It is said that Correggio, seventeen years old, came to Mantua and saw there the Victory of Mantegna. In fron of the work of the Paduan master, his artist’s soul trembled, he felt the bubblings of his future genius stirring in him, and, enthusiastically, he exclaimed: Ed anch’io son pittore! (Me, too, I‘m a painter!)
Correggio was a painter in the widest and most extensive sense of the term. He is one of those artists whose glory radiates sovereignly and knows no detractors, for he possesses to the highest degree all the gifts of genius: a charming originality, an ineffable grace, a palette of a magical coloring, and a science that classifies it, with Michelangelo, as the first draftsman of the world.
Frescoes, mythologies, genre scenes, profane or religious subjects, he treated everything with equal perfection; and in all his works are found that suppleness, that fantasy, that grace which makes us adore his painting.
Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, in particular, shows us Correggio in the complete blossoming of his genius.
The Virgin, almost in profile, holds the Infant Jesus on her knees. Kneeling before her, Saint Catherine gives her hand to the divine Child who is preparing to pass to her finger the ring, symbol of their union. “This forms the most delicious bouquet of hands ever painted in the center of a painting. It seems that they are made of the pulp of the lilies, so pure, delicate and noble with their fingers thinned in spindles and raised from the tip.” The expression of amorous ecstasy of the saint who marries with all her soul and for eternity the carefree bambino, is admirably restored. Behind the saint stood a Saint Sebastian of marvelous beauty, whose arrows, the symbol of his martyrdom, which he held in his hand, gave an appearance of Love.
In the depths of perspective, on the left, the painter had the ingenious idea of showing the two saints delivered to their executioners. But these episodes are of small dimensions, sketched slightly, drowned with shadows and treated so as not to distract attention from the main subject. In order to see them, they must be looked for very far, in the last place, and the eye, lovingly attached to the delicious figures of the Virgin, St. Catherine and the Child Jesus, does not gladly turn away from it.
“The one, writes Charles Blanc, who has seen, studied, admired this page of so delicate a feeling, is not far from understanding all the perfections of Correggio. The idea alone of the picture reveals a painter whose spirit abounds in charming inventions. St. Catherine, united to the divine Master by martyrdom suffered in her name, is called, in mystical language, the wife of Christ. The poetry, the imagination accept this symbolic designation. But how can we put before the Christian the marriage of Christ with a pure and beautiful virgin? Correggio knows it. It is not the Christ who has become man, the Christ descended from the cross and placed on the right of his father who presents the ring to the virgin martyr, is the Child born in Bethlehem, still on his knees mother. A naive and ingenious invention at once! The myth can be explained without effort: this Child can not be the husband of this woman; this union, impossible in this world, is a mystery that is fulfilled in heaven! The physiognomy of the mother expresses this inexhaustible complaisance, this devotion without limits, that love from the entrails of which no other painter had the feeling to the same degree as Correggio. The innocence of the virgin mingles with the blessedness of the saint on the figure of St. Catherine. As for the execution, it is marvelous of finesse, radiance in the flesh and transparency in the shadows.”
A delicate and tender painter of feminine beauty, Correggio gives to his heads of women and virgins an almost childlike grace, and, to him, the heads, younger than the bodies which have reached their full development, retain an air of innocence and a candid surprise. Nothing could be more piquant than this contrast, spared by an infinite art. In the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, in particular, the Virgin has that flower of extreme youth and the saint is not much older.
Théophile Gautier writes: “Under the light amber veil which time has thrown on this picture, one feels a silver coolness, blue reflections, mother-of-pearl tones, and all this range of charming shades asleep in the mystery of the clear where Correggio remained unrivaled.”
It is said that Correggio painted this picture on the occasion of the marriage of his sister, who was called Catherine. It is not certain that the artist gave it to the young woman; in any case, it did not preserve it for long, for it was found about the same time, in 1525, in the possession of a friend of Correggio, the doctor Grilenzoni. After having decorated the cabinet of the Comtesse Santa Fiora, this painting passed to Cardinal Sforza, who possessed it in 1614, and then to Cardinal Barberini, who gave it to Mazarin. Louis XIV bought it from the cardinal’s heirs in 1661. Since that time, Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine has not left the national collections and is now in the Salon Carré, of which it is one of the most precious jewels.
Height: 1.05 – Width: 1.02 – Half-length figures, natural size.
Translated By Nicolae Sfetcu from the book “Louvre Museum”, by Armand Dayot