Jacopo Tintoretto’s arrangement to provide paintings for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, made in 1577, was most unusual. Instead of being paid for each painting as a separate commission, as was normal, the Scuola paid him a modest annual salary of 100 ducats, in return for which he and his workshop would deliver three paintings each year before the feast of Saint Roch, on 16 August.
This was something of a gamble for both sides. As it turned out, Tintoretto was provided with a sound and dependable income which allowed him to pursue other work too, and the Scuola paid a small fraction of what any other artist would have cost them, for a Meeting House which steadily filled with some of the finest paintings of the century.
Neither did Tintoretto’s commissions for churches and other customers in Venice suffer. In about 1580, he painted this wonderful Baptism of Christ (E&I 253) for the Chiesa di San Silvestro, which is quite different from the Baptism which he had just completed for the Sala superiore in the Scuola.
Of more modest size, it shows some common passages and elements, such as the mandorla and dove in the sky. But there is no host of people lining the bank of the Jordan here, just John the Baptist and Jesus Christ: clear, plain, and with very painterly loincloths.
Just as his workshop was completing the last of their paintings for the Sala superiore in the Scuola, Jacopo was starting on the final series, to hang on the walls of its lower room, the Sala terrena. These were to keep him and his workshop occupied until about 1884, by which time Jacopo turned 66, and was delegating even more work to his son Domenico and his co-workers. In a sense, then, this series is Jacopo’s grand finale, although he was still largely responsible for a few later paintings.
The theme for this series is the early life of Christ, with its references to the Passion and Crucifixion in the future, and his family, notably the Virgin Mary. This fits excellently with his previous series for the upper rooms. There are six full-sized paintings in the series, of which I show five, omitting The Circumcision, which was probably painted entirely by the studio. The two smaller works are portraits of saintly Marys.
The Annunciation (E&I 264) is thought to have been painted in about 1582. 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.
It shows a very real, tangible, and contemporary vision of Christ’s background, in stark contrast to most traditional depictions of this scene.
The Adoration of the Magi (E&I 263) (1581-82) continues the theme of decaying brickwork and collapsed rooves. Although the three Magi are still in their finery, Tintoretto has kept their train of courtiers, horses, and riches well in the right distance, framed by the large barn doorway. This refers to some pictorial elements in the Adoration which he had already painted for the Sala superiore, but remains visually distinct.
Tintoretto’s Flight into Egypt (E&I 265) (c 1582) change scene but not world-view. The Holy Family are seen hiking their way through a lush valley, with tougher terrain in the distant hills. In the background, local peasants are fishing on the river, and there’s a small town behind their humble farm.
In the far right foreground, a rough wooden cross is a poignant reminder of what was to come in Christ’s adult life. Another pictorial link with the Passion scenes up in the albergo is the rope by which Joseph is leading their donkey.
The Massacre of the Innocents (E&I 266) (1583-84) makes a sharp contrast, with its urban scenes of violence and bloodshed, in a setting in which you could imagine Christ later being paraded in front of the crowd in an Ecce Homo. Mothers and their sons are grappling, tumbling, suffering, and dying all over the street, and their blood is shown in several red garments and the almost surreal red of the cast shadow on the street.
The Assumption of the Virgin (E&I 267) (1583-84) has unfortunately suffered severe damage in the past, and is now a pale shadow of what it must have been when its was completed. Situated above a doorway, it employs a trompe l’oeil effect to build on the real lintel.
The two smaller paintings have only relatively recently been identified as showing two other Marys, in settings which echo passages in the larger paintings.
Saint Mary of Egypt (E&I 268) (1582-83) shows a former runaway and dissolute girl who lived in Egypt, who eventually converted to Christianity and became an ascetic in the desert beyond the River Jordan. Tintoretto establishes that visually with the river beside which she is reading, and links this to The Flight into Egypt with its large palm tree, which is also a reminder of the Passion to come.
Saint Mary Magdalen (E&I 269) (1582-83) is another relatively small figure in a powerful landscape, this time dominated by a large tree which is usually associated with the Crucifixion. It also makes a contrast with the painting hung to the left, which is The Massacre of the Innocents.
The next article completes my account of Jacopo Tintoretto’s main surviving paintings (other than portraits), in particular looking at his last vast memorial, Paradise, in the Palazzo Ducale. I aim to post this in a week’s time.
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.