Today sees the return of our occasional series featuring some of the finest pictures in London’s National Gallery, as Nige admires a vast procession…
Norbiton Toby’s reflections on processions brought to mind a National Treasure that has so far escaped the attention of Dabblers – Frederic Lord Leighton’s Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence. This vast work – a full 17ft by 7ft – is a bravura showpiece designed by the ambitious young artist to show what he was capable of (and perhaps to hint that more works of art – Leightons, say – should be treated thus triumphantly in a rightly ordered society). Painted over three years, it was shown at the Academy in 1855, and Queen Victoria was so impressed that she bought it on the opening day for 600 guineas. In her diary she wrote:
There was a very big picture by a man called Leighton. It is a beautiful painting, quite reminding one of a Paul Veronese, so bright and full of light. Albert was enchanted with it – so much so that he made me buy it.
Bright and full of light it is indeed, though Veronese would have given the subject a softer, more sumptuous, less Pre-Raphaelite treatment. It takes its subject from a passage in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists:
After his return to Florence he [Cimabue] made for the church of S. Maria Novella a picture of our Lady, which work was of larger size than those that had been made before that time, and the angels that stand round, although they are in the Greek manner, yet show something of the modern style. Therefore this work caused such marvel to the people of that time, never having seen a better, that it was borne in solemn procession with trumpets and great rejoicing from the house of Cimabue to the church, and he himself received great honours and rewards. It is said, and you may read it in certain records of old pictures, that while Cimabue was painting this picture, King Charles of Anjou passed through Florence, and among other entertainments provided for him by the people of the city, they took him to see Cimabue’s picture; and as no one had seen it before it was shown to the king, there was a great concourse of all the men and women of Florence to see it, with the greatest rejoicing and running together in the world. From the gladness of the whole neighbourhood that part was called Borgo Allegri, the Joyful Quarter, and though it is now within the walls of the city, it has always preserved the same name.
The personages depicted include Cimabue himself in a laurel crown, with his young pupil Giotto; various other Florentine artists; Charles of Anjou, on horseback; and Dante looking on, extreme right. The painting being carried in procession is the Madonna known as the Rucellai Madonna (now in the Uffizi) – which in 1889 was found to be incontrovertibly the work not of Cimabue but of Duccio.
But never mind – Leighton’s is a grand painting, executed with terrific verve and technical skill (Leighton had his limitations as a painter, but none of them was technical). Such is its size that it hangs not in any of the National’s galleries but over the grand staircase – look up on your way out and there it is, still ‘bright and full of light’.