Why Christ is playing with the Magdalene’s Hair

Nicholas Penny

  • Correggio by David Ekserdjian
    Yale, 334 pp, £45.00, January 1997, ISBN 0 300 07299 6
  • The ‘Divine’ Guido by Richard Spear
    Yale, 436 pp, £40.00, January 1997, ISBN 0 300 07035 7

In the centre of the most beautiful painting by Correggio in the Louvre there is a knot of flesh as intricate and lively as a swimming octopus. It consists of the left hand of the Virgin Mary delicately supporting the slightly smaller right hand of Saint Catharine, while the much smaller hand of the infant Christ tenderly picks out the Saint’s ring finger. This is a miniature example of an effect at which Correggio excelled: actions inspired by a sentiment of breathless intensity are somehow endowed both with angelic grace and with a formal complexity which is delightfully difficult to disentangle.

David Ekserdjian’s book illustrates all of Correggio’s paintings, great and small, superbly well, together with many of his drawings. In the latter we can watch him weaving his compositions with a nervous pen line; giving them more unity, more softness and substance, with wash; creating the warmth and roundness of flesh with red chalk; and finally half-cancelling and illuminating the forms with white. Even when he drew from a model he made it respond to other figures so that in his finest compositions each component works in rhythm with all the others. Studies by him of life – the world outside the studio – are unknown. There are, it is true, very few Renaissance drawings in this category but, although Correggio’s subjects were higher beings, his depictions of the Virgin and Child, of Venus and Cupid and of infant angels must have been based on observation in the nursery.

The tiny painting in the National Gallery called Virgin with the Basket is not unprecedented as a representation of the Virgin’s domestic work (Ekserdjian points to Northern prints and to a painting by Caroto, and there is also Leonardo’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder), but the particular action depicted was entirely new. The outstretched arm of the child who rolls and wriggles on his mother’s lap is being inserted into the sleeve of a new home-made woollen jacket. Such scenes are familiar from the beach or the Underground, but here fluttering mutual delight is not mingled with the usual mild exasperation of the mother, and the imperfect co-ordination of the child.

In Correggio’s altarpieces, the saints, who had previously stood beside the Virgin’s throne, lean into the picture or out of it, and the projection towards us of an elbow or the sole of a foot accelerates the compositional rhythms and encourages communion between the figures – and with us. Correggio was capable of far more daring foreshortening – notably in the aerobatic angels and gesticulating apostles on the domes of S. Giovanni Evangelista and the Duomo in Parma. These were feats of virtuosity in draughtsmanship, but they also compel attention by rendering the familiar strange, surprising and exaggerated. Foreshortening is a practice less favoured by artists in this century, although it has sometimes served to startle the conscience, as with the pointing finger of the recruiting poster, or to excite readers whose magically powered comic-book heroes hurtle, fist-first, into space. Among avant-garde painters, Francis Bacon has been most interested in the potential of foreshortening to endow human bodies with unstable and melting forms. In this he can resemble Correggio. But Bacon, generally looking from above, emphasises the torso, a rubbery mass into which heads sink and from which limbs uneasily dangle, whereas Correggio’s figures, studied from below, are liberated from gravity and are hyper-eloquent, hyperactive with their arms and hands. Both artists are interested in facial distortion which owes something to the elision of separate parts, but whereas Correggio expands the feature, extending eyes towards ears and lips into cheeks with a brush which caresses, Bacon cancels them, stifling their power to appeal with smear or smudge.

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