Italian Art Heritage Abroad: Christ Mocked

Always check grandma's walls, they may contain a surprise... Or 24 million.

Christ Mocked risked ending in a dump, when an elderly French woman decided to sell her house.

Cimabue may be regarded as the forefather of the Italian Renaissance, not just because he was the master of the popular Italian painter Giotto, but because he represented the keystone in art history, breaking from the Byzantine painting style and approaching new forms and dimensional perspectives.

But what binds the 13th-century, Italian artist Cimabue to a living elderly French woman? The fate and the auctioneer of Compiègne, located in Northern France. Indeed, Christ Mocked — a tempera panel piece of the larger painting Dyptych of devotion made by Cimabue in 1280 — was hung for over half a century above the cooking hotplate of a 1960’s house in Compiégne, owned by an anonymous 90 year-old woman. Another popular Italian painting belonging to France — the Mona Lisa — was hung in a kitchen for two years, but in that case it was robbery.

Christ Mocked, painted by Cimabue in tempera and gold leaf on poplar panel with its small dimensions of 25.8 x 20.3 centimeters, depicts the mocking of Jesus prior the crucifixion and belongs to Dyptych of devotion, an altarpiece consisting of two panels with the depiction of eight scenes from the Passion of Christ. Unfortunately, only three of the eight paintings are certain to have survived, and before the incredible discovery of Christ Mocked, the other two “Virgin and Child with Two Angels” and “The Flagellation of Christ” were already inherited to the National Gallery in London and Frick Collection in New York, respectively.

And yet, Christ Mocked seriously risked ending in a dump, because the elderly French woman decided to sell her house in Compiègne and monetize some things in the house through the auctioneer. But what the old woman considered to be just a small religious icon of little value from Russia, probably because of the golden colors reminiscent of the Orthodox religion, in front of an expert eye the great quality of the painting was immediately noticed. And that’s the incredible discovery of Christ Mocked by Cimabue which happened last June.

The millionaire auction and the French government’s ban

Christ Mocked has been the only Cimabue ever to go on the market, and it was easy to guess that the auction house in Senlis (Northern France) last October would have earned millions for it. From an initial evaluation of 4-6 million euros, the Italian painting was eventually sold for the record price of 24 million euros. It is actually the highest price ever paid for a medieval painting and Christ Mocked went right into the top 10 most expensive artworks sold at an auction. Although the buyers have chosen to remain anonymous, according to French reports, they likely are two Chilean collectors living in the USA, enthusiasts of Italian Renaissance pieces. And so, the trivial move of an old woman in her 90’s restored a medieval masterpiece to the world, in excellent condition and probably just smelling of cooking fumes of some consommé.

The city of Compiègne (France) – Photo by Jessica licensed under CC BY 2.0

If you think the story of Christ Mocked is done, you are sadly mistaken, though. The French government — which actually has always shown sensivity about the national art heritage — just found out about the sale abroad, banned the painting’s export on December 23, 2019, for the duration of 30 months. The French government has nine hundred and thirteen days to find the necessary funds to acquire the Cimabue itself, thus enriching their already numerous national treasures.

The French culture minister Franck Riester approved the government’s policy, with the ambitious and expensive target of exhibiting the Christ Mocked at the Louvre Museum in Paris, alongside another masterpiece by Cimabue — the “Maestà” — considered to have been painted at the same time of Christ Mocked, around 1280. History, on the other hand, is full of episodes of disputed art, and Italy always played a significant role with its countless works of art: from Crivelli to Raffaello, from Botticelli to Leonardo. But this time one person will certainly remain happy: the French grandma who is going to enjoy her later years like a queen.

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