The discovery of a 13th Century Cimabue painting at an elderly woman’s home in northern France made headlines in September and now the French government has given it national treasure status by blocking its export.
After being overlooked by the woman and her family as just another religious iconography, it was spotted by auctioneer Philomène Wolf, promptly authenticated and then sold at auction the following month for €24m.
The government has just announced that it will be banning its export for 30 months to allow time to raise funds to acquire it for the nation.
Cimabue, also known as Cenni di Pepo, was a pivotal pre-Renaissance artist.
How Christ Mocked was found
Philomène Wolf was visiting the elderly woman’s home near the town of Compiègne for an inventory check to see if any of her belongings can be auctioned off after she sold her house and moved to a retirement home.
Wolf instantly spotted the work hanging in the kitchen and when she brought it to the family’s attention, they assumed it was a Russian icon whose colors had faded over the years.
The house had already been sold and its content was in the process of being emptied. “I had a week to sort out the contents and empty it,” Wolf told French media. “I had to make space in my diary, otherwise it would all have gone to the recycling.”
The work was immediately evaluated by experts in Paris, who then identified it as a Cimabue painting and put it up for auction. Although the buyer remained anonymous, French reports hinted that they were two US-based Chilean collectors who specialise in Italian Renaissance art.
Why Cimabue’s painting is important
Cimabue is considered one of the first Italian painters to move away from the formal Byzantine style of art to a more realistic depiction of people. Largely considered as a fresco painter in Florence and Rome, Cimabue signalled the start of the Florentine Renaissance and is thought to have been a master to Giotto, the great Florentine artist of the 14th Century.
His work was largely produced on wood panels with backgrounds of gold paint, making it easy to mistake it for religious iconography. Christ Mocked is one of only three panels that have survived from his work known as the Diptych of Devotion, painted around 1280. The other two panels are in New York and in London’s National Gallery.
The newly found panel is displayed alongside copies of the two Cimabue paintings believed to be part of the same diptych.
The French ministry of culture released a statement saying that the work was in good condition and is more revealing of Cimabue’s new language of expression than the other two panels. Culture Minister Franck Riester had followed the suggestion of France’s commission for national treasures to block the painting’s export abroad to allow funds to be raised with the goal of displaying the work at the Louvre in Paris, alongside another Cimabue work: the Maestà de Santa Trinita.