Parmigianino – The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine

I thought I would share with you another one of my favourite, perhaps not so well known paintings – The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine by Parmigianino.

Parmigianino (Girolamo Mazzola, 1503-40) was a Renaissance painter much admired for both his landscapes and his Mannerist religious paintings. This painting (c.1530 – oil on panel, 74.2 x 57cm) was done while Parmigianino was living in Rome, and it was in Rome that he encountered Rosso Fiorentino, Giulio Romano and Perino del Vaga, the latter two having worked with Raphael and contributed to the Mannerist tendencies of Raphael’s late work. Symbolism and suggestiveness were the tools of the Mannerists and it is these elements that come through quite profoundly in this artwork.

St Catherine of Alexandria, the subject of this work, was supposedly the half-niece of Constantine the Great (although her actual existence is somewhat questionable). She became a queen and it is said that a hermit saw Our Lady in a vision during which he was told to tell Queen Catherine that her husband would be Jesus. This betrothal prevented her marrying Emperor Maxentius, who it is said had her thrown in jail, intending to kill her with spiked wheels. The legend goes on to say that whilst in jail she was fed by the angels and that when she was taken out to be killed, on the touch of her hand, the spiked wheels fell apart.

There is so much in this painting. Firstly, in the bottom right hand corner one can see one of the wheels which was designed to be the tool of her death – a powerful element in itself. The eyes of the viewer are however drawn to the centre of the painting, where the hands of the betrothed couple are illuminated, the elegant long fingers of Catherine adding to the beauty of this element of the painting. The child Christ looks upon but almost beyond Our Lady, while Our Lady appears to have a slight smile. Catherine herself is beautifully attired in gold and red, while the beading in her hair indicates her status. You then have the two figures at the back of the picture – perhaps discussing the act appearing in front of them. Finally, there is the male figure at the bottom left of the picture, an old man (perhaps Saint Joseph) not looking the participants but adding depth as well as being a study in itself.

This is gentle, beautiful, sensitive and delicate work, the fabrics are almost tangible and the moment captured here one of peace and destiny. I hope you enjoy it.



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