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Correggio (Antonio Allegri) (1494?-1534)  
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Religious Paintings of the 1520s

The success of the San Paolo undertaking helped to secure Correggio's reputation, and he decided to establish his artistic practice in Parma, the most important cultural and economic center of Emilia. Documents indicate that Correggio was married (at an unknown date) and had fathered children (including at least one son and an uncertain number of daughters) before he moved his studio to Parma. However, both his wife and children remained in his native Correggio.

Correggio was very productive throughout the 1520s, the most successful decade of his career. For private clients, he created exquisitely beautiful, small-scale devotional pictures with both joyful and tragic themes, and he also fulfilled several major commissions from prestigious religious institutions.

The Madonna of the Basket, a small oil painting on wood (measuring only 33.7 x 25.1 cm., about 1524, National Gallery, London), well exemplifies the sweetness and intimacy of his depictions of the Holy Family. The Madonna and Child are placed extremely near to the picture plane, while a strong diagonal helps to lead the viewer into the background, where Joseph labors. The graceful, movements of the "wet" drapery folds on the pliant, curved bodies of the Virgin and Child enliven the picture and help to evoke the intensity of their mutual love. Further enhancing the sensual appeal of the picture is the shimmering light that infuses the delicate colors.

Employing many of the techniques evident in the Madonna of the Basket, Correggio seeks to arouse pity for the sufferings of Christ in Ecce Homo (Presentation to the People, sometime between 1525-1530, National Gallery, London). The beautiful, androgynous figure of Jesus is pushed right up to the edge of the picture, so viewers become part of the crowd condemning him. Foreshadowing the sentimental depictions of the Passion by Guido Reni in the next century, Corregio's Christ responds to his persecution with a mood of gentle resignation. With an expression evoking both ecstasy and pain, the Virgin swoons in the left foreground.

From X-rays of the picture, it is apparent that during the course of execution, Correggio pushed Christ's bright pink cloak further back in order to reveal more of his radiant, porcelain-like body. Throughout the picture, Correggio applied the thick oil paint in a lush, fluent manner, which enhances the sensual allure of the beautiful, virtually nude figure.

Between 1520 and 1525, Correggio frescoed the dome, apse, choir vault, and nave frieze of the large, recently constructed church of San Giovanni Evangelista. In the dome, the Vision of Saint John on Patmos presents a sweeping panorama of the descent of Christ from the heavens. Through foreshortening and other devices, Correggio creates a remarkably effective illusion without recourse to a static perspective scheme. A mood of great spiritual excitement is created by the lively movements of the figures and by the light, bursting out from the center of the dome.

Saint John the Evangelist, seated at the base of the dome, gazes up at the figure of Christ, ringed by the beautiful nude figures of Apostles and angels on clouds. As numerous scholars have suggested, the poses of the Apostles and angels seem to have been derived from figures by Michelangelo on the Sistine Ceiling. However, the soft, shimmering flesh and playful--and even flirtatious--expressions distinguish Correggio's images from the solemn and aloof creations of Michelangelo.

In 1522, Correggio also won the commission to decorate the dome, apse, and choir vault of Parma Cathedral. Because the ongoing work at San Giovanni and other commitments delayed this undertaking, Correggio did not complete the dome until 1530. Although the dome is octagonal, Correggio created a soaring, seamless image of the Assumption of the Virgin into the heavens.

The illusionistic effects of San Giovanni Evangelista are remarkably intensified. Around the outer edges of the dome, Correggio painted a ledge, which seems a logical extension of the space of the cathedral; along this ledge, the Apostles stand in dramatic poses that convey the intensity of their responses to the events transpiring above them. The heavens are filled with a swirling mass of beautiful and radiant nude angels who carry the Virgin up into the heavens. The fluctuating light, infusing the heavenly scene, greatly contributes to the excitement of the fresco.

Although this bold project revolutionized the character of European dome decoration, the canons of Parma Cathedral were displeased with it, and they terminated Correggio's contract in 1530. The reasons for their reaction have not been documented, but, according to an anecdote of the period, one of the canons described the dome as "a stew of frogs' legs." Most scholars suppose that conservative ecclesiastics would have regarded the virtual absorption of the Virgin into the congregation of nude angels as disrespectful. The intense homoerotic appeal of the angels may have further disconcerted church officials.

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