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.

Correggio’s pursuit of grace often entailed the transgression of conventional ideas of beauty and decorum. This point was well made by James Northcote in a conversation reported by William Hazlitt about Il Giorno, Correggio’s altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with Saint Jerome and Mary Magdalene in Parma – a painting which was then so celebrated that all Europeans with any taste for the visual arts could call it to mind. Northcote, who had been a pupil of Reynolds and remembered the conversation of Reynolds’s friends, reported that Garrick used to say of this picture ‘that the Saint resembled a satyr, and that the child was like a monkey’. But, Northcote added, ‘there is such a look of life in the last, it dazzles you with spirit and vivacity; you can hardly believe but it will move or fly.’

Many people do not realise that Correggio, like Caravaggio, is a place. It is near Parma, Modena and Reggio Emilia but, as Ekserdjian demonstrates, Correggio owed little to local artistic traditions. Instead he took his earliest instruction from Leonardo to the north-west in Milan and Mantegna to the north-east in Mantua – or rather from their works. These were indeed the greatest artists of the previous generation to work in Northern Italy but one would have thought that no one could have been profoundly influenced by both. From the former, Correggio derived his sfumato, the soft transitions of his modelling, his smoky shadows, his smiles (now more sensuous than mysterious), his contrapposto (now more serpentine), and from the latter, a fascination with foreshortening and with painting fictive sculpture (in Correggio’s case imitating the softness of worn coins rather than the crispness of chiselled marble). The decisive influence on him, however, was Raphael: the paintings which were sent to Northern Italy (above all the little Vision of Ezekiel in which we find putti with cheeks puffed in the way he loved) and the frescos which Correggio must have studied on a visit to Rome. Ekserdjian provides an excellent guide to all these influences and speculates intelligently on the encouragement which local patrons may have given ‘il nostro Antonio’, as he was known to the small court in his home town.

Ekserdjian presents new evidence and discoveries (including an impressive painting of Christ carrying the Cross, which he has identified) and provides many new interpretations of drawings and documents. His observations on dating and on attribution are always judicious, and never yield to the temptation to be too definite. There are fascinating discussions on subject-matter and meaning – on how veneration for Saint Joseph was manifested in altarpieces, for example, and on when Greek texts were included in paintings. These connect with Ekserdjian’s exploration of Correggio’s provincial patrons, who often turn out to have been highly cosmopolitan in outlook. The emphasis on the artist’s world means that we sometimes loiter in the archives before we get to study a painting: in the chapter devoted to Il Giorno, for example, we examine the inadequate accounts of its patron given in earlier books on Correggio and consider a neglected note by another historian, before we enter a new archive and follow the career in local government and the property transactions of the husband of the patron, and then find the dedication of the chapel in which the picture was placed. But every scrap of information is of interest if we are to understand how Correggio was licensed, perhaps indeed encouraged, to invent such an original work. Ekserdjian’s observations on this originality are very perceptive, above all because he can see how highly intelligent thought about the content is entailed by what may appear to be purely formal invention. Guided by him we realise why Christ is playing with the Magdalene’s hair and why she gazes at his foot. Christ is at the same time delighting in Jerome’s book, which the Saint has presented to him. Jerome, Ekserdjian notes, has also brought along a Hebrew scroll – a reference to his activity as translator.

In this and similar paintings Correggio destabilises the orthodox symmetrical and architectonic composition of altarpieces. Clearly his experience of painting domes encouraged him to experiment with composition and to pay special attention to the viewpoint of the beholder. But if the strong diagonal character of Il Giorno reflects the fact that it was a side altar approached from the right, as Ekserdjian ingeniously proposes, then it should be conceded that no less distinct a diagonal is to be found in the altarpiece known as the Madonna della Scodella made for the Chapel of Saint Joseph in San Sepolcro in Parma, which must always have been approached frontally.

Several generations after Correggio, Guido Reni, too, drew inspiration from Raphael, though not this time as a stimulus to daring novelties, but rather as a means to purify the art of his time. He attended above all to Raphael’s Saint Cecilia altarpiece in his native Bologna and to his fresco of the Triumph of Galatea in the Farnesina in Rome. The heavenly choir in the former, the streaming golden hair in the latter, and the physical types in both, may be traced throughout his work. He was an ardent student of the antique and of the life model, but it is his use of colour which most impresses us now: the brilliant silken draperies contrasted with dark grey clouds, or with the orange celestial region which such clouds disclose, are especially delightful.

Delight, however, was seldom if ever Reni’s only aim and the pink scarf of the Angel Gabriel in the Annunciation in Ascoli Piceno – to cite one especially captivating passage which happens to be illustrated here – echoes, and thus directs attention to, the very slight flush in the angel’s cheek and the colour of his lips, enhancing not only his beauty but his reverence and eloquence. As Reni’s art developed, both shadows and colour contrasts diminished in sharpness, and eventually local colour was so much reduced that the flesh, instead of having the quality of a pearl amid richly coloured fabrics, becomes predominant, merging with, rather than set off by, the colours around it. The Ecce Homo in the Fitzwilliam Museum is perhaps the finest example of this to be seen in Britain. Its background is the colour of Christ’s hair and of the shadows in his flesh, while the pale crimson of his robe matches his wounds.

As his contemporaries acknowledged, Reni was not entirely successful as a painter of heroic narrative. The calculated symmetry of his Massacre of the Innocents lends balletic grace to a scene of confusion and violence, rigid diagonals and tense horizontals notwithstanding. Looking at the painting of Lot and his daughters in the National Gallery no one would ever guess what the ladies have in mind; looking at the Atalanta and Hippomenes in Naples no one could explain what Hippomenes is doing in such a strange position. Reni was surely right to show Saint Michael and Samson in triumph rather than in combat: triumph is more easily reconciled with beauty. But Reni’s figures are beautiful because they are transfigured by heavenly grace, enraptured by some high ideal, or because it is essential to their pathos. The flesh of his youthful bodies as well as of his old men is painted with extraordinary delicacy and is itself unusually delicate, tender and thus vulnerable.

There may be some 20th-century art which would help us to understand Reni’s paintings. Richard Spear illustrates and discusses popular devotional aids which derive ultimately from Reni’s example, and it might also be revealing to examine the devices of glamour, star and society photographs. In any case, it is undeniable that Reni’s priorities as an artist are alien to those of high art in our time. We should therefore pay special attention to the ways in which his art was described by his contemporaries and by those who admired his work before its spectacular fall from favour 150 years ago.

Spear provides in this account of Reni’s personality and paintings the results of much historical research. He explains what was understood by grazia both as an aesthetic and as a theological term. He assembles a great deal of material from 17th-century sources on virginity (which Reni may never have lost) and on the Virgin Mary (to whom he was devoted), on witchcraft and the fear of feminine contamination (Reni once flew into a rage when women’s clothes were inadvertently included in his laundry), on how much artists were paid (Reni insisted on very high prices), on the prevalence of copies and studio replicas merely retouched by the artist himself (Reni increasingly resorted to this practice), and on gambling (to which Reni was ruinously addicted). But, surprisingly, the keys Spear employs to unlock the secrets of Reni’s personality are all modern. This ensures that the pictures are disastrously misunderstood.

When he comes to consider Reni’s numerous contributions to the genre of me half-nude suicidal antique heroine (a genre which originates with paintings and prints of Lucretia made in the early 16th century), Spear suggests that their appeal ‘stems ... from the iniquitous excitement derived from watching women suffer’. These figures ‘yield not to an ordinary amatory gaze, but to sadistic, rape-like fantasies of eroticised female submission and death’. It is hard not to believe that the appeal of these works was in part erotic but the extent to which the artist and his public concealed this from themselves is unclear, as is the extent to which it was sublimated and may even have animated genuine admiration for the heroic action depicted. It is noteworthy that such works were owned by female art collectors and that Reni was said to have modelled some of these heroines on respectable Roman ladies of his day. ‘By offering this reading,’ Spear continues, ‘I do not want to close off complementary or alternative assessments of their sexual content’ and he goes on to concede that ‘for some viewers, their attraction, or repulsion, resides in associations with auto-eroticism and masturbation.’ What he does effectively ‘close off’ is any discussion of their non-sexual content.

Spear observes of Reni’s extraordinary late painting Amor Divino, which shows a winged adolescent youth of fragile build, arms raised to receive the heavenly light raining down on the almost translucent pallor of his body, that it ‘could be said’ to be ‘beautiful and graceful beyond gender, which would be right theologically for an angel and perhaps psychosexually for the painter, but he does not appear strictly that way, primarily because, like many of the sexy young boys of Praxitelean, pederastic cast in ancient sculpture, this one’s soft, pubescent body, sinuous pose and proffered nudity leave open the way for a variety of erotic readings.’ The phrase to ponder here is ‘appear strictly’. Is Spear suggesting that Reni betrayed his real nature consciously or unconsciously? And how can the ‘way for a variety of erotic readings’ be closed if innocence is associated with nudity, youth and beauty?

The book opens with a confessional and methodological preamble: ‘my decision to write a book on Reni prophetically coincided with an intense introspective period to my own life ... Furthermore, the cultural issues raised by recent developments in art history, in tandem with the concerns of the gay and women’s liberation movements – with which I have been vicariously absorbed through my brother and wife – sensitised me to the politics of representation, which, I will argue over and over again in this book, play a significant role in Reni’s work.’ The first person singular is used relentlessly throughout. We constantly have the impression that this is really a book about Spear writing a book, and besides his wife and brother we may sense other ghostly sentinels – rival professors liable to accuse the art historian of not having read Bardies or Lacan.