[Parmigianino] received a commission to decorate the vaults and the main apse of a new, centrally planned church dedicated to the Virgin, the Madonna della Steccata. This project gave him the opportunity to refine Correggio’s illusionistic effects and promote an even more elegant and graceful style which allied his patrons with the most sophisticated developments in contemporary Roman art.
In the church Parmigianino transformed the broad barrel vault in front of the main apse into a sumptuous gilt, blue, and red field which seems to be bounded by protruding arches overlaid with interlacing gilt strapwork. Only the bosses at the centre of the coffers are actually three-dimensional, every other figure, niche, and decorative detail is a fiction. The three female figures performing a balletic balancing act on a fictive ledge carry empty lamps which characterize them as the unprepared Foolish Virgins of one of Christ’s parables; their wise, mirror-image counterparts appear on the opposite side of the vault.