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Antonio Allegri Correggio (c. 1489-1534)

Saint Catherine Reading c.1530-32

Oil on canvas | 64.5 x 52.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 405768

East Closet, Hampton Court Palace

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  • According to the Golden Legend, St Catherine of Alexandria was a young girl of royal birth who was desired by the Roman Emperor Maxentius (AD 306-12). She refused either to marry him or renounce her Christian faith, and he ordered her to be tortured to death on a spiked wheel, but it shattered miraculously. Maxentius then had her beheaded. Catherine was particularly known for her learning: here a broken fragment of her wheel provides a convenient resting place for her book, while she holds a martyr’s palm in her other hand.

    Several old copies after this painting expand the composition to show St Catherine kneeling either full-length or three-quarter length. Normally this sort of evidence suggests that an original painting has been cut down, which is not the case here: cusping is visible at all the edges, revealing the presence of the stretched edge of the original canvas. Other copies record the St Catherine more or less in its present size. Most scholars have accepted the painting as autograph and date it as one of Correggio’s last works.

    The subtlety of the colours and sensitivity of Correggio’s touch have been revealed by the recent removal of discoloured varnish and overpaint. Correggio used the grey ground to give a cool, soft translucency to the skin, with the pink on grey turning to purple for the shadows. Warmth is given by the bright touches of vermilion on the lips and nostril and touches of brown in the corners of the eyes. Typical of Correggio’s late style are the unnaturally large eyes, the horizontally shaped rather than curved eyebrows, the delicate ear and the round, soft hands with boneless fingers. St Catherine’s features link the painting to Correggio’s late series of mythologies (c.1530) depicting Jupiter’s loves: this same pearly softness is seen in the female faces of his ‘Danaë’ (Galleria Borghese, Rome), the ‘Jupiter and Io’ (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and his ‘Leda and the Swan’ (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).

    Vasari singled out the lovely colour and exquisite finish of Correggio’s painting of hair, ‘with each single hair visible ... they seemed like gold and more beautiful than real hair’. A blue silk band is wound through plaits of soft, fine hair around St Catherine’s head, in an arrangement that resembles that of Io and Danaë. The cuff of her chemise around her right hand is a rare passage of liveliness in this quiet image.

    The idea of representing St Catherine half-length, resting on a wheel and holding a martyr’s palm, can be found also in the work of north Italian painters such as Cesare de Sesto, Garofalo, Dosso Dossi and Lorenzo Lotto. A similar painting by Leonardo’s pupil, Bernardino Luini in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, also shows the saint reading a book. This suggests that Correggio’s mysterious image may ultimately derive from a composition created or inspired by Leonardo.

    Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007
    Provenance

    Acquired by Charles I, Charles II or James II and first recorded in James II inventory, 1688

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas

    Measurements

    64.5 x 52.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    74.9 x 62.2 x 3.5 cm (frame, external)