THE HOLY NIGHT (LA NOTTE)

In the northern part of Italy is the little town of Correggio, which gave its name to the painter whose works we are to study. His real name was Antonio Allegri, but in the sixteenth century a man would often be called by a nickname referring to some peculiarity, or to his birthplace. When Allegri went to Parma he was known as Antonio da Correggio, that is, Antonio from Correggio, and the name was then shortened to Correggio.

A large part of Correggio's work was mural decoration, painted on the surface of the plastered wall. Besides such frescoes he painted many separate pictures, mostly of sacred subjects to be hung over the altars of churches. The choice of subjects was much more limited in his day than now, and, with the exception of a few mythological paintings, all Correggio's themes were religious. The subject most often called for was that of the Madonna and Child. Madonna is the word, meaning literally My Lady, used by the Italians when speaking of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Madonna and Child is then a picture of the mother Mary holding the Christ-child.

Our illustration is from such a picture called "La Notte," the Italian for The Night. The night meant by the title is that on which Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa. It was at a time known in history as the Augustan Age, when Rome was the great world-power. Judæa was only an obscure province of the vast Roman Empire, but here was the origin of the influence which was to shape later history. The coming of Jesus brought a new force into the world.

The story of his infancy has been made familiar by the four Evangelists. He was born in surroundings which, in Roman eyes, were fit only for slaves. Mary and Joseph had come up from their own home to Bethlehem to pay the taxes exacted at Rome. The town was full of people on the same errand, and "there was no room for them in the inn." So it came about that the new-born babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger used for feeding cattle.

While he lay in this strange cradle his birth was made known by a vision of angels to some shepherds on the neighboring hillsides. At once they betook themselves joyfully to Bethlehem, the first to do honor to the new-born king. These homely visitors are gathered about the manger in Correggio's picture. The dark night is without, but a dazzling white light shines from the Holy Child.

THE HOLY NIGHT (DETAIL) Dresden GalleryTHE HOLY NIGHT (DETAIL)
Dresden Gallery

Our illustration shows only the centre of the picture, where the mother leans over her babe. The little form lies on a bundle of hay, completely encircled by her arms. The bend of her elbow makes a soft pillow for his head; her hands hold him fast in the snug nest. With brooding tenderness she regards the sleeping child.

A white cloth is wrapped loosely about the baby's body—the swaddling band, which, when tightly drawn, is to hold the figure straight. The fingers of one hand peep out from the folds, and one little foot is free. For the rest we see only the downy top of the baby's head and one plump shoulder. The little figure glows lite an incandescent body, and the mother's face is lighted as if she were bending over a fire. It is a girlish face, for we are told that Mary was a very young mother. The cares of life have not yet touched the smooth brow. In her happiness she smiles fondly upon her new treasure.

We have no authentic description of Mary, the mother of Jesus, but it is pleasant to try to picture her in imagination. As her character was a model of womanliness, it is natural to believe her face correspondingly beautiful. The old masters spent their lives in seeking an ideal worthy of the subject, and each one conceived her according to his own standards of beauty. Correggio's chief care was for the hair and hands, which he painted, as we see here, with exquisite skill. He was usually less interested in the other features, and the Madonna of our picture is exceptionally lovely among his works of this kind.

The picture of La Notte illustrates very strikingly an artistic quality for which Correggio is famous. This is chiaroscuro, or the art of light and shadow,—the art by which the objects and figures of a picture are made to seem enveloped in light and air, as in the actual world. The contrast between the bright light in the centre and the surrounding darkness gives vivid reality to the figures. There is also a symbolic meaning in the lighting of the picture. Christ is "the light of the world;" hence his form is the source of illumination.

Our picture was originally called by the simple title of The Nativity. Then the Italians, struck by the power with which the effect of midnight was produced, called it "La Notte," The Night. When it came to a German gallery the Germans called it "Die Heilige Nacht," The Holy Night. An old German Christmas carol interprets it so perfectly that it seems as if the author must have known the picture. These are the verses:—