Historical context plays a great role in the analysis of any work of art allowing better understanding of its meaning and thematic content. It helps to make judgments about elements of art and principles of design employed in a particular painting or sculpture since general artistic tendencies of the periods, prevailing social morale, and other features that are not directly related to “pure” art also influence these aspects. This paper is devoted to the analysis of the historical context of Correggio’s painting titled Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist (c. 1515, oil on panel), which is currently exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. This work of art is a perfect illustration of many principles, which are characteristic for the High Renaissance, and shows the artist’s humanistic approach to handling religious subjects.
Correggio’s painting depicts a very popular religious scene – the Virgin sitting with two infants – Christ and St. John the Baptist. These three people are look like as a unified group, in which Christ plays the main role although he is depicted as a small child while St. Mary is portrayed as an adult woman. There is no evidence in the Bible that Christ and St. John met when they were little boys as it shows the painting but this scene was quite popular in art of the High Renaissance and Baroque. It was often interpreted as the metaphoric preparation for their adult relations connected with the episode when St. John baptized Christ. Correggio’s painting presents quite similar situation. The body of the Virgin and her clothes cover more than a half of painting but the focal points of the composition are Christ and his blessing gesture. Behind the Virgin, there is a distant landscape with mountains and trees in the blue mist. A pergola that supports lemon trees occupies the left part of the background. In this painting, Correggio showed himself, first of all, as a wonderful and creative colorist since the color schemes played a huge role in maintaining the balance and supporting the composition in general. For instance, the greenness of the lemon leaves is perfectly matched with the lining of the Virgin’s mantle while St. John’s clothes and blue mountains in the distance intensify the color of the fabric of the upper part of her cloak. The Virgin’s face is very beautiful and serene. Together with two infants, she forms a perfect triangular composition. Everything on this painting is modeled to look three-dimensional and realistic although it is obvious that Correggio prioritizes beauty in balance rather than true depiction of real people.
To understand the historical context of this work better, it is necessary to consider the biographical information about the life of the artist. He was born in August 1489 in a town of Correggio. His father was a merchant but there was a reputable painter in the family – his uncle Lorenzo Allegri. When Correggio was about 14 years old, he moved to Modena to study and work as an apprentice of Francesco Bianchi Ferrara. He used to make occasional trips to Mantua where he worked on commission for monasteries and churches. At the beginning of his artistic career, Correggio handled mostly religious subjects but later, he also became interested in mythological themes. Approximately in 1515-16, Correggio moved to Parma where he worked for the rest of his career. He decorated the convent of St. Paul, the church of San Giovanni Evangelista, the dome of the Cathedral of Parma, and many other religious buildings. Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist occupies a crucial place in Correggio’s oeuvre since it marks his arrival to Parma and the beginning of the transition from classical principles and ideas of the High Renaissance to the Mannerism style that prevailed at the later stages of his career. This painting is created mostly according to the classical ideals but it is already possible to see the beginning of the transitional period in Correggio’s oeuvre. However, the shapes and forms of Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist are not distorted and elongated as it can be seen on his later paintings. Correggio did not communicate much with his contemporaries since he was quite an introverted person. Therefore, he did not have any disciples. He died on March 5, 1534 after returning to his native town of Correggio.
This painting was created approximately in 1515, during the period, which was usually referred to as the High Renaissance. It was a peak of the Renaissance marked by the works of probably the most famous Italian painters and sculptors including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael among others. It is quite difficult to define the exact time frames of this period but it is believed that it began when Leonardo da Vinci finished working on his Last Supper in about 1498 and finished when the Spanish army of Charles V invaded Rome, looted many important buildings, and even destroyed them. During the High Renaissance the ideals of humanism and great interest to antiquity were thriving in all spheres of life including arts. It is important that not only artists, writers, philosophers, and intellectuals but also wealthy political elite promoted the Renaissance. Influential patrons allowed artists to develop their creative potential by placing many orders for paintings and sculptures. Almost all famous works of the High Renaissance were created on commission. For example, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, ordered Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, and the representatives of Medici family commissioned Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera. Unfortunately, the patron who asked the artist to create Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist is unknown but he is likely to be a person of high social status in Mantua or Parma where Correggio lived at that period. There is also much unknown about this painting not only in terms of a patron who commissioned it but also concerning its further provenance. The information about the owners of Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist till the nineteenth century is unavailable. The first written records say that Baron Nicholas Massias owned the painting in 1815. In ten years, it was sold to Laneuville and Lacoste. Then, there was another empty period in the history of that painting since it was supposed to be in a private German collection till the end of the Second World War. A Milanese collector bought it somewhere close to the end of the war and sold to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1965. This date is considered to be the “rebirth” of this painting for broader public since all the time before, it was kept in private collections without the access of viewers to it.
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Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist perfectly reflects the main principles of High Renaissance. First of all, there is the focus on harmony and balance in the painting. The artists paid much attention to the composition of their art works since they had to produce the impression of stability and elegance. In almost all cases, the artists valued beauty and harmony much more than realism; although, it would be a mistake to say that they rejected it. On the contrary, the painters and sculptors devoted much time to getting better understanding of the nature and human body, and, as a result, it significantly improved the realistic depiction of landscapes, people, and other objects in comparison with the art of the medieval period. Another important aspect of Correggio’s Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist that is crucial for highlighting the connectedness of this work with the general artistic tendencies of the High Renaissance is the new humanistic perspective of religious themes. In the medieval times, the saints were portrayed as beings belonging to the heavenly world and having almost nothing in common with ordinary people. Correggio as well as other Renaissance artists, for example, Michelangelo or Botticelli made the saints from their paintings look quite realistic and “understandable” to people. One of the first paintings that showed the above-mentioned tendency was Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, which depicted the Christ disciples’ emotional reaction on His words about the betrayal. The same principles demonstrates the proposed painting by Correggio: infant St. John is very curious about the actions of Christ, and the Virgin looks at both of them with motherly devotion and even, probably, humor since there is a faint smile on her lips.
The body of the Virgin from Correggio’s painting is slightly turned to one side that is the “sitting” version of the classical contrapposto – a pose characteristic for a great portion of Renaissance portraits. It was very popular in the ancient sculpture, and the artists of the Renaissance period frequently borrowed it for their works. The Virgin as well as bodies of St. John and Christ form stable and well-proportioned pyramid. That stability was greatly appreciated during the proposed period since according to the wide-spread philosophy of that time, art was supposed to elevate people showing them to be idealized versions of the reality.
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It is quite easy to trace the influence of other artists in Correggio’s oeuvre although the painter still had his own distinctive style. Nevertheless, as it has already been mentioned, it is likely that Correggio received the initial training from Lorenzo Allegri who was his uncle but no information was available about the impact of Allegri’s style on Correggio’s artistic career at its early stages. However, his first paintings that were created when he moved to Modena showed quite obvious influence of such classicists as Lorenzo Costa and Francesco Francia. Comparing Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist with the paintings by Costa, especially Virgin and Child Enthroned or The Portrait of Cardinal Bibbiena, it becomes obvious that Correggio deeply admired Costa’s approach to composing the color schemes of the paintings and his methods of using colors to intensify the focal points of the compositions. It is also necessary to mention that Correggio was a good connoisseur of Andrea Mantegna’s art, and it is supposed that he may have painted the frescos of Mantegna’s family chapel in a large church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua. “Although his early works are pervaded with his knowledge of Mantegna’s art, his artistic temperament was more akin to that of Leonardo da Vinci who had a commanding influence upon almost all of the Renaissance painters of northern Italy.” For example, there are many similarities between Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist and many of Leonard da Vinci’s paintings including The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne among others. These two paintings demonstrate great similarities in the composition (both artists preferred classical triangular center) and the way the authors interpreted the faces and facial expression. Therefore, Correggio worked in the context with other Renaissance artists borrowing main principles of composition or color balance from them but managed to maintain his special style.
The works of Correggio are good examples of how the social attitude towards art may change in the course of time. He was quite popular during his lifetime, and Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist was likely to be considered one of his best paintings though there were no written records about that. However, after his death, his works were mostly forgotten. “Correggio had no immediate successors, nor did he have any lasting influence on the art of his century, but toward 1580 his work began to be appreciated by Federico Barrocci and Annibale Carracci.” Vasari introduces him as one of the leading artists of the Northern Italy. Later, the descriptions of his paintings were found in the diaries and letters of the Europeans who travelled to Italy in the eighteenth century when Romanticism was a prevailing artistic movement. It led to growing interest to Correggio and his oeuvre. His paintings also had a huge impact on the Baroque artists who admired his distorted forms and mysticism.
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All things considered, Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist is the impressive manifestation of core philosophic and artistic principles of the High Renaissance – humanism, focus on harmony, and attention to three-dimensionality. This painting goes in line with the works of other major painters of this period including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo among others. It is also possible to trace the influence of the artists whose works inspired Correggio at the beginning of his career, for example, Costa and Mantegna. This painting is also important since it presents a landmark in Correggio’s oeuvre and a turning point from classical Renaissance to Mannerism.