Correggio Paints the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Correggio painted the dome interior of the major cathedral in Parma which, in subsequent centuries, drew foreign visitors and artists to the city to witness his brilliant illusion of recessive space, and his assertion of the importance of Marian imagery for Roman Catholic dogma in an age of Reformation.

Summary of Event

In November of 1522, a commission for the decoration of the Cathedral of Parma was awarded to the Italian painter Correggio. He was to provide fresco decorations of the apse, octagonal dome, and choir, and although he was able to complete only the cupola, and not until 1530, the results were monumental. The subject of the dome fresco was the Assumption of the Virgin, who was one of the major patron saints of the city. The subject was also an important assertion of Marian imagery at a time when the Catholic Church had suffered attacks by Martin Luther (in 1517) and other Protestant reformers. Painting;Italy Assumption of the Virgin (Correggio) Correggio Clement VII (1478-1534) Luther, Martin Luther, Martin Clement VII Parmigianino Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti) Paul III Correggio

Before Correggio had completed his fresco, during the unfortunate papacy of Clement VII, Rome itself would suffer the sack of 1527 by renegade Swiss, German, and Spanish troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Shortly after Correggio finished his Assumption of the Virgin, Henry VIII would be excommunicated by Clement VII for his divorce of Catherine of Aragon just days before the pope’s death. Although these events were unforeseen, they accentuated the cupola fresco as a grand, visible assertion of Catholic dogma against Protestant reformers. Catholicism;Italy Divorce;religious dogma and

Eight ocular windows at the base of the octagonal dome illuminate the fresco. Decorative aspects were delegated to assistants who included the young Parmigianino. The Virgin, borne physically to paradise by a maelstrom of angels, is almost lost in the billowing clouds and swarm of figures. Correggio places her in the lower portion of the cupola opposite the nave and closest to the apse at the east end.

The center of the dome is open to a divine brilliance outlined by ascending, circling angels. Its base is defined by an illusionistic cornice (which a century later fooled Queen Christina, who wished to ascend to it). This base is supported by four squinches, each of which contains one of the patron saints of Parma (John the Baptist, Joseph, Hilary of Poitiers, and Bernard degli Uberti) as ecstatic figures on billowing clouds in shell niches (added after March 19, 1528). The city seal of Parma showed the Virgin flanked by Saints John the Baptist and Hilary. Torch-bearing youths along the rim of the cupola are reminiscent of Michelangelo’s nudes in the Sistine ceiling, and other poses are permutations of the Hellenistic Laocoön sculpture as a prototype.

The topmost circle of figures includes Old and New Testament worthies, and slightly lower is the Virgin accompanied by almost fifty gleeful angels. The figures diminish in size as they ascend, reinforcing the illusion of recession in the dome. Below, at the level of the circular windows, are eleven gigantic apostles who were witnesses to Mary’s ascent, two of whom in a gesture of epiphania shield their eyes against her divine radiance. They may have been inspired by their counterparts in Titian’s altarpiece of the same subject in Venice (Santa Maria dei Frari, 1516-1519). The Virgin melds with the clouds and angelic host, with only her dangling bare feet, open hands, and foreshortened face visible. Three studies in Dresden and London (British Museum) reveal the contortions Correggio gave her pose in his studies, Michelangelo’s Jonah in the Sistine ceiling as his inspiration.

Correggio calls attention to Mary through the strongly illuminated rolling cloud and back of the angel below her, and her rose-colored robe and blue cloak, the traditional hues symbolizing her humanitiy and divine protection. Her open gesture with upturned palms alludes to the orans mode of prayer recorded in the Old Testament and in catacomb paintings in early Church history. The antiphon of the Mass for the feast of the Assumption carries the pledge of Mary’s intercession for the citizens of Parma: “The doors to paradise are open for us through you, who today triumph in glory with the angels.”

The unparalleled sense of celebration in the angels had not been seen since Donatello (1386-1466) graced the choir loft of Florence cathedral with his coursing putti. The angels’ raison d’Ětre, according to the sixteenth century Catechism, is to praise, honor, and glorify God, which they do here by conducting Mary to the opening vault of heaven bathed in divine brilliance. Many of the angels hold musical instruments as if in response to Psalm 150, to

Praise the Lord in His sanctuary; . . . Praise Him with trumpet sound; . . . with lute and harp! . . . with timbrel and dance; . . . with strings and pipe! . . . with sounding cymbals,

and to the Legenda aurea (c. 1260, pb. 1470; The Golden Legend, 1483), by the Dominican friar Jacopo de Voragine (c. 1228-1298), which describes the angelic orders in musical jubilation.

The dome represented a brilliant visual statement by Correggio for its scale, its creation of a credible illusionistic space, and its fusion of tumbling figures, many in exaggeratedly foreshortened and in varied poses encyclopedic in scope. The brilliant light, soft tangible forms, compelling sentiment, and palpabale figures in convincing flight were some of the qualities that attracted northern European artists to Parma and Correggio’s frescoes during the Baroque period.

Correggio’s contract for the cupola as dictated to the anonymous canons of the cathedral required 1,000 gold scudi plus lime, scaffolding, and a closed storage room. Correggio most likely studied wax and clay models suspended from strings for his levitating angels, a practice later followed by Tintoretto (1518-1594). A single such figure could serve as a model for many poses when viewed from different angles.

Luther and the other Protestant reformers had argued against the efficacy of the Sacraments and the need for a priesthood, stressing faith alone as necessary for salvation. The Church countered by asserting its legitimacy through the continuity of the Scriptures and holy tradition. Correggio’s fresco was part of that tradition in its incorporation of saints from the Old and New Testaments, based on an iconography that derived from sacred scriptures.


Correggio’s Assumption of the Virgin led to no further grand commissions for the artist, and it is reported to have received a mixed reception, one critic apparently calling it “a stew of frog’s legs.” However, later painters admired the fresco, and Correggio’s contemporaries ranked the artist with Raphael (1483-1520), Michelangelo (1475-1564), and Titian (c. 1490-1576).

The fresco’s completion was accompanied by the Treaty of Cambrai (1529), when French king Francis I renounced French claims to Italy and papal fortunes began to take a turn for the better with Clement’s successor to the papacy, Paul III. Paul would inaugurate the Counter-Reformation in following decades with the approval of the Jesuit order in 1540, founded by Ignatius of Loyola, and the establishment of the Council of Trent five years later. In subsequent decades, Ignatius’s Jesuits would reclaim Poland from the Calvanists and extend the faith to India, China, and Japan in the wake of Portuguese merchant fleets. The conquest of the Aztec and Inca empires in the 1520’s prepared the Church for the bloodletting of its own martyrs, and the introduction of gunpowder into sixteenth century warfare added particular resonance to Correggio’s illuminated clouds.

In the seventeenth century, art historians Giovanni Pietro Bellori and Filippo Baldinucci extolled Correggio’s virtues as a painter. In the eighteenth century, painters Antoine Watteau, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Anton Raphael Mengs studied his paintings for models. Although in the nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin and historian Jacob Burckhardt, in his Der Cicerone of 1855, lamented the moral tone of Correggio’s dome frescoes, they admitted their compelling visual force. Parma continued to be a pilgrimage site during the Grand Tour: In 1846, novelist Charles Dickens in Pictures from Italy lamented the physical condition of Correggio’s Assumption of the Virgin but acknowledged that connoisseurs still fell into raptures over it, marveling himself at the dome’s labyrinth of figures and the artist’s imaginative entanglement of limbs.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bambach, Carmen, Hugo Chapman, Martin Clayton, and George Goldner. Correggio and Parmigianino: Master Draftsmen of the Renaissance, London: British Museum Press, 2000. Catalog of an impressive exhibition of Parmigianino’s drawings, with two samples of studies for the Parma Cathedral’s Assumption.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeGrazia, Diane. Correggio and His Legacy. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1984. Catalog for an exhibition of drawings by Correggio and his followers, including color reproductions and two studies for the Parma Cathedral dome.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ekserdjian, David. Correggio. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. A comprehensive study of the artistic career of the painter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Cecil. The Paintings of Correggio. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976. A monographic study of the artist’s corpus of paintings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manca, Joseph. “Stylistic Intentions in Correggio’s Assunta.” Notes in the History of Art 7 (1987): 14-20. The author argues that the intended view of the dome is from the nave. where the figures and gestures have greatest clarity, and not from the presbytery, where Correggio’s illusionism fails.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shearman, John. Only Connect . . . : Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. The author contends that in the fresco, Christ awaits Mary, who ascends from her tomb in the space below the illusionistic balustrade occupied by the spectator.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smyth, Carolyn. Correggio Frescoes in Parma Cathedral. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. A historiography with a viewing of the fresco from various vantage points in the nave of the cathedral.

1469-1492: Rule of Lorenzo de’ Medici

1477-1482: Work Begins on the Sistine Chapel

c. 1478-1519: Leonardo da Vinci Compiles His Notebooks

1495-1497: Leonardo da Vinci Paints The Last Supper

c. 1500: Netherlandish School of Painting

c. 1500: Revival of Classical Themes in Art

1508-1520: Raphael Paints His Frescoes

1508-1512 and 1534-1541: Michelangelo Paints the Sistine Chapel

1532: Holbein Settles in London

Dec. 23, 1534-1540: Parmigianino Paints Madonna with the Long Neck

1563-1584: Construction of the Escorial

June, 1564: Tintoretto Paints for the Scuola di San Rocco

Categories: History