He was one of the most important artists of his time, breaking with the formalism of Byzantine art, then predominant in Italy, and introducing a more lifelike treatment of traditional subjects. He was the forerunner of the realistic Florentine school of the early Renaissance founded by Giotto, and he is believed to have been Giotto's teacher. Among Cimabue's works are Crucifix (1260?, San Domenico, Arezzo) and Madonna and Child Enthroned (1285?, Uffizi Gallery, Florence). He also made a mosaic of Saint John (Pisa Cathedral) and, with assistants, painted fresco cycles of saints and apostles and scenes from the Apocalypse in the upper and lower churches of San Francesco in Assisi.
Cimabue's stylistic sources stand out clearly in the ruins of his frescoes at Assisi. The Byzantine element, whether received directly or through Tuscan intermediaries, is visible in endless details. The power of Byzantine style and iconography in southern and south-eastern Europe in this period is such that it is often vital to allow for unknown common sources when surviving works seem not to be directly linked. This is demonstrated at Assisi by the remarkably close iconographic and compositional relationship between the "Crucifixion" in the right transept and an apparently more or less contemporary fresco at Sopocani in Yugoslavia.
Cimabue painted "Madonna in Majesty" between 1278 and 1280. St. Francis died in 1226. According to local Assisi tradition, Cimabue captured the true likeness of St. Francis in this painting, even though he never saw the saint. Like a police artist making a composite sketch, Cimabue supposedly reconstructed St. Francis's face by gathering accounts of his appearance from people who knew him.
In Cimabue's work, Mary, Jesus, and the angels are painted without much attention to individual physiognomy or expression. Each of the angels on the left has an almost identical counterpart on the right. The four apostles depicted at the bottom of the painting are more individualized in their features and poses. Giotto's Mary, Jesus, and the angels are all different from each other. The angels are still symmetrically arranged, but each angel on the left is different in expression from its counterpart on the right. The Holy Mother is holding her Son in a more realistic position.
He painted in churches both in Florence and Pisa, and made the name of Cimabue famous everywhere, on which account he was summoned to Assisi, a city of Umbria, to paint in company with some Greek masters the lower church of S. Francis. For in those times the order of the Minor Friars of S. Francis having been confirmed by Pope Innocent III, both the devotion and the numbers of the friars grew so great not only in Italy, bllt in all parts of the world, that there was scarcely a city of any account which did not build for them churches and convents at great expense.
But instead of attending to his lessons, Cimabue spent all the day in painting on his books and papers, men, horses, houses, and such things. To this natural inclination fortune was favourable, for certain painters of Greece, who had been summoned by the rulers of Florence to restore the almost forgotten art of painting in the city, began at this time to work in the chapel of the Gondi in S. Maria Novella; and Cimabue would often escape from school and stand all day watching them, until his father and the painters themselves judging that he was apt for painting, he was placed under their instruction. Nature, however, aided by constant practice, enabled him greatly to surpass both in design and colouring the masters who had taught him. For they, never caring to advance in their art, did everything not in the good rnanner of ancient Greece, but after the rude manner of those times.
Cimabue, the nickname for Cenni di Pepi, is the earliest of the Florentine painters, and his career, for those who follow Vasari's Lives, is the beginning of modern art. At the same time, his style and training place him as one of the last of Italian artists in the Byzantine tradition. He has owed his fame in some measure to the lines Dante wrote about him in the Purgatorio (Canto 11, 94-96).
Cimabue’s character may be reflected in his name, which can perhaps best be translated as “bullheaded.” An anonymous commentator in a work on Dante written in 1333–34 said that Cimabue was so proud and demanding that if others found fault with his work, or if he found something displeasing in it himself, he would destroy the work, no matter how valuable. It is perhaps significant that in the Divine Comedy Dante places Cimabue among the proud in Purgatory. And the poet refers to him to illustrate the transience of earthly fame: “Cimabue thought to hold the field in painting, and now Giotto hath the cry.” But pride in his own accomplishments and a high personal standard of excellence separated Cimabue from the anonymous artists of the Middle Ages.
Scholars assume that Cimabue began his artistic career as an apprentice to an Italo-Byzantine painter, because he was strongly influenced by the Greek Byzantine style. By breaking with the formalism of Byzantine art, then predominant in Italy, and introducing a more lifelike treatment of traditional subjects, he became the outstanding master of his generation. Cimabue began the movement toward realism that would change the course of European painting. His style influenced Giotto and Duccio, and he probably was Giotto's teacher. He was the forerunner of the realistic Florentine school founded by Giotto.
Cimabue’s style provided the firm foundation upon which rested the art of Giotto and Duccio in the 14th century, although he was superseded in his own lifetime by these artists, both of whom he had influenced and perhaps trained. His great contemporary, Dante, recognized the importance of Cimabue and placed him at the forefront of Italian painters. Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects… (1550), begins his collection of biographies with the life of Cimabue. Art historiographers from the 14th century to the present have recognized the art and career of Cimabue as the dividing line between the old and the new traditions in western European painting.