'Tintoretto's Thunderbolt'

His 'Crucifixion' of 1565 just may be the Italian Renaissance's single best work of religious art

September 22, 2007

The Venetian painter Tintoretto (c. 1518-1594) never commanded the sculptural vocabulary of Leonardo or Michelangelo. He did not luxuriate in the warmth of Giorgione or Titian. He displayed neither the draftsmanship (disegno) of Florentine art nor the affection for coloring (colorito) that was the legacy of his native city.

But through a synthesis of each tradition, "il disegno di Michelangelo e il colorito di Tiziano," as one Venetian writer identified it, Tintoretto may just have painted the single best work of religious art in the Italian Renaissance. His "Crucifixion" of 1565 comes as both a concluding statement to the art of the high Renaissance and also something wildly new.

To see it, you have to visit Venice. Tintoretto's "Crucifixion" continues to fill the back wall of the boardroom (albergo) of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where he left it. Tintoretto dedicated his artistic and spiritual life to this confraternity, a charitable organization of Christian laymen dedicated to the plague-healer St. Roch. Surrounded by over 50 other religious images that Tintoretto painted for the Scuola Grande for the cost of materials, the "Crucifixion" forms the centerpiece of one of the largest intact cycles of religious work by a single artist in history.

Unlike Michelangelo, who initially fled Rome rather than finish the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Tintoretto never hesitated to apply his vision to paint. He persevered even as he was rejected by the Venetian establishment -- a situation that may explain the manic, expressive urgency of his compositions.

Consider how he first made his way into the Scuola. Since Tintoretto was the son of a silk dyer (tintore), the profession of a quarter of the Scuola's membership, his acceptance by the confraternity might have been a given. But in 1564, when he entered the artistic competition to supply the first ceiling painting to the newly completed albergo, the odds were not on his side. A young man with an evangelical zeal, Tintoretto had already been rejected for membership. In the conservative Scuola, resentment ran high against his brash personality and unorthodox paint handling -- "the thunderbolt of his brush," as one 17th-century painter called it. One member of the Scuola even pledged to contribute 15 ducats if Tintoretto was not chosen for the commission.

Meanwhile Titian, the ruling monarch of Venetian painting, who supposedly once expelled Tintoretto from his workshop after recognizing the young student's great talent, backed his protégé Veronese as heir apparent to the colorito legacy. (Their three-way rivalry will be examined in a show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in spring 2009.)

Giorgio Vasari, the great Florentine chronicler of Renaissance art, recounts how "the little dyer" overcame the odds. (They had their differences, but Vasari still saw fit to call Tintoretto "swift, resolute, fantastic and extravagant, and the most extraordinary brain that the art of painting has ever produced.") Rather than submit a drawing of his ceiling plan, Tintoretto secretly measured the open space and "sketched a great canvas and painted it with his usual rapidity, without any one knowing about it, and then placed it where it was to stand."

When the confraternity protested, Tintoretto made an offer: "If they would not pay him for the work and for his labor, he would make them a present of it." It was a clever move. Since no donation to St. Roch may be turned away, through this gift "he so contrived that the work is still in the same place." (It didn't hurt that the painting's subject was the Scuola's patron saint.)

Within a year, Tintoretto overcame the Scuola's lingering resentment; he was accepted for membership and allowed to attempt his great "Crucifixion."

The layout of the room posed several challenges. Three different architects worked on the Scuola's design. When it was finished by Scarpagnino in 1549, the building's small, elevated windows provided only minimal interior light. The albergo was also wider than it was long, so that any painting covering the back wall would have to be viewed from close proximity and below.

Tintoretto conceived of a revolutionary program. Rather than keep his design locked in strict perspective, which would have been distorted by the room's oblique points of view (think of the front row of a movie theater), Tintoretto folded his narrative around the central figure of Christ on the cross. He then depicted Christ bending down -- to address the good thief, the figures in mourning at the foot of the cross, and our gaze from below. The fixity of the cross provides an anchor within an undulating sea of dark details that seems to extend beyond the picture plane out into our own space. With blank faces, the mundane figures surrounding Christ stir up the awful scene. A crowd of onlookers, carpenters, soldiers and even a dog make up "a centrifugal energy that charges the entire picture," as the art historian David Rosand wrote in his survey of 16th-century Venetian painting.

The ominous tones, curved landscape and artistic urgency that underlie Tintoretto's color choice, composition and paint handling make this work a point of departure. Rather than look back to the neo-Platonic ideals of classical sculpture -- brilliantly embodied at the start of the 16th century in the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel -- Tintoretto's "Crucifixion" anticipates the fallen angels of our modern era.

Like a thunderbolt from the brush, Tintoretto's "Crucifixion" can stop you in your tracks. The Victorian writer and artist John Ruskin certainly thought so. "I have been quite overwhelmed today by a man I have never dreamed of -- Tintoret," he wrote to his father on his first visit to Venice. "I always thought of him a good and clever and forcible painter, but I had not the smallest notion of his enormous powers. . . . And then to see his touch of quiet thought in his awful crucifixion -- there is an ass in the distance, feeding on the remains of strewed palm leaves. If that isn't a master's stroke, I don't know what is."

From 1565 to 1588, Tintoretto expanded his swirling cycle of religious art in the Scuola out and down from the cross of the "Crucifixion": to canvases on the facing wall of the albergo ("Ecce Homo," "Christ Before Pilate" and "The Way to Calvary"); to a monumental series of images from the New and Old Testaments covering the walls and ceiling of the Scuola's central upper room (sala superiore); to episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary on the walls of the ground floor (sala terrena).

Tintoretto's work at the Scuola, executed over more than 20 years, became a perfect union of form, content, application and artistic intention. In Tintoretto's lifelong dedication to the Scuola, "the act of painting thus becomes a gesture of piety," writes the academic Rosand.

Earlier this year, the Prado Museum in Madrid hosted the first major survey since 1937 of Tintoretto's work. The museum also published an excellent catalog, in English, on the artist. No museum exhibition will ever do justice to Tintoretto, since his largest work never travels, but the Prado show came close, shedding light even on San Rocco: "the most personal and intensely felt of his works, conveying a powerful sense of the artist's own deeply held faith," writes Frederick Ilchman, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts and an essayist for the catalog.

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which remains active as a confraternity, long ago opened its doors to the public. It now also maintains an excellent Web site,, which includes interactive pictures of the rooms.

But there's no substitute for the real thing. The artist El Greco once called Tintoretto's "Crucifixion" the greatest painting in the world. Next time you are in Venice, make a visit to the Scuola your own act of piety, and experience a work of art that reaches across the centuries to our own time and place.

Mr. Panero is the managing editor of the New Criterion.