After Jacopo Tintoretto had completed his series of paintings showing the Fables of Ovid in the palace at San Paternian, he turned to what was to be his mainstay throughout his career: religious scenes for the churches and other institutions in the city of Venice. At first the works were relatively minor, but in 1548 he completed his first major commission for the Scuola Grande di San Marco, marking a turning point in his career.
Over this period, Tintoretto worked with Andrea Schiavone (c 1510/15-1563), who was slightly older than him and an important early influence. Tintoretto was quite traditional in his style, a note above his studio door proclaiming that he drew like Michelangelo and used colour like Titian, who was the dominant and most popular painter in Venice at the time.
The Supper at Emmaus (E&I 27) from about 1542 shows a popular scene from the gospel of Saint Luke, in which the resurrected Christ met two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. The disciples urged him to stay and have supper with them, and when the bread was broken, they recognised him as the risen Christ.
Tintoretto uses a formal arrangement of the table, with Christ sat in the middle, directly underneath a pillar marking the midline of the canvas, and the two disciples sat nearer the viewer, to each side. To this, he adds a woman and man serving the meal, and another couple of extras to turn the simple meal into a more substantial gathering. There is even a cat sat watching from the lower left foreground.
A chequered floor adds depth by perspective, and there are diagonals formed by the walking sticks of the two disciples, which give a narrative link to their recent journey to Emmaus. Tintoretto places a glass goblet on the table to demonstrate his skills at rendering it.
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (E&I 31) from about 1543 shows an episode from the early life of Jesus, when he was presented to the Temple in Jerusalem to formally mark his induction into the Jewish faith, an event commemorated as a feast by most Christian churches and denominations. The infant Christ is being passed across from his mother, the Virgin Mary, to a priest, in front of a large crowd. In the foreground another mother is feeding her own baby.
This very traditional if not archaic depiction was an early commission by the Scuola (trade guild) of fishmongers for the church of Santa Maria del Carmini, Venice.
In about 1544, Tintoretto tackled one of the best-known stories from the Acts of the Apostles, which has been painted extensively but poses a difficult problem in composition which few artists have solved particularly well: The Conversion of Saint Paul (E&I 32).
Paul, then known as Saul, had been a pharisee who devoted his energy to the persecution of Christians. When travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus with the intention of arresting Christians there, he underwent a visionary experience in which the voice of Jesus asked him why he was persecuting him. Paul was blinded for three days as a result, his sight being restored by Ananias in Damascus, and he was converted to Christianity.
Tintoretto’s account is very Renaissance in its style, but with some unconventional touches. Its overwhelming effect is of the chaos which Paul’s vision causes, with riders dismounted, horses plunging into the river, and tumbling down long flights of steps. It may employ multiplex narrative, there being at least two white horses with blue saddles, with riders in yellow tunics. That at the left is probably intended to represent Paul during his vision, with the voice of Christ coming from the top left.
Tintoretto developed the simple motif from his earlier painting of the Ovidian myth of Apollo and Marsyas, in his Fables of Ovid series, in the Contest of Apollo and Marsyas (E&I 34) from 1544-45. The previous motif is reiterated at the left, with the addition of a small audience consisting of a token Grace, as judge, and three men. He keeps to the more gentle start to the story, and makes no reference to its gory conclusion, in which Marsyas inevitably loses and is flayed alive at the behest of Apollo.
This painting was commissioned in 1544 by Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), a major literary figure of the time and close friend of Tintoretto’s rival Titian, as a ceiling panel for his Palazzo Bollani on the Grand Canal. Aretino was a successful satirist and early writer of pornography, who later became a successful blackmailer.
Tintoretto’s sketchy brushwork is quite noticeable here, and the style close to that of Andrea Schiavone. Aretino’s letter of thanks to the painter compliments him on his speed of execution.
Tintoretto turned to Greek mythology in his Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan (E&I 36) painted in about 1545, although this time his reference is Homer’s Odyssey.
Venus (the Greek Aphrodite) is the unfaithful wife of Vulcan (Hephaestus). On one occasion, she had an affair with Mars (Ares), and was discovered by her husband in the midst of their lovemaking, who promptly threw a fine but unbreakable net over the couple, and summoned the other gods to witness their shame.
Tintoretto offers an unusual interpretation of this: Vulcan is inspecting his wife, as Mars cowers under the bed at the right. A small dog is drawing attention to Mars’ hiding place, and Venus’ child, Cupid, rests in a cradle behind them.
Within this is skilful mirror-play: the circular mirror behind the bed reflects an image of Vulcan leaning over Venus. The artist also shows off his technique in other ways, in a glass jar on the window sill at the upper right, and optical effects in the window glass.
In about 1546, Tintoretto painted a series showing the seasons, of which three works now survive.
Summer (E&I 40) shows a reclining Titian nude before she has removed her clothes, with the summer harvest ripening behind her. She is joined by three birds, one an exotic parrot, flowers of the dog rose, and hanging bunches of grapes.
The Last Supper (E&I 44) from 1547 is one of the first of Tintoretto’s succession of paintings showing the last meal of Jesus and his disciples prior to his crucifixion. Although a modest version, it contains some delightful and quite innovative features, such as the broken rhythm of the wooden stools at the front.
Their forms are derived from Venetian Gothic architecture which surrounded the artist throughout his life, and are echoed in the feet of Judas, who is holding his bag of silver behind him, and of the other disciple with his back to the viewer. This was commissioned by the Scuola del Sacramento of San Marcuola, the group responsible for looking after the sacrament during periods between masses at that church.
The painting which marked a turning point in Tintoretto’s career is his Miracle of the Slave (E&I 46) from 1548. Based on the notoriously unreliable Golden Legend, a slave is about to be martyred by torture in having his limbs and body broken, for the offence of venerating the relics of a Christian saint.
The naked slave is lying on the ground, surrounded by the shattered fragments of an axe, other tools, and lengths of rope which were being used to kill him slowly. One of his torturers, wearing a distinctive turban, is caught just to the right of centre, in the midst of hammering something to inflict more pain and suffering.
Surrounding the slave is a tight cluster of people: his torturers, bystanders, several women and their children. Flying above them all, into the picture plane, his right arm stretched down towards the chaos, is the foreshortened figure of Saint Mark.
This seems to have been Tintoretto’s first really large-scale work, which brought him renown throughout Venice. His composition was inspired by a bronze relief of the same scene by Jacopo Sansovino, made in 1541-44. Commissioned for the Scuola Grande di San Marco, it proved controversial and was initially returned to the artist as being unsuitable. It marked the start of a long and very beneficial relationship with the Scuola, and Tintoretto’s promotion to the major league of Venetian artists.
Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman (2009) Toward a new Tintoretto Catalogue, with a Checklist of revised Attributions and a new Chronology, in Falomir op cit.
Miguel Falomir (ed) (2009) Jacopo Tintoretto, Proceedings of the International Symposium, Museo Nacional del Prado. ISBN 978 84 8480 171 9.
Roland Krischel (ed) (2017) Tintoretto, A Star was Born, Hirmer (in German). ISBN 978 3 777 42942 7.
Tom Nichols (2015) Tintoretto, Tradition and Identity, 2nd edition, Reaktion Books. ISBN 978 1 78023 450 2.