Celebrating the 500th anniversary of Tintoretto, 12: Back to mythology for the Doges

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518–1594), The Origin of the Milky Way (c 1575), oil on canvas, 149.4 × 168 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1890), London. Image courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

With the completion of his work on the magnificent paintings of Old Testament stories in the ceiling of the Sala superiore in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Jacopo Tintoretto painted another couple of religious works before he started on a succession of mythological narratives.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), The Temptation of Saint Anthony (E&I 197) (c 1577), oil on canvas, 282 x 165 cm, Chiesa di San Trovaso, Venice, Italy. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (E&I 197) was probably painted by Jacopo himself in about 1577, for the Milledonne Chapel in the Chiesa di San Trovaso, Venice. This was commissioned by Antonio Milledonne, who is now buried at the foot of the altar of which this is the altarpiece.

Although deployed as an altarpiece, Tintoretto’s composition appears as if it was intended to be mounted high, with foreshortening of the flying figure. Otherwise it complies with established iconography, with Saint Anthony between two women, and the devil with his back to the viewer, behind.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Saint Agnes Cures Licinius (E&I 198) (c 1577), oil on canvas, 400 x 200 cm, Madonna dell’Orto, Venice, Italy. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

Flying figures are a prominent feature of Tintoretto’s Saint Agnes Cures Licinius (E&I 198) from about the same date, which is I believe his last surviving work to have been painted for the Madonna dell’Orto.

This shows the story of Saint Agnes of Rome, who is one of only seven women who, together with the Virgin Mary, are named in the Canon of the Mass. By tradition, she was of noble birth and raised in a Christian family. The prefect’s son Licinius fancied her when she was only around fifteen years old, but she rejected his advances. For this, the boy’s father had Agnes dragged naked through the streets to a brothel, where Licinius and his friends tried to rape her.

God struck Licinius dead. The prefect then pleaded with Agnes to pray for his son to be brought back to life, which is the scene shown here. Licinius has just recovered consciousness in the lower left corner, Agnes is behind him and talking to the elegantly-dressed prefect. Above them are angels with Agnes’ crown ready for her subsequent fate, and at the very top is the white dove of the Holy Spirit.

After she had performed this miracle, the prefect had Agnes martyred as a witch.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Nine Muses (E&I 199) (c 1578), oil on canvas, 206.7 x 309.8, The Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, Windsor, England. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1578, perhaps extending into the following year, Tintoretto painted six mythological works, in a break from his long series of religious scenes and portraits. The first of these was probably the Nine Muses (E&I 199) for the Palazzo Ducale not in Venice, but in Mantua, and now in the Royal Collection of the UK. This is unusually inscribed at the lower left corner. The vanishing point in its sky contains another woman’s head, which is probably that of their mother, Mnemosyne, the personification of memory, who has the appearance of a mandorla from a religious work.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Mercury and the Three Graces (E&I 201) (1578), oil on canvas, 146 x 155, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The next four were for the Atrio Quadrato in Venice’s Palazzo Ducale. Mercury and the Three Graces (E&I 201) takes just three of those Graces, and places Mercury, the messenger of the gods, behind at the left. This composition is dominated by diagonals, which give the whole image a marked lean to the left, which may have been appropriate for its original location.

I regret that I have been unable to locate a suitable image of the second myth for the Palazzo Ducale, which shows the Marriage of Ariadne and Bacchus, after Ariadne had been abandoned on Naxos.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Minerva and Mars (E&I 203) (1578), oil on canvas, 148 x 168, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The third is this marvellous painting of Minerva and Mars (E&I 203), in which the goddess is pushing the god of war away from her, as her right hand rests on the shoulder of Peace, with Prosperity at the left edge of the canvas. This is an excellent example of the allegorical use of myth, for which Rubens became so famous fifty years later.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Vulcan’s Forge (E&I 204) (1578), oil on canvas, 145 x 156, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The fourth and last of this series shows Vulcan’s Forge (E&I 204), where Tintoretto’s brushwork is particularly prominent in the scant clothing.

Tintoretto’s workshop was busy with several other religious works, in most of which Jacopo himself was rather less involved.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), The Annunciation (E&I 264) (c 1582), oil on canvas, 440 x 542 cm, Sala terrena, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Note: since publishing this article, I have discovered that this painting was incorrectly captioned, and shows the later Annunciation which Tintoretto painted for the Sala terrena of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (E&I 264). I am unable to locate an image of the correct painting made in about 1578 for the Church of San Rocco, so will leave this here as it is such a wonderful painting. It will also be shown later in its correct location! I apologise for this confusion.

One exception is ‘The Annunciation’ painted in about 1578 for outer organ shutters in the Church of San Rocco, Venice. This is an unusual composition, which includes natural rendering of contemporary brickwork, a wicker chair, and a splendidly realistic carpenter’s yard at the left. This is coupled with an aerial swarm of infants, at the head of which is the dove of the Holy Ghost in a small mandorla.

But for me, the highlight of this period in Tintoretto’s career is perhaps his finest mythological painting: The Origin of the Milky Way (1577-79).

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518–1594), The Origin of the Milky Way (E&I 213) (1577-79), oil on canvas, 149.4 × 168 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1890), London. Image courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

This shows the infant Hercules being pulled away from Juno’s breast by an anonymous assistant, with fine streams of milk gushing upwards to generate individual stars, and downwards to form lilies. In the background, Jupiter’s eagle has a crablike object in its talons, perhaps representing the constellation of the Crab (Cancer), and Juno’s peacocks are at the right.

It has been proposed that Tintoretto painted this for the church of San Trovaso, which now has a full-size copy in its place, although others consider it was one of four scenes of the life of Hercules painted for Emperor Rudolph II in Prague. Joyce Plesters presents a detailed account of its last major conservation work, and considers that there is strong evidence that it underwent substantial reduction, losing its lower third, approximately. That is thought to have contained the reclining nude figure of Earth.

It has a thin brownish ground, in which there are particles of charcoal black, lake, vermilion, smalt, azurite, malachite, and ultramarine, in a medium of linseed oil. Its underdrawing was then brushed in lead white, with considerable adjustments being made in the body of Juno. Although the paint layer is nowhere thick, Plesters considers it to be “of enormous complexity”, arising largely from multiple overpainted pentimenti.

Pigments found in the paint layer include natural ultramarine, which is mixed with lead white in the sky, azurite, indigo dye (peacocks and as a final glaze), malachite, copper resinate glaze, vermilion, red lake, lead-tin yellow, orpiment, realgar, charcoal black, and lead white.

In the next article, I will look at another couple of secular works, following which Tintoretto resumed work on New Testament subjects for the walls of the Sala superiore in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.


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.
Joyce Plesters (1980) Tintoretto’s Paintings in the National Gallery Part II: Materials and techniques, National Gallery Technical Bulletin 4: 32-48.