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Tipping Point

The Conversion of St. Paul by Francesco Mazzola (knownn as Parmigianino, 1503-1540). Located in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

Unsettled times inspire unsettled art.

In 1528, when Parmigianino (1503-1540) created this remarkable rendering of the conversion of St. Paul, Luther’s Reformation was just ten years old. The Peasants’ War had recently flared across Germany, and Rome had been sacked the previous year by rebellious troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, effectively putting an end to the Italian Renaissance. Indeed, the great classicists Leonardo and Raphael had died in 1520, and Michelangelo, entering the second half of his restless career, was to abandon his formerly harmonious aesthetic for darkly anxious visions like the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgement.

In the midst of this disturbed spiritual and political atmosphere, Parmigianino (born Francesco Mazzola in Parma, Italy) pioneered a new style of art that was filled with bizarre distortions and complex, unstable compositions. This precocious artist had already established a reputation as “Raphael reborn” with his unconventional but highly accomplished works. At 20, he had visited and received patronage from Pope Clement VII on the basis of three paintings expressly made to impress the newly elected pontiff. One of these was an unusual self-portrait, painted on a convex round panel, which mimicked the distortions seen in a convex mirror.

A World Askew

The Conversion of St. Paul, possibly commissioned by a Bolognese doctor (Parmigianino had fled to Bologna to escape the sack of Rome), is a bravura work whose violently asymmetrical composition, with its unique, tilted horizon, makes visible the inner upheaval Saul must have experienced upon hearing the voice of Christ whom he had been persecuting. Parmigianino shows his world being turned upside down.

Saul, having fallen from his horse, lies sprawled on the ground, his blinded eyes dazzled by the divine light. The horse, with its disproportionally small head, rears up above him. Saul’s outstretched limbs set up powerful zig-zagging diagonals for the eye to follow onto the horse’s body. The dynamic poses of the figures are awkward and untenable: The horse must either continue to rear up even higher or quickly drop its hooves back to the ground.

But the horse only appears to be rearing up: A comparison of the angle of its body with that of the horizon reveals that the two are actually parallel, so it must be the ground that is falling away beneath the horse’s feet. A close inspection at the background reveals further spatial distortions: The landscape seems to warp and melt below the angle of the horizon, leveling itself out just to the right of Saul’s jutting knee; the small figures and animals there stand aligned with the vertical side of the painting. The clouds in the sky too are strangely horizontal from our point of view. Nothing here is as it seems.

The biblical account, of course, makes no mention of a horse; the tradition of depicting the episode as an equestrian scene dates from the 12th century. But the image of the fallen rider has important symbolic meaning. A rider on a horse represents man in control of nature, or the spiritual man in control of his own fleshly nature. Thus, a man thrown by his horse is a man no longer in control of himself. Saul is becoming Paul, the slave of Christ, and his sword, a symbol of power and one of Paul’s pictorial attributes, lies useless on the ground.

Change in Manner

Parmigianino’s painting typifies the self-conscious and affected style he developed, which came to be called Mannerism. Why did this strange style of art, with its deliberate subversion of classical canons of proportion and design, emerge when it did? Perhaps every new generation predictably rebels against the standards of the old: Where can one go from the perfection and harmony of the Renaissance but toward imperfection and disorder? And when the world itself is in disarray, why shouldn’t art reflect that? But there was a positive desire on the part of the Mannerists to restore emotional warmth to art and imbue it with a supernatural aura, in contrast to the cool rationalism of the Renaissance.

Nevertheless, Mannerist art eventually became so extravagant and obscure that the Council of Trent, in its decree on sacred images, was compelled, without mentioning any names, to take it in hand: “[Let] great care and diligence be used . . . that there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God” (Session 25). The art that followed after this admonition was the doctrinally clear and very Catholic art of the Baroque Counter-Reformation.

Despite his radical artistic experiments and an obsession with alchemy that took him from his art, Parmigianino had, according to Vasari, the great biographer of Italian artists, a “delicate and gentle disposition.” He asked to be buried naked, with a wooden cross on his chest.

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