CORREGGIO painted three different pictures of this subject, of which one is in the Louvre, one at Naples, and the third at St. Petersburg. It has been thought that two of these were either replicas or copies, but this cannot be the case, because they were painted at different times for different people, and each differs from the others on several points.
The one at the Louvre, in which the figures are half life-size, is the most important. It is sup posed to have been painted as a wedding present to his sister Catherine, who married Vincenzo Mariani in 1519. This would place the picture among his earlier masterpieces. It is full of natural but sensuous grace ; religion gives place to joy and beauty. The Virgin is seated with the Divine Child on her lap. St. Catherine, kneeling beside her, gives her delicate hand to the Babe, who places the ring on her finger. The arm and hand of the Child are most exquisitely drawn. St. Sebastian, holding his arrow, stands behind the girl saint, looking down benignly on the mystic ceremony. His figure is a masterpiece of flesh painting, warm and glowing, with golden lights which, as Dr Meyer says, ” seem to blush from beneath.” How this picture got into the possession of Cardinal Antonio Barberini is not known, but he made a present of it to Cardinal Mazarin, with three others of Correggio’s pictures (A Sleeping Venus ; The Heroic Virtues and The Vices, two allegorical pictures), and it is now in the Louvre.
The painting at Naples is very much smaller, and there is no St. Sebastian in the design. Either the figure never was there, which proves that it is not a copy of the Louvre one, or it has been painted out, which does not appear likely. In the picture which forms our illustration the attitudes, expressions, and draperies are quite different from the other. There is infinitely greater grace of pose and of grouping. The Madonna bends over the Child, who, as He places the ring on St. Catherine’s finger, .looks smilingly up to His mother for approval. St. Catherine, a figure full of tender grace and intent seriousness, holds a palm in her right hand ; in that of the Louvre she gives her right hand instead of the left to Christ, who is here entirely nude, while in the Naples painting He is partially draped. The trees in the background are in a similar position, and that is the only positive repetition.
The Naples copy came from the Ducal Gallery at Parma ; that in the Hermitage at St. Petersburg was from the collection of the Count Von Bruhl, Prime Minister of the King of Poland. On the back of the latter picture is written in antique characters ” Laus Deo per Donna Metilde d’Este, Antonio Laeti da Correggio fece il presente quadretto per sua divozione, 1517.” This painting presents more similarity to the Naples one than that of the Louvre, but is plainly not a copy of it. Mengs says that many illustrious men, amongst them Annibale Caracci, made copies of this picture, but none of them could approach the original for beauty.