Correggio’s other masterpiece, The Nativity, known as La Notte (The Night), now in Dresden, is entirely different to this in tone and feeling. On October 14, 1522, Correggio made an agreement with a gentleman of Reggio, named Alberto Pratonero, to paint an altar-piece for his family chapel in the Church of San Prospero at Reggio, the price agreed on being 208 lire, or 471 gold ducats. Whether the picture were painted at that time or not, it was not placed in the church till 1530. Possibly the order dragged on while Correggio’s mind was full of other things ; first, his picture for Donna Briseide, who, being a personal friend, probably kept him up to the mark by constant visits to inspect progress ; and then there was his work in the cupola of the Duomo. Besides these, the family joys and cares caused by a wife and little daughters, and endless lawsuits for his cousins disputed his inheritance from his uncle Aromani, and his wife’s relations got up a lawsuit about her marriage portion.
There was, moreover, much fighting in Italy, and a visitation of the plague at that time. These were certainly enough distractions for an artist’s temperament, but more probably the chief cause of the delay was that he had set himself a high ideal in this picture, and it was difficult to attain. He was working out a new effect of light and was unable to satisfy himself. The picture represents the Nativity, but Correggio has evidently taken his inspiration not from the Gospel narrative, but from the account in an apocryphal book called ” Evangelo dell’ Infanzia del Salvatore,” which relates that when Joseph came back with assistance to his wife he found the cave filled with a Divine radiance from the Babe, which was already born. The effect as represented by the painter is very beautiful ; the sole light emanates from the body of the Divine Child and falls on the wrapt faces of the adoring shepherds. One of the most beautiful figures is a young girl, who shades her eyes with her hands from this mysterious effulgence. Pungileone, describing the group, says : ” All the figures might have been drawn by an angel hand, and they seem to start out from the canvas, wanting only the power of speech.” Above the shed is a choir of angels, of which the equally enthusiastic Vasari asserts : ” They seem to have been rained down from heaven.” The effect of light is not forced or artificial, as with the later Dutch painters, Schalken and Honthorst, nor is it a mixed effect, as in one of Raphael’s paintings, where four lights (two emanating from angels, one from a torch, and another from the moon) are mingled. Correggio’s light is delicate and spiritual, and seems to pervade every-thing rather than to form shadows, while its unity is very full of religious meaning. The picture was at length finished, and in 1530 placed in the basilica of San Prospero at Reggio with the following inscription : ” Albertus et Gabriel Pratonerii, ha c de Hieronymi parentis optimi sententia fieri voluerunt. An. MDXXX.”
It remained here till 1646, when it was obtained for a church at Modena, and passed later into the hands of the d’Este family, and was in the Ducal Gallery till 1746. Then when the French and Austrian troubles came it was sold to the Elector Augustus III. of Saxony with six others, and ultimately reached Dresden.
Correggio made several sketches for this picture ; one is at Milan and one at Parma.