Emerging from the sheet with remarkable sculptural presence, this study of Daniel in the lions' den was made by Parmigianino
or the fresco on the vault of the church of Santa Maria della Steccata, Parma. The artist was initially commissioned to decorate the eastern apse of the newly constructed church in May 1531. However, the colossal decorative task – which included the vault and the underside of the arches between the apse and the dome – was delayed to 1535 and again to August 1539 and left unfinished when the local authorities finally lost patience with the artist, who was arrested and jailed (he was released on bail after a short time).
Parmigianino’s overall decorative idea for the vault was largely dictated by the two rows of fourteen square recessed coffers (lacunari) featured in the sottarchi, which were already in place when he accepted the commission in 1531. Ingeniously, the artist decided to choose these architectural elements as frames to his figural compositions, which featured – as attested by a drawing in the British Museum (Popham, op. cit., 1971, no. 228, ill.) – reclining Old Testament figures enclosed in medallions. The subject chosen for one of these figural insets (the only one developed by the artist) was the prophet Daniel fed by Habakkuk, carried into the lions’ den by an angel.
A group of about ten red chalk drawings (ibid., nos. 139, 235, 236, 239, 397, 433, ill.) records Parmigianino’s struggle to fit this composition into the narrow horizontal space between the coffers. The artist varied the pose and positions of the three main characters, as well as those of the lions surrounding them, alternatively situating the figures to the left or right of Daniel. Initially turned to the right, as seen in the present sheet and in its companion in the Galleria Nazionale of Parma (inv. 510/21; see ibid., no. 549, ill.; and L. Fornari Schianchi, Parmigianino e il manierismo europeo, Parma, 2003, no. 2.3.96, ill.), Daniel occupies here the entire space of the sheet, his body stretched in both directions, while reaching out to take a loaf of bread brought to him by Habakkuk at left. At this stage of the design, the figures were framed by elongated lozenges, just outlined in the present work. An ink sketch in the Louvre (the only one not in red chalk) shows Parmigianino’s final design, where the three figures, seen more distinctly, are enclosed in an oval medallion (op. cit., no. 397; fig.).
Fig. Parmigianino, Daniel in the lions’ den fed by Habakkuk and an angel, Musée du Louvre, Paris.