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In the third century CE, St. Catherine of Alexandria pledged herself to Christ in a divine marriage. Over a millennium later, Girolamo Romanino captured this moment in his painting The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. In this iconographic analysis of Romanino’s sixteenth-century painting, Boston College sophomore Abigail Dagher analyzes the artist’s reinterpretation of the St. Catherine myth in the context of the art and religion of Renaissance Italy.
By Abigail Dagher
English major, Islamic Studies & Civilizations minor, class of 2020
The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine by Girolamo Romanino, or Il Romanino (Fig. 1), tells the story of the vision of St. Catherine—a tale in which St. Catherine envisions Christ bestowing a ring upon her finger, symbolizing their eternal and divine marriage. We now know that St. Catherine was martyred for her refusal to marry the pagan Emperor Maxentius due to her belief that she had already been everlastingly betrothed to Christ. German-American author Paul Carus tells the story in his monthly magazine, The Open Court:
Once, when St. Catharine was praying fervently in her chamber, Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, appeared before her, clad in fine apparel and accompanied by a great throng of angels and saints. As testimony that he accepted St. Catharine for his bride he placed a real ring upon her finger and promised to perform great things for her if she would remain faithful in her love, and when our Lord Jesus Christ had disappeared she knew at once that vision was to be understood in a spiritual sense. She was completely converted to a great divine love and reverent tenderness toward Jesus Christ, her spouse.1
This oil on canvas piece measures 60.25 x 81.75 inches. The painting itself is quite dark except for the vibrant clothing on the foreground characters, who look as if they are living in Renaissance Italy. The Virgin Mary is wearing a bright white silk cloak and turban that reflect the light and symbolize her purity. There is also a halo, that looks more like a luminary spectacle above her head to further accentuate her divinity and connection to light and goodness. St. Catherine is kneeling with her back towards us, giving her full attention to Christ and his gift of a ring. She has taken off her crown and put her sword down in her conversion to this greater love and is standing by a broken wheel similar to the one she was condemned to death on. The saint is wearing a golden and green dress that shines in the light. Gold is a color of power, wealth, and divinity. Green is a color of fertility and nature. The color choices are paralleled with the divine story that is unfolding in the natural setting.
The legend of St. Catherine’s vision comes from the east, the same region as the Song of Solomon that relishes in earthly delights and love. Our eyes are drawn to the highlighted hues and the piece is asking us to recognize the symbolism revolving around the characters in the painting in order to imagine the allegory within. We are also introduced to new characters that are additions to the original story: an ominous man in the shadows on the left, a woman in red carrying a flag in the upper-right, and another woman to the far right in a nun’s habit. It is unclear who these characters are, but one can assume that the woman in red is a saint.
Romanino uses chiaroscuro to separate the people in the painting from the faded, darker background setting, which gives us some atmospheric perspective. Both the acute attention to details in the clothing and the atmospheric perspective can be attributed to the influence of two Venetian painters: Giorgione and Titian. Romanino also uses a head count method for proportions in his painting: the baby Jesus figure is about three head counts whereas the adult figures are about seven. The proportions give us a sense of realism that is only heightened by Romanino’s attention to detail in the construction of facial features, figures’ poses, and items of clothing. The baby figure looks quite like a real baby with indentations in his flesh-like baby fat. His head is a bit large for his body, which is a characteristic often found in real infants. The facial figures on the other characters are not idealized; these aren’t perfect figures, rather they are closer to reality.
This sense of realism is amplified by the detailed domestic setting in the background. We are in a specific place. This specific place is actually the hometown of Girolamo Romanino. The castle in the background is his birthplace Brescia, a town in the Lombardy region in northern Italy. The High Renaissance painter lived from ca. 1484 to ca. 1562.2 Romanino, who lived in Venice in his twenties and then in Brescia thereafter, flourished as an artist in a period of observing the natural world and creating a sense of realism in art. The painter’s style was very representative of the High Renaissance environment around him. His works were influenced by Venetian art, evident in his use of rich colors and large forms, but his attention to detail (as seen in the iridescence and pattern-work of the clothing in the piece) is a precursor to baroque styles.
Il Romanino followed the styles of Giorgione and Titian, two Venetian Renaissance painters extant around the same time. Giorgione and Titian switched the “color vs. line” technique often found in Central Italian painting, a process that begins with forming lines that later become colored in. The Venetians went backwards: the new Northern Renaissance Italian style became more focused on color rather than line. Paintings rarely had hard outlines and instead used color and light to generate form. Romanino utilized the sfumato technique to first and foremost create a hazy background but also render the relatively softer figures in the foreground. Sfumato allows colors to gradually come together, resulting in those softened, hazy outlines that are characteristic of northern High Renaissance art. Both the sfumato technique and the atmospheric perspective in The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine are quite similar to that in Giorgione’s The Tempest, ca. 1510 (Fig. 2). In both of the paintings, characters are in the foreground, a bridge is in the mid-ground, and a building paired with an omniscient storm darkly looms in the slightly faded background.
In addition to Giorgione and Titian, German artist Albrecht Dürer was a huge influence to Romanino.3 Dürer was also a High Renaissance painter who focused on naturalism and humanism in his pieces. Although Romanino’s St. Catherine does not include absolutely realistic representations of the human form or facial features, it does incorporate acute attention to detail in articles of clothing and extraordinary attention to the reflection of light in certain places—stylistic choices found in a variety of Dürer’s works.
So, who are those unideal figures accompanying St. Catherine, Mary, and Christ? Art historians now know that the piece was commissioned to commemorate the Ursuline order in Brescia founded by St. Angela Merici on November 25, 1535, the feast day of St. Catherine. The Ursulines created a Roman Catholic religious order and the first institute dedicated to education for females under St. Ursula, who was the patron saint of education and a fourth-century martyr.4 The woman in the upper-right corner of the painting is carrying the white and red flag as a tribute to St. Ursula. Il Romanino’s inclusion of the tribute displays his own personal support to the teachings of the order that prides itself on, “the ability of the creative arts to humanize life.”5 It is fitting that the image St. Catherine, the patron saint of teaching, is paired with the tribute to the Ursuline Order in Romanino’s piece. The woman in the nun’s habit is thought to be Angela Merici, based on the likeness of an earlier portrait, and the mysterious man on the left is thought to be St. Lawrence, the patron saint of church officials.
Saint Angela Merici always thought of her followers, or daughters, as spouses of Christ and repeatedly referred to them as “spouses of the Most High” in her writings.6 Il Romanino created a work of art that was, and still is, representative of all of the elements most important to the Ursuline order. Followers of the order are eternally devoted to their quest of finding a relationship with God and Saint Catherine was an image of the victory of that search. She is an everlasting representation of the feeling of being one with God. St. Catherine is on her knees and has her back turned to us. She is giving all of her attention to Christ who is at the very center of the piece. Everything revolves around this relationship with God. In this painting Romanino has created an ode to the Ursuline order in a realistic and idealized way. This piece has a sense of pictorial drama and is symbolic of St. Catherine’s divine relationship with God, but due to its naturalistic and lifelike elements it is also telling its audience that anyone can find this everlasting divine bond. These are real people in a real setting telling a symbolic story.