The infant Christ places a ring on Saint Catherine’s finger in her vision of a ‘mystic marriage’. Parmigianino has positioned the gold ring with a blue stone at the very centre of the painting. Beside Saint Catherine is the spiked wheel upon which she was tortured for her Christian faith.
The identity and significance of the pair of figures in the distant room is unclear. The placement of the large male head in profile in the lower left corner is also very odd; the halo suggests he is Saint Joseph.
Parmigianino was influenced by a painting of the same subject by Correggio (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples). However, Parmigianino has created a more mysterious and consciously ‘artificial’ image. This work may have been painted in Bologna after the artist fled from Rome in 1527, when the city was sacked by the troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.
The infant Christ turns to look back at his mother as he places a ring on Saint Catherine’s finger. Parmigianino has made the gold ring with a blue stone the focal point of the painting by positioning it at the intersection of two diagonals that follow the lines of the figures.
The scene takes place in a room lit by a high circular window, but the figures are also strongly lit from the front, highlighting the Virgin’s long elegant neck and throwing her face into shadow. The Virgin and Saint Catherine are both in profile; it is unusual for so little of the Virgin’s face to be visible. Through a door at the centre of the painting we glimpse another room with a bright rectangular window, and an unidentified pair of figures looking at one another – one an elderly man, the other a woman in shadow or possibly with dark skin. It is not clear who these figures are or why they are framed in the doorway above the ring. The placement of the large male head in profile in the lower left corner is also very odd; the halo suggests that he is Saint Joseph, although none of the other holy figures have halos. He appears to be based on the bearded figure on the left of Correggio’s Holy Family now in Hampton Court Palace.
Saint Catherine is accompanied by her attribute of a spiked wooden wheel, which refers to the manner of her martyrdom. According to the Golden Legend, she was born to a noble family at the beginning of the fourth century in Alexandria, Egypt. As a young woman, Catherine converted to Christianity and publicly criticised the Emperor Maxentius for his persecution of Christians. The Emperor arranged for 50 philosophers to debate with Catherine to convince her that she was wrong, as he wished to have her as his mistress. At the end of hours of debate, she converted them to Christianity. She informed the Emperor that not only had she taken a pledge to remain a virgin, but that she had had a dream in which she had married Christ. The Emperor condemned Catherine to death and had wheels with iron spikes make to tear her apart. Catherine prayed to God, who destroyed the wheels. The Emperor then ordered her to be executed. As his soldiers dragged her away to be beheaded, she heard Christ’s voice from heaven saying that she was his bride and that a seat next to him was waiting for her in heaven.
Parmigianino depicts Catherine’s vision of her ‘mystic marriage’ with Christ. He was influenced by the painting of the same subject by Correggio, now in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples. However, Parmigianino has reinterpreted Correggio’s composition to create a more strange and elegant image, reflecting his own preoccupations with self-conscious style and artifice. Parmigianino’s colours are acid bright, the draperies swirl with movement and figures twist and turn into shadow, their limbs and fingers unnaturally elongated. The surface of his painting is alive with his rapid feathery brushstrokes, creating translucent fabrics and dissolving forms according to his own dream-like inner vision. The picture may have been painted in Bologna after Parmigianino fled from Rome when it was sacked in 1527 by the troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.
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