Jacopo Tintoretto closed the 1550s with three of the major religious paintings from his early career, in which he moved on from the archaic, and learned to handle crowds.
The first of the three is The Crucifixion (E&I 74) from about 1558, now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, but originally for San Severo. With their great religious significance in the Christian church, crucifixion scenes are usually paintings of great importance to the artist and the customer, and this is as busy and detailed as any of the time.
There is, though, evidence that this was painted on a tight budget. The customer was the Scuola del Santissimo Sacramento in San Severo, which was probably not awash with funds. Its canvas is made up of several smaller pieces which appear to have been left over from other work. And although the design and composition are undoubtedly by Jacopo himself, much of it was probably painted by his workshop, not his own hand.
It brings together two central themes: the three crucifixions in a traditional arrangement, and the group of Jesus’ closest, particularly the three Marys, at the foot of the cross, derived from his recent Deposition, with Susannah-like braided hair. Every last part of the rest of the canvas is then filled with the crowd, building other parts of the story. Two soldiers play dice in the right foreground, there are horses struggling through the seething mass, knights in armour, and up to the right the ruling caste.
Then came Tintoretto’s two vertiginous paintings for Madonna dell’Orto. Each nearly fifteen metres (fifty feet) high, they are among his most spectacular. Records indicate that they must have been completed by 1561, and current opinion is that they were painted in 1559-60.
The Last Judgment (E&I 77) was probably painted first, and shows the apocalyptic scenes from Biblical eschatology, notably the book of Revelation. To some extent, paintings of the last judgement are inevitably chaotic, as that is part of the event, but Tintoretto’s overall composition here is not as well-conceived as that of the next painting.
The painting has several focal passages, in particular the horizontal winged angel wearing orange shorts just over half way up, and the figure of Christ at its apex.
The lower sections show a dark base filled with contorted bodies which blend in with rock and water, an underworld without the usual fire. Above is a band of sea green, in which there is a reprise of the flood, and bodies are washed along in a great wave. The middle then takes to the air, where figures sit on clouds which are still bringing rain to those in the waters below.
In the upper section, above the angel in orange, rays of light are streaming down from Jesus at the apex. Individual figures are now more readily distinguished, and some of them recognisable. At each side are winged angels with long trumpets, and a double band of black clouds which marks the threshold of heaven. On the right, a martyr wearing a deep blue loincloth sits with his crucifix against his shoulder: he could be Saint Andrew, maybe.
Higher still is the mother of twins, her back to the viewer, looking up towards the heaped black cloud on which Jesus Christ sits at the centre, with the Virgin Mary on one side and Saint John the Baptist on the other. Particularly in the upper section, many of the figures are foreshorted and otherwise in difficult projections.
Making of the Golden Calf (E&I 78) shows one of the more memorable stories of Moses, from the book of Exodus in the Old Testament. During that epic journey from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land, Moses left the Israelites for a period of forty days and nights, when he ascended Mount Sinai to be given the Ten Commandments. While he was away, the people demanded that Moses’ brother and deputy Aaron made them a graven image to worship.
He gathered all their gold, which was melted down and cast into the form of a calf, which they then worshipped. God told Moses that they had already fallen from his ways, so Moses descended from Sinai. He was so angry with the Israelites that he broke the two tablets containing the commandments. He burnt the golden calf, ground it to powder, scattered it on water, and made the people drink it. The only people who did not worship the calf were the tribe of Levi, who became the first priestly class.
Tintoretto’s overall design of this rather simpler narrative is much clearer, and well-organised. The lower half of the painting shows the golden calf and the Israelites worshipping and feasting around it. Just over half way up is Moses on the summit of the mountain, being delivered the tablets with the commandments. Above that is heaven, with the Israelites’ God.
The graven image of the golden calf is being carried with difficulty by four men. Piles of golden jewellery, coins, and chain are still apparently being melted down. Sitting on a rock bench above, under an ornamental awning, are several young women, who are being dressed and prepared for ceremonies to take place with the idol. More people are seen feasting on the grass over to the left.
In the upper section of the painting, Moses is stood on the top of the mountain, his arms outstretched to the sky, ready to receive the tablets containing the commandments. God still holds those tablets, immediately above Moses, and two winged angels are just taking the tablets from him, to pass down to Moses. Around them and above are several other figures, flying around the clouds.
One last remark about these two very tall paintings: recognising that viewers would have to look up sharply to see their upper sections, Tintoretto has projected their figures and other details as if they were ceiling panels. The higher up each canvas you look, the more the figures appear to be above you. That is an ingenious projection which must enhance their visual impact considerably.
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.