280).

Actually, the exhibition’s raison d’être is the latter painting. Acquired by the Frick in 1950, The Flagellation of Christ had been attributed to Cenni di Pepo (ca.1240-1302), better known as Cimabue, though definitive authorship couldn’t be pinned down. Some scholars thought that Cimabue’s contemporary, the Sienese painter Duccio di Buoninsegna, might have painted it.

Close study has confirmed that The Flagellation of Christ is, in fact, Cimabue’s handiwork. Stylistic constants between the museum’s mainstay and The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels—a painting recently discovered in private hands and now part of the collection of London’s National Gallery—are in keeping with an established Cimabue altarpiece at the Louvre. The Frick picture is the real thing.

Cimabue and Early Italian Devotional Painting is, then, an opportunity for the Frick to show off its “latest” masterpiece. Given the number of extant works by Cimabue—only four other small panels by the artist are known—the recent attribution is vital to the museum and, for that matter, the heritage of Western civilization.

Further scholarship has revealed that the two panels on view were once part of a larger work, though the exact format—diptych, triptych or altarpiece—is a matter of speculation. Whatever form they originally took, one thing is certain: Its constituent parts were cut apart and put up for sale—not an uncommon fate for historical objects made of multiple sections.

Seeing The Flagellation of Christ alongside The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels is a rare and, perhaps, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Just make sure you don’t pass by the paintings: They’re next to the museum store in a gallery that’s about the size of a broom closet. Whatever intimacy the space affords is lost in the awkward shuffling of feet, rubbing of shoulders and continuous apologies, but that’s a small price to pay for the chance to commune with a master.

Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari’s endearingly hyperbolic art-historical tract, kicks things off with Cimabue. “Destined to take the first steps in restoring the art of painting to its earlier stature”—Vasari was no fan of Byzantine culture—the artist formerly known as Cenni di Pepo grew up “covering his paper and books with pictures showing people, horses, houses, and the various other things he dreamed up.”

Upon reaching maturity, Cimabue would destroy his work when it didn’t meet his stringent standards. Perfectionism may explain his reputation for obstinacy: The name Cimabue is translated as “ox head.” His place in history was cemented by a mention in The Divine Comedy, though Dante does remark that he was eventually eclipsed by his disciple Giotto.

In Flagellation, Christ stands in the center, his arms cuffed around a post, towering above his two tormentors. His gaze meets us with an all-but-impenetrable expression—forlorn perhaps, incisive surely, and resigned. Christ’s head is the most tightly focused part of the composition; its structure is full, the features specific. His tormentors are ciphers and their cruelty oddly pro forma. The two men may be flogging Christ, but their gestures are without force. The droop of Christ’s hands and, in particular, the sinuous arch of his torso contain infinitely more personality, humanity and grace. Of course, that’s the point.

The Virgin and Child, while no less felt in devotional terms, is a very different painting. The symmetry is more stable; the composition is stolid and immovable. The figures are archetypal and, as such, generic. The worn-and-torn surface of the painting hints at a once-resplendent chromatic range.

The Flagellation is in better condition, more fully preserving Cimabue’s touch, palette and authority. Certainly, the London picture lacks the cool and glowing tonalities of The Flagellation. History is enriched by both paintings, but let’s be honest: The Frick’s is the keeper.

The other objects on view help to establish some context. A diptych by Pacino di Bonaguida is included as a means of conjecturing about the original format and arrangement of the two Cimabues. Di Bonaguida’s tempera-on-panel paintings are good enough to call for a more thorough showing of his oeuvre. Any painter able to convey the frailty of flesh with as much nobility, sensuality and painful truth as he does in his Crucifixion deserves greater scrutiny.

All the same, Cimabue’s accomplishment—even on the slender evidence here—renders di Bonaguida a bit player. The definitive attribution of The Flagellation of Christ is cause for celebration. Would that such discoveries were a regular occurrence. As it is, New Yorkers should be grateful and proud it happened here.

Cimabue and Early Italian Devotional Painting is at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, until Dec. 31.