Cimabue and the Master of Vyšší Brod

Two Rare Early Paintings Found in France

September 25, 2019By Heidi EllisonWhat's New Art & Culture
“The Mocking of Christ” (1280) by Cimabue.
“The Mocking of Christ” (1280) by Cimabue.

A number of purported Old Master paintings have been popping up in unexpected places in France lately. Following the discovery in an attic in Toulouse of “Judith and Holofernes,” a painting supposedly by the great Caravaggio (sold privately to an American collector days before it was to be auctioned off), Paris Old Master expert Éric Turquin has now unveiled two works that may have an important place in the history of Western art: “The Mocking of Christ” (1280) by Cimabue and “Virgin and Child Enthroned” (1350) by the Master of Vyšší Brod.

The small painting on wood panel by Cimabue is causing a sensation in the press, not only because it was found hanging over a stove in the kitchen of a woman in her nineties who was selling off the contents of her house in Compiègne, but also because of the great rarity of works by the Florentine master, credited with moving painting away from the stiff hierarchic style of the Byzantine era and toward greater naturalism, paving the way for Giotto (Cimabue’s student) and his successors. Only about a dozen works by Cimabue are known, and none has ever been sold at auction before.

The woman who owned the painting always assumed it was an icon because of its gold background and hung it near the stove in between the kitchen and living room. Her family told auctioneer Philomène Wolf that it had always been around in their memory and that they had no knowledge of its provenance.

Turquin believes the painting is part of a Cimabue polyptych of which two others are known: one belonging to the National Gallery of London and the other to the Frick Collection in New York. Tunnels made by worms in the wood panel match up with the other works, indicating that they were once part of the same piece.

The painting will be auctioned by Actéon in Senlis, France, on October 27, with an estimate of €4-€6 million.

“Virgin and Child Enthroned” (1350) by the Master of Vyšší Brod.
“Virgin and Child Enthroned” (1350) by the Master of Vyšší Brod.

The other discovery unveiled by Turquin on Monday has been attributed to the Master of Vyšší Brod, a Bohemian artist famed for an altarpiece painted for the Cistercian convent of Vyšší Brod, now at the National Gallery in Prague. In a strange coincidence, the picture first attracted attention because it was (falsely) attributed to Cimabue on the back of the wood panel.

This lovely depiction of the sweet-faced Virgin exchanging glances with the Christ child, whose pudgy hand holds tight to his mother’s thumb, is marred only by a black background added in the 19th century. X-rays have shown that the background was originally an architectural extension of the throne Mary sits on.

This painting will be auctioned at the Cortot auction house in Dijon, France, on November 30, with an estimate of €400,000-€600,000.

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