In the center, Madonna is sitting with Child sleeping on her knees, supporting Him with her left hand. Her exquisite features, her small oval head, long neck, the attenuated limbs are the definite marks of the aristocratic style of Mannerism. On the left, there is a group of five angels squeezed near the Virgin and looking at her and Child. They bear a vase, probably, as a gift. Behind the Virgin, there is a white column without a capital, supporting nothing.
On the right, there is a man in the distance unrolling a scroll and looking not on the Virgin but the opposite side. His figure is small, and it is not clear where he is and what the distance is between him and the Virgin. Unfortunately, Parmigianino did not finish the painting before his death in 1540. David Ekserdjian argues that this small figure represents St. Jerome who looks at his intended companion St. Francis. Parmigianino only painted Franciss right foot, but the two saints were the essential parts of his plan.
Ekserdjian states that the artist initially wanted to arrange figures symmetrically, and the Virgin with Child would have been painted between St. Jerome and St. Francis. However, the author abandoned this intention later, and on the final version we see asymmetrical location of figures with a crowd of angels on the left and almost empty space with only a tiny figure of St. Jerome on the right. There is no consolidated opinion on the meaning of the painting.
Some, like Maniates, see in it the signs of eroticism and heightened sensuality that verges on the immoral, and ascribe ambiguous charm to Parmigianinos Madonna. However, others underline the religious meaning of the painting. Kleiner states that attenuated limbs of Madonna serve not solely for decorative purposes, let alone the erotic ones, but have a religious meaning. Paoletti and Radke agree with this point of view and even examine the religious signs more closely.
In medieval hymns, Virgins neck was compared to a great ivory column, and the attenuated neck of Parmigianinos Madonna is definitely the visual embodiment of this comparison. A single column behind the Virgin on the painting also speaks in favor of this interpretation. Even the most erotic features like the Virgins engorged nipples can be interpreted as the religious symbols of her ability to nourish the faithful. In fact, it is hard to believe that Parmigianino painted with the eroticism in mind.
First of all, he painted for Elena Baiardis family chapel in Parma, and the frivolous attitude could not be accepted in this case. Then, there is a cross on the vase, that Vasari noted when he first saw the painting in the mid-sixteenth century, and that symbolizes the Christs fate to be crucified. Finally, the very attenuated limbs are not erotic but symbolic. Mannerism did not have a goal of depicting natural and erotic; it was symbolical in the sense that it sought to embody the core idea of the things and not their natural appearance.
Bibliography Ekserdjian, David. Parmigianinos first idea for the Madonna of the Long Neck. The Burlington Magazine 126, no. 976 (1984): 424-429. Kleiner, Fred S. Gardners Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective. Vol. II. 13th ed. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. Maniates, Maria Rika. Mannerism in Italian Music and Culture, 1530-1630. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979. Paoletti, John T. and Gary M. Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy. 3rd ed. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005.