The Virgin Mary sits under a tree in a simple gown of faded rose, her work basket with its iron shears and ball of grey wool at her side. She is trying a grey jacket she has just made on the Christ Child, which may be the seamless coat that legend claims grew with him and for which the soldiers cast lots at the foot of the cross (John 19: 23–4).The wriggly child stretches his arms out in a manner that may be meant to foreshadow the Crucifixion, his right hand in a blessing gesture. The atmosphere is suffused with tenderness.
Joseph is in the background, at work in his trade as a carpenter. The holy family’s simple home has been built alongside grandiose ruins – a symbol of the new faith rising out of the wreckage of pagan antiquity. The picture is a soft harmony of grey-pinks and grey-blues with the gentle, smoky quality for which Correggio is famous.
This is one of the most perfectly preserved paintings in the National Gallery. It is also one of the only small paintings by Correggio whose original patron is known. In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari records a painting by Correggio in which ‘Our Lady puts a shirt on the Christ Child’ in the collection of Cavaliere Francesco Baiardo. Baiardo was Correggio’s friend and protector, and later became Parmigianino’s greatest patron.
The Virgin Mary sits under a tree, her work basket with its iron shears and ball of grey wool at her side, trying a grey jacket she has just made on the Christ Child. It may be the seamless coat that legend claims grew with him and for which the soldiers cast lots at the foot of the Cross (John 19:23–4). The wriggly child stretches his arms out in a manner that may be meant to foreshadow the Crucifixion. He reaches towards the sun-dappled leaves, his right hand in a gesture that recalls the act of blessing. Mary is not wearing her traditional regal robes of ultramarine blue but a simple gown of faded rose.
The picture is a soft harmony of grey-pinks and grey-blues. Correggio learned his famous softness from the gradual smoky fade from shadow to light that he saw in Leonardo’s Milanese paintings. His approach to colour and the blur and shimmer of his brush also reveal the influence of Venetian painters such as Titian. The atmosphere is one of innocence, and maternal and filial love, suffused with tenderness. In its intensity of emotion, the Madonna of the Basket is very close to Correggio’s Lamentation of 1524 (Galleria Nazionale, Parma), suggesting a similar date. The diagonal composition (falling from top left down to bottom right), the twisting pose of the Virgin and the extreme foreshortening of Christ’s leg are made to seem effortless, demonstrating Correggio’s mastery of his art.
Joseph can be seen in the background, pale as if in a haze of sawdust in the sunshine, at work with a plane in his trade as a carpenter. The family’s simple home has been built alongside grandiose ruins – a symbol of the new faith rising out of the wreckage of pagan antiquity. The ruins and image of Joseph working recall Dürer’s print of the Holy Family in Egypt (British Museum, London), revealing Correggio’s interest in German art.
Correggio has depicted the modest domestic life of the holy family to stress the humility of Christ and the Virgin and their all too human sufferings. These down-to-earth, familiar details and the deep sentiment of the scene are intended to make the holy family seem approachable and emotionally open to us. This approach prefigures developments in seventeenth-century religious art.
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