The Crucifixion is one of the most popular themes for Christian religious painting, and one of the most conventional. When Jacopo Tintoretto was commissioned to paint it for the Scuola del Santissimo Sacramento in San Severo, his customer wasn’t exactly awash with funds. Its substantial canvas was assembled from several smaller pieces, and the master himself delegated the work to his assistants rather than painting much of it himself.
The Scuola’s Crucifixion was completed in about 1558, and 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.
Just over five years later, in a commission for the much better-funded Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, Tintoretto painted one of the major religious works of the century: his vast Crucifixion (1565), which is over 5 metres (17 feet) high, and 12 metres (40 feet) across.
With the experience of his previous Crucifixion behind him, he applied lessons he had learned painting tall works for the Madonna dell’Orto. He makes use of space and uses a narrative technique based on the traditional ‘multiplex’ form popular during the Renaissance, in which its single image shows events at more than a single point in time, but in an ingenious and modern manner. Naturally, the painting centres on Christ crucified, but the two thieves executed beside him are not shown, as would be traditional, already hanging from their crosses.
Instead, to the right of Christ, the ‘bad’ thief is still being attached to his cross, which rests on the ground. To the left of Christ, the ‘good’ thief is just being raised to the upright position. There is nothing in the well-known gospel accounts which actually makes this view anachronistic, but it is most probable that the crucifixions were more simultaneous.
It is thus an innovative artistic device which shows the three executions at different times, and is therefore ‘multiplex’ (or ‘continuous’) narrative. But here it avoids the archaic repetition of figures or other content, as Tintoretto applies it to discrete passages within the whole.
Spaced out around the canvas are relevant sub-stories from that whole. At the foot of Christ’s cross is his group of mourners, including the Marys. Each of the crosses has attendant workers, busy with the task of conducting the crucifixion, climbing ladders, hauling on lines, and fastening each victim to his cross. This mechanical and human detail brings the scene to life and adds to its credibility and grim process.
The crowd on the left is more spread out than in his earlier depiction. In the distance is a flag bearing the letters SPQR representing the Roman Empire, and its link through Pilate. Most faces are turned towards Christ, with their eyes wide in awe.
On the right, in a small rock shelter suggestive of a tomb, two men are gambling with dice. To the right of them, a gravedigger has just started his work with a spade. The ruling class, perhaps Herod himself, have turned up on horseback, and they too stare wide-eyed at Christ.
This formed a vast centrepiece for the Albergo in the Scuola Grande, for which Tintoretto painted other scenes from the Passion.
Unlike Hans Memling’s Passion, Tintoretto makes no attempt to paint a sequence of events in a thread of individual scenes. Instead, different passages appear in their spatial context. I have marked up the image below to enumerate those that I can identify.
These are, in approximate order of the sequence of events:
- the distant flag bearing the letters SPQR, representing the Roman Empire, and Pilate’s trial of Jesus;
- the ruling class, perhaps including Herod himself, on horseback;
- the ‘bad’ thief is being attached to the cross on the ground;
- the repentant thief is being raised on his cross to the upright position;
- Christ’s cross is already fully raised, and the crucifixion in progress;
- at the foot of Christ’s cross is the group of mourners, including the Marys;
- a sponge is being dipped in vinegar to be offered to Christ;
- a gravedigger has started his work with a spade;
- two men are gambling with dice in a small rock shelter.
Conventional painted narrative would normally include backward and forward references in time, within an image dominated by the transformative moment or peripeteia. In this case, Tintoretto has introduced asynchrony with four backward and three forward references which together extend the detail in its narrative, in particular providing a vivid and broad account of the crucifixion itself.
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.