MAGDALEN IN THE DESERT

(CORREGGIO)

AIMÉ GIRON

Correggio was a painter and a poet at the same time, interpreting Nature, flattering her, idealizing her, and realizing her creations in their double æsthetic expression, with undulating outlines and tender tones. His drawing was modelled and supple, with a certain vigour of line and a certain solidity of relief. He had a charming imagination of conception and a voluptuous grace in its accomplishment, which are requisites in the painting of women and children. He therefore excelled in rendering bambini. With a note-book in his hand, he studied them everywhere. This explains why his Loves and his Cherubs have such rare truth of mien, of flesh, and of life. His knowledge of anatomy is great and he foreshortens on canvas and ceiling astonishingly before the advent of Michael Angelo. His enchanting colouring, impasted like that of Giorgione, vivid as that of Titian, ran through the most delicate gradations and melted into the most elusive harmonies. Beneath his facile brush, soft and thick, the transparencies of the skin and the morbidezza of the flesh become ideal.

He was the first to apply himself to the choice of fabrics, and one of the first in Italy to attend to the scientific distribution of light. But, in the famous chiaroscuro he does not get his effects by contrasts, but by analogies, superimposing shadow upon shadow and light upon light, both being disposed in large masses and graduated in progression. This process occurs at its fullest in the Christmas Night, where the moon shines, and the child glows with radiance, in a kind of symbolic struggle between the natural light of this world and the supernatural light of the other. The effect is such that the spectator is forced instinctively to blink his eyes, as does the Shepherdess herself entering the stable.

"When Correggio excels he is a painter worthy of Athens," wrote Diderot, whose art criticism had in it more of sentiment than knowledge.

"With Correggio everything is large and graceful," said Louis Carrache, who gave Correggio a large place in his eclecticism. But after studying and weighing everything, from his somewhat excessive qualities it follows that Correggio was more of an idealist than a mystic and obeyed Art more than Faith, with a leaning towards the apotheosis of form. He painted Io and Jupiter for Frederick Gonzaga of Mantua. This picture having passed to the son of the Regent, the two passionate heads so strongly troubled his prudery that he cut them out and burned them. Coypel then begged the Prince to spare the rest and to give it to him. He obtained it on condition that "he would make good use of it," and on the death of Coypel, M. Pasquier, député du Commerce de Rouen, paid 16,500 livres for the mutilated remains, as I find in a very old account.

Magdalen. Correggio

Magdalen.
Correggio

All the great museums of the world possess Correggios, and I will only mention the exquisite Saint Catherine and the resplendent Antiope of the Louvre; the Danaë of the Borghese Gallery, a chef-d'œuvreof grace and delicacy; and, finally, in the Dresden Gallery, our Magdalen in the Desert, that jewel so well-known and so often reproduced.

This Magdalen as a matter of fact holds the first place among the small Correggios. There are two kinds of Magdalens in art: I. the Repentant, emaciated, growing ugly, disfigured by tears and penitence at the end of her life, with a skull in her hand or before her eyes, not having had even—like the one sculptured in the Cathedral of Rouen—"for three times ten winters any other vesture than her long hair," according to Petrarch's verse; II. the Sinner, always young, always beautiful, always seductive, who has not lost any of her charms nor even of her coquetry, and with whom the Book of Life takes the place of the Death's Head.

Our Magdalen belongs to the latter class. In a solitary spot, but attractive with its verdure and rocks, on a grassy knoll the saint is stretched out at full length, with her shoulder, her bosom, her arms, and her feet adorably bare. A blue fabric drapes the rest of her body and forms a coquettish hood for her head and neck. Her flesh has a robust elegance of line. Leaning on her right elbow, her hand, half hidden in her hair, supports a charming and meditative head, while her other arm is slipped under an open manuscript. Her hair, long and blonde, according to legend—which she loves and still cares for because it once wiped the feet of her Saviour—falls in thick curls, or strays at will with a premeditated abandon. On the ground, to her right, stands the vase of perfumes of her first adoration; to the left are the stones of her supreme expiation.