Artibus et Historiae no. 69 (XXXV)2014, ISSN 0391-9064
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CLAUDIA STEINHARDT-HIRSCH - Between Iconology and the Cassinese Theology. The Divine Light in Correggio’s Holy Night (pp. 163–172)
Antonio Allegri da Correggio’s altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds (1527–1530), known since the seventeenth century as Holy Night, is an incunabulum showing for the first time in monumental format the artistic illusion of darkness lit up by the body of the Christ Child. Its convincing light effects, however, were not without precursors. This can be proven by two sketches: one made around 1520 for a tapestry by the school of Raphael, attributed to Giovanni Francesco Penni; and the preparatory drawing by Giulio Romano for an unfinished painting (c. 1525) commissioned by Isabella Boschetto, the daughter-in-law of Isabella d’Este from Mantua.
Considering this background, Correggio’s altarpiece seems to tackle an artistic problem which was, so to speak, ‘in the air’. But a closer look at the Parmesan painter’s cultural environment and especially at the writings of the Congregazione Cassinese, a holy order of which the painter was a lay member since 1521, reveals that the invention of the painting has to be connected to the religious thoughts of this order.
We find a very close parallel between the iconographic meaning of the painting and the prayer book Formula orationis et meditationis, written by the founder of the Congregazione Ludovico Barbo in the first half of the fifteenth century. Here, and also in other writings by two famous members of the order, Eusebio Valentino and Isidoro Clario, we find not only light playing the fundamental role in the faith of the monks but also a highly affective character of poetry pointing to the imaginative force of meditation in the cognitive capability of the religious events. The latter might also explain the unusual highly affective artistic expression of Correggio’s paintings.