Sixteenth Century Journal
Art and Reform: Correggio’s
Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian
Villa I Tatti, Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies
This article is a discussion of the interrelations and tension between art and reform in
early cinquecento Italy with a focus on Correggio’s Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine
with St. Sebastian. In particular, examination is made of the ways in which Correggio’s
picture relates to notions of faith and docta pietas that were central to the world of its
first viewer and potential patron, Francesco Grillenzoni from Modena. Special atten-
tion is dedicated to the representation of St. Sebastian, whose sensual figure is not dis-
tinguishable from that of an alluring Cupid. Consideration is given to how and why
Correggio portrayed the saint as a nova creatura, that is, as the vehicle of human trans-
formation and regeneration, thereby creating a new kind of devotional imagery.
CORREGGIO’S RELIGIOUS PRODUCTION OF THE 1520S marked the pinnacle of
his achievements, embodying sacramental and allegorical Christian narratives with
an unprecedented softness and liveliness. As a painter of sacred images, he was an
innovator. Nourished by the tradition of Lorenzo Costa, Francesco Francia, and
Leonardo, Correggio advanced their lesson. He impregnated his imagery with a
spiritual poetry that reveals truths more directly to the viewers, while drawing
them affectively into the painted subjects. The appeal to the emotions and to pietis-
tic sentiments solicited by the figures’ pleasing features, their graceful gestures and
appropriate movements represented a subtle compromise between the sensual
beauties of Renaissance art and the pious serenity of a moving devotional language.
Yet little of Correggio’s religious art, especially his private commissions, has been
related to the social and cultural contexts in which it originated and to the broader
issues addressed in contemporary spiritual writings. This essay will focus on a pri-
vate religious picture that he produced in the 1520s, the Mystic Marriage of St.
Catherine with St. Sebastian (fig. 1), proposing an interpretation that would have
been especially meaningful for its owner-viewer and possible patron, the patrician
Francesco Grillenzoni of Modena.1 My goal is to connect the magisterial fusion of
subject and form displayed by Correggio to discourses of faith and pietas that were
central to contemporary discussions in learned circles, articulating how he reacted
to the artistic and religious climate of early cinquecento Italy in this work. For the
intense religious sentiments expressed in the figures, this image represented some-
1The chronology of Correggio’s Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian remains a matter
of debate in the scholarship. Adolfo Venturi, Cecil Gould, and David Ekserdjian, stressing similarities
between this painting and Correggio’s Madonna of St. Jerome—for example, the use of thick pigments
and the scheme of multiple scenes—suggested they were painted ca. 1527–28; see Adolfo Venturi, Storia
dell’arte italiana: La pittura del Cinqueccento (Milan: Hoepli, 1926), 544; Cecil Gould, The Paintings of Cor-
reggio (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), 117, 236–37; David Ekserdjian, Correggio (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1997), 150. In contrast, Corrado Ricci proposed an earlier date, ca. 1522–24:
Corrado Ricci, Antonio Allegri da Correggio: His Life, His Friends, and His Time, trans. Florence Sim-
monds (London: Heinemann, 1896), 1:170.
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684 Sixteenth Century Journal XXXVIII/3 (2007)
Fig. 1. Correggio, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian, oil on panel, Louvre,
Paris. Photo: Scala / Art Resouce, NY. Used by permission.
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Periti / Correggio’s "Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian" 685
thing of a new beginning. It was among the first of a new species of private devo-
tional works that, rather than arousing their interest in the Christian narrative,
invited the devotees to emphatic meditation.
The earliest reference to Correggio’s Mystic Marriage comes from Giorgio
Vasari. In his life of Girolamo da Carpi, Vasari reports that Girolamo went to
Modena to study and copy this picture, which was located in Francesco Grillen-
zoni’s household.2 A well-balanced arrangement of the protagonists, which confers
a poetic unity to the composition, characterizes this scene: the Virgin, wrapped in
a voluminous red robe, holds the naked Child on her knees on the left, while the
kneeling St. Catherine of Alexandria, accompanied by a standing St. Sebastian,
occupies the right half of the painting. In the landscape are small-size episodes of
the martyrdoms of St. Catherine and St. Sebastian. The work’s almost square
format and its scale—large for a domestic work—give it a certain impact, as
recorded by Vasari:
this was a large picture, a divine work, in which is the Madonna, the
Child in her arms marrying St. Catherine, a Saint Sebastian and other fig-
ures, which have such a lovely air of heads that they appear as if made in
Paradise; nor is it possible to see more beautiful hair, more delicate hands,
or any coloring more pleasing and natural.3
According to Vasari, Correggio’s Mystic Marriage excels in two categories: the col-
oring and the graceful appearance of the figures’ heads (“aria di teste”).4 In
describing the perfection of Correggio’s art and the paradisiacal location of St.
Catherine’s mystical union, Vasari evokes simultaneously the supreme beauty of a
naturalistic pictorial language and the artist’s creation of “a divine work.” Correg-
gio constructed his ideally naturalistic beauty through the blending of colors, the
golden lighting on the figures’ faces, and the positioning of the eyes. Vasari’s
description, however, does not mention the pain and suffering of the martyred
saints. Placed in the landscape setting, their contorted bodies are made of vulnera-
ble flesh rendered with large brushstrokes. Yet what was the beholder to make of
the figural and narratival opposition between the protagonists’ charming features
and the tormented bodies of the martyred saints? What is the meaning that these
exempla of devotion and faith conveyed to the viewer? For a satisfactory answer to
these questions one must consider the religious orientation of its first owner,
2Giorgio Vasari, “Vita di Benvenuto Garofalo e Girolamo da Carpi ed altri Lombardi,” in Le vite
de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architettori, ed. Rosanna Bettarini and Paola Barocchi (Florence: Studio
per Edizioni Scelte, 1984), 5:415. The english translation reads “Having therefore received permission
to copy the painting from its owner, Messer Francesco Grillenzoni, a doctor who was much a friend of
Correggio, Girolamo copied it with the greatest diligence possible to imagine.” Such a copy was found
in Douai. Umberto Gnoli, “L’arte italiana in alcune gallerie francesi di provincia: Note di viaggio,” Ras-
segna d’Arte 8, no. 9 (1908): 158. For other copies of Correggio’s picture, see Maddalena Spagnolo, Cor-
reggio: Geografia e storia della fortuna (1528–1657) (Milan: Silvana, 2005), 102, 220.
3Vasari, “Vita di Benvenuto Garofalo e Girolamo da Carpi,” 5:415.
4On the origin and multilayered meanings of the term “aria,” see David Summers, “ARIA II: The
Union of Image and Artist as an Aesthetic Ideal in Renaissance Art,” Artibus et historiae 10, no. 20
(1989): esp. 21–25.
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686 Sixteenth Century Journal XXXVIII/3 (2007)
Francesco Grillenzoni, in order to delineate the picture’s context of reception.5 I
will provide a detailed account of the demand for religious reform in Modena,
which constituted not merely the background to Correggio’s imagery, but also
directly informed the construction of its subject and the way in which it was
understood by those for whom it was made.6
Francesco Grillenzoni belonged to a family whose members had held promi-
nent positions in Modena for centuries. He was the son of Giovanni Andrea, who
sat on the ruling Consiglio dei Conservatori (the council of the conservators) in
1510 and 1516.7 As a “iudice ale vituarie” (judge of the victuals) in 1518, he col-
laborated with Francesco Guicciardini, the papal governor of Modena from 1516
until 1524.8 Given this collaboration, Grillenzoni’s father doubtless knew and per-
haps was even exposed to the discussions which took place in Guicciardini’s house-
hold about the nature of the church’s temporal power and the contrast between
belligerent popes and their pious predecessors. These conversations, as Guicciardini
reports, were nurtured through reading passages from Erasmus of Rotterdam’s
Sileni Alcibiadis (1508) and his Moriae Encomium(1511).9
Among Giovanni Andrea’s sons, Francesco pursued a brilliant juridical
career.10 He was first appointed Coinservatore in 1531 in Modena and was reelected
in 1532 and 1540.11 Francesco alternated in these appointments with his cousin
Bartolomeo, also a jurist, whose career intersected and paralleled Francesco’s. He
was appointed vicar to the Podestà of Parma in 1530—the city where Correggio
lived and worked in the 1520s—a position that Bartolomeo had already held for
two years, and then he was nominated Podestà seven years later.12 This cooperation
5Correggio’s Mystic Marriage remained in its original location in the Grillenzoni household in
Modena until the early 1580s. Two letters of 1582 report that Cardinal Luigi d’Este was pressuring Gril-
lenzoni’s heir, Giacomo, to surrender “the picture of Correggio”: Adolfo Venturi, Un quadro del Correg-
gio (Modena: Paolo Toschi & C., 1882). Cardinal d’Este was evidently successful in his attempts, since
the Dutch engraver Hendrick Goltzius saw the painting in a Roman collection during his visit in 1590–
91: Karel van Mander, Het Schilder-boeck (Haarlem: Paschier Van Wesbusch, 1604), fol. 49r. Subse-
quently it came into the possession of Cardinal Scipione Borghese as described by Joachim von San-
drart, Academie der Bau- Bild- und Mahlerey Kuenste von 1675, ed. August R. Peltzer (Munich: Hirst,
1925), 269. For more data on the provenance of Correggio’s picture, see Pierre Michel, “Des collections
milanaises au Sposalitio du Corrège: Réflextions et propositions sur le mode d’acquisition et de la pro-
venance de certaines peintures des collections du cardinal Mazarin avant 1653,” Journal of the History of
Collections 7 (1995): 45–57.
6The only attempt to connect Correggio’s picture to its patron’s cultural and religious world is by
Emilio Negro, “Intorno a Niccolò dell’Abate: A proposito del suo trasferimento in Francia,” Studi di
storia dell’arte 8 (1997): 199–200. The scholar’s argumentation is, in my opinion, inconclusive.
7Tommasino Bianchi detto de’ Lancellotti, Cronaca modenese, ed. Carlo Borghi, Luigi Lodi, and
Giorgio Ferrari Moreni (Parma: Fiaccadori, 1864), 2:108; and Tommaso Sandonnini, Modena sotto il
governo dei Papi (Modena: Tipografia Sociale, 1879), 153.
8Lancellotti, Cronaca modenese, 1:193 (17 August 1518).
9Silvana Seidel Menchi, Erasmo in Italia (Turin: Einaudi, 1987), 34.
10Ludovico Vedriani, Dottori modenesi di teologia, filosofia, legge canonica e civile con i suoi ritratti dal
naturale in rame (Modena: Cassiani, 1665), 128.
11Lancellotti, Cronaca modenese, 3:341 (12 October 1531); 4:20 (28 June 1532); 6:265 (1 January
12Umberto Benassi, Storia di Parma (Parma: Tipografia Sociale Operaria, 1899), 5:163–64. For the
list of jurists from Parma who served in offices in Modena: Giovanni E. Vicini, I Podestà di Modena
(1156–1796) (Rome: Giornale, 1913), 2:173, 185, 190–91, 202.
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Periti / Correggio’s "Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian" 687
between the cities of Modena and Parma has been discounted so far in Correggio’s
scholarship; however, it attests to relationships which were instrumental in the art-
ist’s gaining commissions from Modenese patrons.13
Francesco Grillenzoni was on close terms with other members of his extended
familia, including Giovanni, one of Bartolomeo’s brothers.14 This branch of the
family occupied the same palace and formed an economic and cultural unit in
which each individual was a full partner, as the humanist Ludovico Castelvetro
reports.15 Giovanni began hosting literary meetings in the family’s palace sometime
in the 1520s, establishing what later would be defined as “una certa accademia de
Modena de gioveni literati” (a certain Modena academy of young men of letters).16
He resurrected and further developed the tradition of informal gatherings initiated
in the 1510s by the local poet Panfilo Sasso, which included conversations about
literary and religious arguments. Sasso’s meetings ended with his trial and condem-
nation in 1523 for unorthodox spiritual beliefs.17 Grillenzoni’s purpose in resur-
recting the meetings was chiefly pedagogic. He intended to provide his fellow
citizens with opportunities for learning that he organized through seminars: “every
day at his house two classes were held at fixed times, to read Latin and Greek liter-
ature, the latter being intended for those who were advanced … and everyone was
invited to attend.”18 The most difficult passages from the ancient authors, including
Pliny’s Naturalis Historia which was read “from the beginning to the end,” were
subjects of discussion in which all listeners were supposed to participate with com-
ments and insights.19 Everyone was requested to give an opinion about debated
issues, thereby learning how to judge literary writings, especially poetry.20 The
13Correggio produced two altarpieces for Modena in the 1520s, the first of which was the
Madonna and Child with St. Sebastian, St. Geminiano, and St. Roch (the so-called Madonna of Saint Sebas-
tian) for the local confraternity of San Sebastiano and the second, the Madonna of Saint George: Ekserd-
jian, Correggio, 177–92.
14Girolamo Tiraboschi, “Grillenzoni Giovanni,” in Biblioteca modenese o notizie della vita e delle opere
degli scrittori natii degli stati del Serenissimo Sig. Duca di Modena (Modena: Tipografica, 1783), 3:25–30;
Vincenzo Casoli, “Gli Statuti del Collegio dei Medici di Modena riformati da Giovanni Grillenzoni,”
Rivista di storia critica delle scienze mediche e naturali 2–3 (1911–12): 3-67; Enciclopedia modenese (1996), s.v.
“Grillenzoni Giovanni,” 10:78.
15Modena, Biblioteca Estense, Ludovico Castelvetro, Memorie delle vite d’alcuni letterati del suo tempo
di M.L.C. modenese scritte per suo piacere, MS Misc. H.1.11. Ludovico Antonio Muratori published a por-
tion of Grillenzoni’s biography in his edition of Castelvetro’s writings: Ludovico Antonio Muratori, ed.,
Ludovico Castelvetro: Opere varie critiche non più stampate con la vita dell’autore (Berna: P. Foppens, 1727),
197–201. In a poem entitled “Pictura” Castelvetro describes themes of concord and peace to be repre-
sented in Grillenzoni’s gallery: Lodovico Castelvetro, “Pictura,” in Opere di Ludovico Castelvetro, ed.
Ludovico Antonio Muratori (Arezzo: Michele Bellotti, 1770), 10.2:236–39.
16Lancellotti, Cronaca modenese, 5:455 (1 April 1538).
17Angelo Mercati, Il sommario del processo di Giordano Bruno, con un’appendice di documenti sull’eresia
e l’inquisizione a Modena nel secolo XVI (Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1942), 129–33;
Carlo Ginzburg, “Un letterato e una strega al principio del 500: Panfilo Sasso ed Anastasia la Frappona,”
in Studi in memoria di Carlo Ascheri (Urbino: Argalia, 1970), 129–37.
18Muratori, Ludovico Castelvetro, 11. On the humanist culture in early modern Modena, see Giulio
Bertoni, Gli Studi di grammatica e la rinascenza a Modena (Moden: G.Vincenzi, 1905); Albano Biondi, “La
cultura a Modena tra Umanesimo e Controriforma,” in Storia illustrata di Modena, ed. Paolo Golinelli
and Giuliano Muzzioli (Modena: Artioli, 1990), 521–40.
19Muratori, Ludovico Castelvetro, 11.
20Muratori, Ludovico Castelvetro, 11.
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688 Sixteenth Century Journal XXXVIII/3 (2007)
true aim of an education based on reading the best literature of antiquity was not
merely to instill learning for its own sake, but to lay the foundation for one’s char-
acter.21 Foremost among those who gathered in the Grillenzoni academy and took
part in animated conversations were Castelvetro, the literati Camillo Molza and
Pellegrino Erri, the physicians Giovanni Grillenzoni and Niccolò Machella, the
doctors of law Bartolomeo and Francesco Grillenzoni, and the priest Giovanni
Bertari, so the local chronicler reports.22 Other activities cultivated in the Grillen-
zoni academy comprised the recitation of sonnets or epigrams spontaneously
invented about the food served during the convivial gatherings; and the recounting
of all the proverbs concerning a given animal, a saint, or a family as well as of tales
about the local bishop, Tommaso da Forno—a greedy and lascivious ecclesiastic.23
That the accademici attacked and satirized the bishop in their pastimes is a significant
clue that cannot but provoke questions about the religious orientation of this
learned circle in early cinquecento Modena.
In the Grillenzoni academy, the study of the bonae litterae went hand in hand
with an inclination for religious reform. As in the gatherings organized by Sasso,
the academicians’ literary orientation fostered a philological interpretation of the
litterae sacrae. The ethical and moral reform of the individual Christian, who
directly encountered God’s words in the Bible and responded with faith and trust
in divine mercy, lay at the core of the academicians’ spiritual approach.24 Within
this program they promoted an abbreviated, vernacular version of the sacred scrip-
tures, the Summario della Sacra Scrittura, which circulated without the author or the
printer’s names.25 The Summario was the translation of a Dutch text, the Summa der
Godliker Scrifturen, which was composed around 1519–20 and already condemned
as heretical in Holland by 1524. It condenses reformed Christian tenets on grace
and salvation from Erasmus’s spiritual writings. The text insists on the renewal of
the Roman church and affirms the Pauline theology of faith and redemption. The
first part of the Summario focuses on salvation, which is viewed as a gift (an act of
grace) that men gain through faith. By this gift, human nature is rescued from mor-
tality and restored to its original perfection. The second part supplies precepts for
the conduct of a Christian life, “secondo l’evangelio” (according to the scriptures)
and is addressed to husbands, wives, parents, sons, rulers, governors, judges, and
magistrates. Peyronel Rambaldi has argued that the most significant aspect of the
21Scholars have suggested a relationship between the approach promoted in the Grillenzoni acad-
emy and Pietro Pomponazzi’s method. Both Giovanni Grillenzoni and Ludovico Castelvetro had
attended Pomponazzi’s lectures at the University of Bologna: Luisa Avellini, “La Scuola del Pomponazzi:
Il gruppo di Modena dal Grillenzoni al Castelvetro,” in Letteratura italiana: Storia e geografia (Turin:
Einaudi, 1988), 2:565–68.
22Lancellotti, Cronaca Modenese, 5:428 (17 February 1538).
23Muratori, Ludovico Castelvetro, 11. On Tomaso da Forno’s profile, see Mercati, Il sommario del pro-
cesso, 129; and Matteo Duni, Tra religione e magia: Storia del prete modenese Gugliemo Campana (1460?–
1541) (Florence: Olschki, 1999), 8–9.
24Susanna Peyronel Rambaldi, Speranze e crisi nel Cinquecento modenese: Tensioni religiose e vita citta-
dina ai tempi di Giovanni Morone (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1979), 45–56.
25Lancellotti, Cronaca modenese, 5:455 (1 April 1538).
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Summario consists of this section stressing the centrality of faith for urban individu-
als and members of lay sodalities.26
For their Christological orientation, their emphasis on the purer values of the
early church and defense of the Erasmian ideals of peace in a period of political tur-
moil (when control of Modena was disputed between the Este, the pope, and the
French in the early cinquecento), the academicians have been related to the spiri-
tuali of the so-called circle of Viterbo.27 Yet they cannot be described as a private
group of cultivated individuals whose spiritual beliefs were meant to be kept to
themselves as in the case of the Viterbo group. On the contrary, the academicians
favored the dissemination of evangelical ideals in Modena following the precepts
advocated in Erasmus’s and Luther’s writings as well as in the Summario. Serving on
the ruling council of Modena in the 1520s, they asked for and approved preachers
whose sermons contributed to the spread of reformed ideas about faith, justifica-
tion, and grace to larger strata of the local society.28 The fact that such issues had
gone beyond a small, cultivated circle became a matter of concern for the local
ecclesiastic authorities. The correspondence between the bishop’s vicar, Giovanni
Domenico Sigibaldi, and the bishop, Cardinal Giovanni Morone—the latter
engaged in diplomatic missions at Regensburg (1541)—is filled with reports about
Modena “stained and infected like the city of Prague, with the contagion of several
heresies. In the shops, on street corners, in houses, and so forth, everyone (as I
understand) argues about faith, free will, purgatory, the Eucharist, and predestina-
tion.”29 The academicians were considered by the ecclesiastics to be the principal
fomes malorum of the community. The local chronicler labels them as “luterani de
Modena” (the Lutherans of Modena) in 1538.30 Yet it remains difficult to ascertain
the exact perception of such a definition to a sixteenth-century audience. In their
reading of scripture, the academicians took an approach based on philology, gram-
matical rules, and etymology as apparent in their translations of Melanchthon’s
writings in the 1530s, while the Scholastics had a method founded on logic and
respect for authority as well as on a denial of the need for linguistic skill in biblical
studies. The academicians’ approach, along with their reading of Erasmus, Luther,
and Melanchthon’s texts, therefore accounted for their charge of Luteranesimo
(Lutheranism).31 In Italy humanist reformers and preachers who applied such a
method to the exegesis of the sacred texts, and even Erasmus himself, were identi-
fied as Luterani.32
26Susanna Peyronel Rambaldi, Dai Paesi Bassi all’Italia ‘Il Sommario della Sacra Scrittura’: Un libro
proibito nella società italiana del Cinquecento (Florence: Olschki, 1997), 36–44, 59–61, 217–34.
27Massimo Firpo, “Gli Spirituali, L’Accademia di Modena ed il Formulario di Fede del 1542:
Controllo del dissenso religioso e nicodemismo,” Rivista di storia e letteratura religiosa 20 (1984): 40–111,
28Peyronel, Dai Paesi Bassi all’Italia, 212–13.
29Firpo, “Gli Spirituali, l’Accademia di Modena,” 47.
30Lancellotti, Cronaca modenese, 5:428 (17 February 1538).
31Salvatore Caponetto, “Il Dissenso antiromano a Modena,” in La riforma protestante nell’Italia del
Cinquecento, 2nd ed. (Turin: Claudiana, 1992), 304–5.
32Menchi, Erasmo in Italia, 41–67. Menchi argues that the emergence of the label of “Erasmo
luterano” in the period between 1520 and 1535 owed much to the suspicion of heretical conspiracy that
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690 Sixteenth Century Journal XXXVIII/3 (2007)
Throughout the 1530s, the academicians enjoyed a certain freedom in the
pursuit of their reformed religious convictions. The turning point for the academi-
cians coincided with the foundation of the Roman Inquisition in July 1542 after
the failure of the colloquy of Regensburg (1541), the final attempt to reconcile the
Catholic and Protestant positions. In October 1542, the academicians were com-
pelled to sign a confession of faith (the Formulario di Fede) to the Roman church.
The Formulario consisted of forty-one questions on matters of faith and salvation
that Cardinal Gasparo Contarini wrote at the request of the bishop of Modena.33
Prolonged negotiations preceded the academicians’ signing the Formulario: the
Grillenzoni gens, Giovanni, Bartolomeo and Francesco, all signed it.34
If nothing else, this account about the academicians has made it clear that the
spiritual beliefs they embraced in the 1530s—developing Sasso’s and Guicciardini’s
reformed religious thoughts—had already spread in Modena in the earlier decades.
These convictions would have informed the way Correggio’s Mystic Marriage of St.
Catherine with St. Sebastian was perceived. Although there is no certainty about the
painting’s date in the 1520s, nor the specific position toward art held by the acade-
micians, religious tension and debate in Modena were a constant factor from the
1510s on. Francesco Grillenzoni’s affiliation with the academy and his cultivated
profile would indicate that he was inclined toward works of art that were not
merely beautiful objects to look at. He must have been interested in paintings that
embodied, and not only represented, Christian narratives.35 His preference might
have tended to paintings whose unity of aesthetic beauty and Christian subjects
could favor mental exercises of piety.36 In the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with
St. Sebastian, with its fusion of formal beauty and Christian content, Correggio
responded to the world of learning, faith, and docta pietas of the academician Gril-
lenzoni. Within this fusion, how did Correggio’s figures express the transcendent
experience of love and faith inherent in the subject? How did the artist reinvent the
standard iconography of the mystic marriage? In answering these questions it is
scholastic theologians had against humanists and grammarians as well as to a resolution on “the defense
of Italy.” On these issues see John W. O’Malley, “Erasmus and Luther: Continuity and Discontinuity as
Keys to Their Conflict,” Sixteenth Century Journal 5, no. 2 (1974): 47–65; and Erika Rummel, The
Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance and Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1995), 19–40, 96–125.
33Firpo, “Gli Spirituali, l’Accademia di Modena,” 109.
34Firpo, “Gli Spirituali, l’Accademia di Modena,” 63.
35Sixten Ringbom, “Devotional Images and Imaginative Devotions: Notes on the Place of Art in
Late Medieval Private Piety,” Gazette des Beaux Arts 73 (1969): 159–70; David Freedberg, “Invisibilia
per visibilia: Meditation and the Uses of Theory,” in The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory
of Response (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 161–91; Jeffrey Hamburger, “The Visual and
the Visionary: The Image in Late Medieval Devotion,” Viator 20 (1989): 161–82; Mary Carruthers, The
Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200 (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1998): 171–220.
36The negotiation of values of beauty and religious reform characterized an earlier phase of the
reform until the 1530s as manifested in works by Michelangelo: Alexander Nagel, “Gifts for Michelan-
gelo and Vittoria Colonna,” Art Bulletin 79, no. 4 (1997): esp. 666–68, elucidates how certain spirituali
(like Vittoria Colonna and Gaspare Contarini) were touched by the aesthetic values of art; Una Roman
D’Elia, “Drawing Christ’s Blood: Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna, and the Aesthetics of Reform,”
Renaissance Quarterly 59, no. 2 (2006): 90–129.
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Periti / Correggio’s "Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian" 691
crucial to consider Correggio’s own spiritual position. The artist was one of Gril-
lenzoni’s friends, as Vasari reports; he had certainly been exposed to discussions
about matters of faith and salvation in the 1520s. He had been affiliated as a singu-
laris devotus to the Cassinese Congregation of Santa Giustina (since 1521), which
reformed the Benedictine order.37 In addition, the subject itself, St. Catherine’s
mystic marriage, had, in one sense, a long gestation in Correggio’s mind, as dem-
onstrated by the graphic and pictorial versions that preceded execution of the Gril-
Correggio’s first thinking about the theme dated from the beginning of his
career in the early 1510s, when he represented this subject in both an altarpiece
(fig. 2) and a small panel (fig. 3). In the altarpiece, the artist seems to have com-
bined two iconographical types, that of the Mystic Marriage and that of the Holy
Family. A similar integration of the two figural schemes appears in a drawing.38 A
slightly later elaboration of the subject is visible in another small panel (fig. 4), var-
iously dated to ca.1517–20.39 Charm and loving sentiments enfold the central
group, which is placed against a golden, light-filled landscape. Correggio’s
approach to the subject emphasizes the tender, pleasing features and gestures of the
Virgin and St. Catherine. He carried this interpretation further in the Grillenzoni
picture, which has a poetic and thematic center in the loving interlacement of
hands—the hands being important indicators of passions, which communicate the
protagonists’ inner sentiments.40
The triangular composition for St. Catherine’s mystic marriage with the
Virgin and the Child occupying the upper corner, displayed by such contemporary
artists as Lorenzo Lotto (fig. 5), has been suppressed by Correggio.41 While Lotto
and even Correggio in the previous handling of the subject (fig. 3) set the protag-
onists in a hierarchical grouping with St. Catherine in a lower position, in the
painting for Grillenzoni Correggio placed them in a more symmetrical dispositio
and rendered the intense relations among the figures with particular effectiveness.
St. Catherine is gracefully poised and her profile is in accord with that of the Vir-
gin. The saint’s celestial dimension resides in her angelic beauty and is reflected in
37Vasari, “Vita di Benvenuto Garofalo e Girolamo da Carpi,” 5:541. On Correggio’s literacy and
affiliation with the Benedictine congregation of Santa Giustina: Emilio Menegazzo, “Marginalia su
Raffaello, il Correggio, e la congregazione benedettino-cassinese,” Italia medioevale e umanistica 3 (1960):
329–40; Massimo Zaggia, Tra Mantova e la Sicilia nel Cinquecento, La congregazione benedettina cassinese nel
Cinquecento (Florence: Olschki, 2003), 2:411; Giancarla Periti, “From Allegri to Laetus-Lieto: The
Shaping of Correggio’s Artistic Distinctiveness,” Art Bulletin 86, no. 3 (2004): 454–71.
38Arthur E. Popham, Correggio’s Drawings (London: British Academy and University of London,
39Bernard Berenson and Corrado Ricci questioned this panel’s attribution to Correggio, but the
majority of scholars have accepted this authorship: David A. Brown, “Correggio’s Mystic Marriage of
St. Catherine and Its Sources,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 60 (1982): 101–7; Ekserdjian, Cor-
40Gigetta Dalli Regoli, “Nodi di mani: Incontri e scontri, raccoglimento, preghiera, pianto,” in Il
gesto e la mano: Convenzione e invenzione nel linguaggio figurativo fra Medioevo e Rinascimento (Florence:
Olschki, 2000), 23–33.
41Angela Ottino Della Chiesa, Bernardino Luini (Novara: Istituto Geografico De Agostini, 1956),
107; Alessandra Mottola Molfino, ed., Museo Poldi Pezzoli: I dipinti (Milan: Electa, 1982), 92–93, and
Peter Humfrey, Lorenzo Lotto (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 65, 170n27.
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692 Sixteenth Century Journal XXXVIII/3 (2007)
Fig. 2. Correggio, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, oil on panel, Detroit Institute of Arts.
Photograph © 1975 Detroit Institute of Arts. Used by permission.
38-3(2007).book Page 692 Tuesday, September 18, 2007 10:33 PM
Periti / Correggio’s "Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian" 693
Fig. 3. Correggio, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art,
Washington, DC. Photo © 2006 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washing-
ton. Used by permission.
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694 Sixteenth Century Journal XXXVIII/3 (2007)
Fig. 4. Correggio, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, oil on panel, Museo Nazionale di
Capodimonte, Naples. Photo: Alinari / Art Resource, NY. Used by permission.
38-3(2007).book Page 694 Tuesday, September 18, 2007 10:33 PM
Periti / Correggio’s "Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian" 695
Fig. 5. Lorenzo Lotto, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with Saints, oil on panel, Galleria
Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome. Photo: Scala / Art Resource, NY. Used by permission.
38-3(2007).book Page 695 Tuesday, September 18, 2007 10:33 PM
696 Sixteenth Century Journal XXXVIII/3 (2007)
her delicate gestures. St. Catherine’s skin and hair are marked with a warmth and
softness that give her a living dimension. Christ’s joyful feelings convey both a
notion of the restlessness of real childhood and the ecstasy of the mystical union.
Despite the absence of any textual source, a charming, appealing St. Sebastian par-
ticipates in Correggio’s imagery.
David Ekserdjian has suggested that the saint’s presence is related to Francesco
Grillenzoni’s affiliation with the Modenese confraternity of San Sebastiano; there-
fore, St. Sebastian functioned in the role of a patron saint. His argument seems to
rely on a certain “Franciscus Gherlinzonus” listed in the matricola of enrollment of
the confraternity of San Sebastiano, founded in 1501; the confraternity promoted
the cult of St. Sebastian as an intercessor in times of plague.42 Ekserdjian’s sugges-
tion is important, but whether a reader of both classical and religious texts like
Grillenzoni was or was not enrolled in the local confraternity is not the real issue.
Truly at issue is whether such a sophisticated individual as Grillenzoni would have
identified St. Sebastian as a kind of patron saint or whether he perceived the saint
as an agent to arouse spiritual engagement.
Concerns about the appropriate role of saints in the history of human salvation
emerge, with particular acuity, in Erasmus’s writings. In place of a sterile interces-
sional worship of patron saints, Erasmus’s Enchiridion militis Christiani (1503) and his
Moriae Encomium (1511) propose a model of emulatory piety.43 According to Eras-
mus, the only way to honor saints would be to imitate their example and learn
from their lives. An excessive attention given to saints could engender superstition,
however. Superstition triumphs over piety when favors are sought from the saints’
role or when saints are believed to be more compassionate than God.44 The prac-
tice of assigning specific salvific functions to each saint, especially to local saints, is
a proof of the triumph of superstition:
42Ekserdjian, Correggio, 177. The scholar does not provide the archival reference to the confrater-
nity matricola, nor has he published the document. My own and Marcin Fabianski’s research did not
locate this document, but I discovered a nineteenth-century transcription of the confraternity statute,
the Memoria della confraternita di San Sebastiano fondata in Modena nel 1501 (an account of the confrater-
nity of St. Sebastian founded in Modena in 1501) at Modena, Biblioteca Estense, Paolo Zecchini,
Memoria del suffragio di San Sebastiano con sua bolla d’aggregazione, in Miscellanea nella quale si trovano notizie
delle confraternite, collegi de’ Gesuiti, di San Carlo detto dei Nobili, chiese e parrocchie di Modena, MSS Cam-
pori, Agosto 1627, cc. fols. 656r–73v. In this “memoria,” which comprises a partial list of the matricola
(that is, the catalogo de’ Fratelli), Francesco Grillenzoni’s name does not appear. Recently Grillenzoni’s
affiliation with the confraternity of San Sebastiano has been sustained by Elio Monducci, but the archi-
val reference is vague: Elio Monducci, Il Correggio: La vita e le opere nelle fonti documentarie (Milan: Sil-
vana, 2004), 143.
43Desiderius Erasmus, “The Handbook of the Christian Soldier,” in Collected Works of Erasmus,
Spiritualia, ed. John O’ Malley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), 66:8–127; idem, “Praise of
Folly,” in Collected Works of Erasmus, ed. Anthony Herbert Tigar Levi (Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 1986), 27:83–153.
44Erasmus, “Handbook,” 64–65: “I shall condemn [the devouts] for asking their patron Rocco to
keep their lives from harm if they consecrate that life to Christ. I shall condemn them the more if they
pray for nothing else than an increase in their love of virtue with a corresponding hatred of vice. As for
dying or living, let them leave that in God’s hands and say with Paul: ‘Whether we live or whether we
die, we live and die for the lord.’ True perfection will be attained if they desire to be dissolved and be
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Periti / Correggio’s "Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian" 697
separate districts lay claim to their own particular saints. Each one of these
is assigned his special powers and has his own special cult, so that one gives
relief from toothache, another stands by women in childbirth, a third
returns stolen objects; a fourth will appear as a savior for shipwrecks,
another protect the flocks, and so on—it would take too long to go
through the whole list.45
The devotees’ veneration of saints’ images should stop short of practices such as
genuflection or the kissing of the saint statues’ hands. No one should think, Eras-
mus continues, that representations of saints can offer some special kind of protec-
tion, or that, beyond their powers of intercession, the saints can grant gifts that only
God can bestow. For Erasmus, religious images depicting saints and Christian nar-
ratives were not an aid to devotion in themselves but rather were expressions of the
spiritual reality they embody.46 Art served as a sign and as support for procedures
of piety, shifting the movement of the conscience from the external to the internal.
Petrarch can be considered the source for this procedure, which marks the turn of
religious worship from objective and communal expression to one that is subjective
and private. This movement derives its premises and conventions from a series of
his writings (especially his Secretum and the Otio Religioso), and finds its maturity in
Erasmus’s texts.47 For Charles Trinkaus, the shift from the celebration of the objec-
tive practice of devotion to an insistence on the inward operations was connected
to a philological approach to the scriptures.48 Complementing this view, Salvatore
Camporeale has argued for the historical and epistemological base of this move-
ment, which he termed “humanist theology.”49 The premise behind successful
processes of meditation and pietas was the engagement of all the senses, particularly
the sense of sight.
Correggio’s representation of the pleasing St. Sebastian draws further these
procedures of pietas. First and foremost, the beholder is confronted with an unusual
image of the saint, which is impressive both for his sensual physicality and the
absence of arrows piercing his body.50 Lorenzo Costa, Perugino, and Amico Asper-
tini (fig. 6) produced images of St. Sebastian as a handsome youth, naked except for
a loincloth, his body tied to a pillar or to a column and with arrows piercing his
45Erasmus, “Praise of Folly,” 114.
46Erasmus, “Praise of Folly,” 114.
47Francisco Rico, Il sogno dell’Umanesimo: Da Petrarca a Erasmo, ed. Guido Maria Capelli (Turin:
Einaudi, 1998), 97–108, 117–41.
48Charles Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 2:651–82.
49Salvatore Camporeale, “Renaissance Humanism and the Origins of Humanist Theology,” in
Humanity and Divinity in Renaissance and Reformation: Essays in Honor of Charles Trinkaus, ed. John
O’Malley, Thomas Izbicki, and Gerald Christianson (Leiden: Brill, 1993), 101–34.
50Later in the century, Gilio would accuse artists of painting St. Sebastian nude, without any
arrows, to demonstrate their artistic skill: Andrea Gilio, Due Dialoghi (Camerino: Antonio Gioioso,
1564), fol. 87v.
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698 Sixteenth Century Journal XXXVIII/3 (2007)
Fig. 6. Amico Aspertini, St. Sebastian, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art,
Photo © 2006 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Used by permission.
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Periti / Correggio’s "Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian" 699
flesh, but Correggio’s figure excels for its intense expression.51 The force and effec-
tiveness of this figure do not reside in the full exposure of the body, but in its erotic
gaze. Depictions of a highly erotized St. Sebastian were common in Renaissance
painting (as in Titian’s St. Mark altarpiece) and even caused unchaste thoughts
among female believers, as Vasari reports in the case of a St. Sebastian by Fra Bar-
tolomeo.52 Correggio’s slightly provocative rendering of the saint, however,
diverges from this iconographic tradition in the sense that he intended to represent
and embody, through St. Sebastian, the visionary dimension of St. Catherine’s
mystic union in a powerful way.53 Whereas even mystics could not express the
wonder and pleasure of the total union with Christ, Correggio succeeded in trans-
lating the saint’s ecstatic rapture of love through St. Sebastian’s participation in the
mystic union enacted before him.54 St. Sebastian is portrayed with the unusual ges-
ture of holding fanned-out arrows in his hand, and with an ebullient gaze. Neither
in appearance nor attitude is this St. Sebastian distinguishable from a charming
Cupid, the arrow-wielding god of love.55 This captivating St. Sebastian might have
been worked out by the artist from a figure of Cupid as was the case for the suffer-
ing St. Sebastian displayed in the painting’s background. In the St. Sebastian figure,
Correggio pushed the problem of inner transformation in both an artistic and a
spiritual sense to a new level of significance. Correggio shaped his St. Sebastian as
a Saint-Amor, incorporating in the figure the notion of the nova creatura developed
in Christian theology.56 In Pauline terms, the nova creatura is the entity regener-
ated and made anew by the love and grace of God. The artist merged St. Sebastian
51Emilio Negro, Nicosetta Roio, Lorenzo Costa 1460–1535 (Modena: Artioli, 2003), 81–82, 100.
A drawing by Lorenzo Costa for the Oratorio of St. Cecilia in Bologna shows a suffering St. Sebastian
holding arrows in his left hand, whose mode and pose recall those displayed by Correggio’s figure: Il
Cinquecento a Bologna: Disegni dal Louvre e dipinti a confronto, exh. cat., ed. Marzia Faietti (Milan: Electa,
2002), 66–67. On Perugino’s image consult Pietro Scarpellini, Perugino (Milan: Electa, 1984), 36, 85–
87; Alfredo Bellandi, “San Sebastiano,” in Perugino: Il Divin Pittore, exh. cat., ed. Vittoria Garibaldi and
Francesco Federico Mancini (Cinisello Balsamo: Silvana, 2004), 238. See on Aspertini’s picture, Marzia
Faietti, and Daniela Scaglietti Kelescian, Amico Aspertini (Modena: Artioli, 1995), 107–8.
52See the discussion by Freedberg, Power of Images, 346–48.
53These features of the saint adhere to the passio Sancti Sebastiani recounted in his Legenda aurea by
Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger (Salem,
NH: Ayer, 1969), 104–10. On the figure of St. Sebastian, see Gian Domenico Gordini and Pietro Can-
nata, “Sebastiano, San,” in Bibliotheca Sanctorum, 11:789–802; Saint Sébastien: Rituels et Figures, exh. cat.
(Paris: Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1983), 112–28; Karim Ressouni-Demigneux,
Saint-Sébastien (Paris: Regard, 2000), 59–64.
54Bernard McGinn, “Love, Knowledge and Unio Mystica in the Western Christian Tradition,” in
Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: An Ecumenical Dialogue, ed. Moshe Idel and Bernard
McGinn (New York: Continuum, 1996), 59–86.
55Wayne A. Meeks, “The Image of the Androgyny: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Chris-
tianity,” History of Religions 11 (1974): 165–208; Caroline Bynum, “Introduction,” in Gender and Reli-
gion: On the Complexity of Symbols, ed. Caroline Walker Bynum, Stevan Harrell, and Paula Richman
(Boston: Beacon, 1986), 1–20; Anthony Grafton, “Notes from Underground on Cultural Transmis-
sion,” in The Transmission of Culture in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 1990), 1–7.
56The notion of nova creatura is discussed in St. Paul’s writings (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15) for which
see Zoltan Alszeghy, Nova Creatura: La nozione della grazia nei commentari medievali di San Paolo (Rome:
Aedes Universitatis Gregorianae, 1956), 116–28.
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700 Sixteenth Century Journal XXXVIII/3 (2007)
and his attribute—the arrows—with Amor, thereby embodying in him the arche-
type of the soul transformed by the experiences of love and faith. Through his
invention of an appealing St. Sebastian-Amor, Correggio represented with more
subtlety the mystic union of love visualized before his eyes, while reinforcing the
saint’s role as the agent of human regeneration and transformation.
Discourses of love and faith as regenerative forces are pointedly emphasized in
the martyrdom scenes of St. Sebastian and St. Catherine, which are on an axis with
the mystic union.57 St. Sebastian and his tormentors are displayed on the left, while
St. Catherine’s praying figure is centrally located, albeit in minuscule size, in the
landscape setting. In both scenes Correggio shows a side view of the saints, their
intense bodily torsions a metaphor for dramatic anguish.58 St. Sebastian is tied to a
tree, with upraised right arm and twisted wrist, his left arm bound behind his back,
and his legs bent. A preparatory drawing attests that this suffering St. Sebastian was
devised from a figure of Cupid bound to a tree (fig. 7). This figure was worked out
by Correggio in red chalk on the left side of the sheet. The bound Cupid is any-
thing but clear, and the lines overlap, following Leonardo’s recommendation for the
creation of a rough composition (componimento inculto) to shape the movements
“appropriate to the mental attitudes of the creatures in the narrative.”59 Correggio
further followed the Leonardesque precepts in the pen and ink figure of Cupid
sketched on the right of the same sheet.60 From these graphic and painted versions,
it appears that Correggio’s fusion of representational means and devotional ends in
the rendering of St. Sebastian was meant to touch the beholder’s emotional sphere
The sweet tenderness displayed in the episode of St. Catherine’s mystic
marriage also engages the viewer directly. Yet one wonders how the subject itself
could be significant for a cultivated patron like Francesco Grillenzoni. The episode
of the saint’s mystic union is not found in the primitive Greek passio St. Catharinae,
which narrates the history of the beautiful eighteen-year-old Christian Catherine,
daughter of the king of Alexandria; her confrontation with the pagan Emperor
57Both St. Catherine and St. Sebastian are early Christian martyrs, thereby evoking the ideal of
returning to the essence of the early church. This was a central key to Erasmus’s religious program as
discussed by Irena Backus, “Erasmus and the Spirituality of the Early Church,” in Erasmus’ Vision of the
Church, ed. Hilmar M. Pabel (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1995), 109–11.
58David Summers, “Contrapposto: Style and Meaning in Renaissance Art,” Art Bulletin 59, no. 3
59Leonardo on Painting, ed. Martin Kemp (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 222.
60Popham, Correggio’s Drawings, 152; Hugo Chapman, “Saint Sebastian,” in Correggio and
Parmigianino: Master Draughtsmen of the Renaissance, exh. cat. (London: British Museum Press, 2000), 47–
48; Carmen C. Bambach, “Saint Sebastian Standing in Three-Quarter View Tied to a Tree,” in
Leonardo Da Vinci: Master Draftsman, ed. Carmen Bambach (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003),
342–44. One of St. Sebastian’s tormentors, the one shown from behind and bending his bow, derives
from Marcantonio Raimondi’s Standard-Bearer engraving: The Illustrated Bartsch: The Works of
Marcantonio Raimondi and His School, ed. Konrad Oberhuber (New York: Abaris, 1978), 27:481. This
engraving is believed to reproduce a drawing by Raphael, and it could only have been made after
Marcantonio’s arrival in Rome, surely not before 1508, as Ekserdjian has convincingly argued:
Ekserdjian, Correggio, 150.
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Periti / Correggio’s "Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian" 701
Fig. 7. Correggio, Two Studies of a Cupid Bound to a Tree, red chalk, pen and brown ink,
British Museum, London. Photo © Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Used
38-3(2007).book Page 701 Tuesday, September 18, 2007 10:33 PM
702 Sixteenth Century Journal XXXVIII/3 (2007)
Maxentius, her martyrdom, and the translation of her body to Mount Sinai.61
Medieval versions of the saint’s legend did not refer to the saint’s mystical marriage,
nor is it narrated in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend. The narration of St.
Catherine’s union with Christ appeared in the fourteenth-century literature
produced by female mystics, and in the context of devotion to the infant Jesus.
Medieval and early modern female mystics were filled by the desire to nurse and
care for the baby, or to marry him.62 Within this current of female spirituality, the
episode of St. Catherine’s union with Christ was constructed and added to the
initial passio.63 This origin, in turn, explains why its authenticity was disputed by
counter-reform thinkers like Cesare Baronio and Jean Bolland: they felt that St.
Catherine’s legend had been much altered with the goal of making her a female
model for the victory of Christianity over paganism.64
One feature of the saint’s passio has nevertheless remained constant, that is, her
learning in the liberal arts through which she defeated the pagan philosophers.
From her dispute with the philosophers St. Catherine was seen as the patroness of
learning. Many religious orders, including Benedictines and Augustinians, cele-
brated St. Catherine for her intelligence, so much that she was named the patron
saint of the University of Paris in the Middle Ages. A cultivated reader of St.
Catherine’s life like Francesco Grillenzoni could therefore associate St. Catherine’s
learnedness with academies as sites for education. Several Latin and vernacular ver-
sions of St. Catherine’s life were published in the Renaissance, including
Domenico Rococciolo’s Legenda di Santa Caterina (1490), Battista Spagnuoli Man-
tuanus’s Parthenicae Secundae Sanctae Catherinae (1489, 1499, 1502), and Pietro Are-
tino’s Vita di Santa Caterina (1540). Rococciolo printed the vernacular translation
of the saint’s life from Petrus de Natalibus; his text was widely read in Modena
61Hermann Knust, Geschichte der Legenden der h. Katharina von Alexandrien und der h. Maria
Aegyptica (Halle: Niemeyer, 1890), 44–45; H. Varnhagen, Zur Geschichte der Legende der h. Katharina von
Alexandria (Erlagen: Junge, 1891); Joseph Sauer, “Das Sposalitio der heiligen Katharina von
Alexandrien,” in Studien aus Kunst und Geschichte: Friederich Schneider zum 70 Geb. (Freiburg: Herder,
1906), 339–51; Tito da Ottone, La leggenda di Santa Caterina vergine e martire di Alessandria (Genoa:
Tipografia Derelitti, 1940), 71–74; Giovanni B. Bronzini, “Caterina di Alessandria,” in Bibliotheca
Sanctorum 3:954–78; idem, La leggenda di S. Caterina d’Alessandria: Passioni greche e latine (Rome: Atti
dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1960), 259–416; René Coursault, Sainte Catherine d’Alexandrie:
Le Mythe et la Tradition: Hagiographie et Littérature Chrétienne: Iconographie et Traditions Populaires (Paris:
Maisonneuve & Larose, 1984), 76–78.
62Caroline Bynum Walker, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval
Wome n (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 165–80.
63Gabriella Zarri and Chiara Frugoni proposed a gendered interpretation for visual representa-
tions of St. Catherine’s Mystical Marriage, stressing its appropriateness for nuns or tertiaries who conse-
crated themselves to God: Gabriella Zarri, “Ursula and Catherine: The Marriage of Virgins in the
Sixteenth Century,” in Creative Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy: A Religious and Artistic Renais-
sance, ed. E. Ann Matter and John Wayland Coakley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
1994), 253–67; Chiara Frugoni, “Female Mystics and Iconography,” in Women and Religion in Medieval
and Renaissance Italy, ed. Daniel Bornstein and Roberto Rusconi, trans. Margaret J. Schneider (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1996), 1315. Although this reading might fit certain painted imagery of
this subject, it had a wider and more complex web of possible signification.
64Hippolyte Delehaye, “Les Martyrs d’ Égypte,” Annalecta Bollandiana 40, nos. 1–2 (1922): 35–36,
85, 121, 125; Ottone, La Leggenda, 71–72.
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Periti / Correggio’s "Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian" 703
where it was published.65 In his poem devoted to St. Catherine, Mantuanus instead
adapted the vocabulary and rhetoric of classical authors (especially Virgil), to mat-
ters of divine love and faith as in the description of the mystical marriage. Mantua-
nus exalts St. Catherine’s spiritual union by presenting her as a chaste, beautiful
nymph, adapting a sensual, affective idiom, the most intimate form of identification
with Christ’s humanity.66 Aretino’s description of the saint’s mystic marriage makes
direct appeal to the reader’s imagination through his vivid description of the pro-
Each of these writings presents modal analogies to Correggio’s formal syntax
displayed in the Mystic Marriage. I do not want, however, to argue that these textual
descriptions or others served as direct models for the artist’s lyrical vocabulary in
this imagery. Rather, they allow one to discern common features between the tex-
tual and visual treatment of this subject. Correggio made St. Catherine an appeal-
ing figure, tenderly inclining her head towards the Child, who holds her finger in
order to place the golden ring of spiritual union on it, paralleling the poetic
descriptions of the scene set forth by Mantuanus and Aretino. The bulk of their
narratives of the mystic marriage does not have to do with the subjective state of
rapture, nor with the objective experience of vision felt by St. Catherine, but rather
with the saint’s fleeting experience of the total union with Christ. Correggio’s
painting embodies the immaterial state of loving intimacy with Christ, presenting
for his sophisticated viewer, Francesco Grillenzoni first and foremost, the subdued
emotion of love and the sentiment of true faith. Correggio’s interpretation of the
subject stands as a response to the textual sources, since the painter, even more than
the writers, was capable of embodying the privileged condition of love and faith
expressed by the protagonists as seen and perceived by the beholder. The love of
and faith in Christ represented in St. Catherine’s mystic union were therefore the
notions upon which the accademico spirituale Francesco Grillenzoni meditated and
which he incorporated in his inward procedures of docta pietas. A painting like the
Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with St. Sebastian, in which the coalescing of intense
emotionalism and devotion reaches a high level of significance, was hence well
suited to Grillenzoni’s beliefs, and at the same time it became a remarkable exem-
plum of this new category of pictures that renegotiated reformed religious ideas
with aesthetic beauty.
65Domenico Rococciolo, Legenda di santa Caterina de Monte Sinai (Modena: Domenicus Rococ-
ciolus, 1490), 53.
66Baptista Mantuanus, “Parthenicae Secundae Sanctae Catherinae,” in Vitae Sanctae Katharinae, ed.
Apad Peter Orban, 2 vols. (Turnhout: Brepols, 1992), 2:85–590. On the notion of the “humanization”
of Christ, see Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, 2nd ed.
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 274–86.
67Pietro Aretino, Le vite dei santi: Santa Caterina vergine, San Tommaso d’Aquino (1540–1543), ed.
Flavia Santin (Rome: Bonacci, 1977), 77. It is worth noticing that Aretino adhered to reformed
thoughts in the 1530s.
38-3(2007).book Page 703 Tuesday, September 18, 2007 10:33 PM