Unlike modernists of more recent vintage, Venetian Renaissance master Tintoretto aimed at higher ideals than the projection of his ego. He ordered his talents to honoring the Classical and Christian civilization of which he was a part. Yet, where High Renaissance artists strove for classical serenity and poise, Tintoretto stupefied his contemporaries with grand displays of high drama.

“His brush was a thunderbolt that terrified everyone with its lightning.”—Carlo Ridolfi (1648)

It was with both pleasure and awe that I recently attended an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art devoted to the Venetian Renaissance master Tintoretto (c.1519-1594). The show is large and momentous, coinciding with the 500th anniversary of the artist’s birth, and many of the paintings have never been seen outside Italy. What struck me immediately about Tintoretto (original name Jacopo Robusti; he got his nickname from the fact that his father was a tintore, or dyer) is the flamboyance and heightened emotion of his immense canvases, the epitome of the colorful style of late Renaissance Venice.

Yet even within the Venetian tradition—which also included such masters as Titian, Giorgione, and Veronese—Tintoretto was boldly original. His free, sketchy brushwork was startlingly novel at the time, and some critics accused him of producing unfinished canvases. Where High Renaissance artists strive for classical serenity and poise, Tintoretto stupefies us with grand displays of high drama. His teeming, dynamic pictures have acquired the label “Mannerist,” and they are decidedly proto-Baroque.

Saint George and the Dragon, 1558

Saint George and the Dragon, 1558

The commentary at the exhibition claimed that Tintoretto “positioned himself on the cutting edge of change” and produced “avant-garde paintings, designed to shock.” I’m not so sure. Unlike modernists of more recent vintage, Tintoretto aimed at higher ideals than the projection of his ego; change and shock were not his summum bonum. Like countless other Renaissance men, he ordered his talents to honoring the Classical and Christian civilization of which he was a part. The exhibition included religious and biblical pictures as well as scenes from classical mythology (such as The Muses and The Origin of the Milky Way). Tintoretto used his stunning techniques to bring the mysteries of the Christian faith and the edifying tales of antiquity to life in the most vivid and striking way possible.

To that end, he clad his characters in flapping draperies and posed them with extravagant gestures. Tintoretto’s use of foreshortening and perspective makes his figures seem to burst three-dimensionally out of the pictorial space; some scenes even appear to spill out of the frame. Fine technician though he was, perfection of detail was less important to him than immediacy of effect.

Tintoretto described his art as a marriage of Michelangelo’s strong line drawing and Titian’s sensuous color. He showed a love for the human body in his muscular figures, which certainly do recall Michelangelo’s. Yet gross naturalism was not Tintoretto’s aim. His people are monumental and idealized, expressing the dignity and expressiveness of the human form. In his portraits Tintoretto pioneered the direct gaze, giving the viewer a powerfully immediate impression of the sitter’s personality. He rendered his subjects with such honesty and sympathy that they seem to commune with us across time and space.

Descent from the Cross, c. 1560

But for me, the sacred scenes were the focal point of the show. One of the most powerful was a Deposition of Christ, painted c. 1562. Tintoretto included the traditional Pietà within the Deposition—but in a surprising twist, Mary has fainted out of grief and shock as the body of Jesus is laid in her lap. Christ’s face is shrouded in darkness, while his body is bathed in light, evincing Tintoretto’s love of dramatic chiaroscuro—something the exhibition suggested might have been influenced by the sharp shaded angles of Venice.

To my taste, these pictures make the reality of the Incarnation present in a way not quite found in artists of the earlier Renaissance. And this reflected the common attitude of Tintoretto’s contemporaries. For them, the sacred mysteries of Christianity were the stuff of everyday life. Ordinary people, Tintoretto’s patrons, often co-exist in his pictures with saints and angels. In The Blessed Virgin with Angels, Mary sits cross-legged and dangles the Christ child on her lap. The Madonna of the Treasurers shows the Mother of God holding court with Venetian government officials. Throughout this body of work there is a sense of immediate, emotional participation in the life of Christ and the saints that chimes with the ideals of the Counter-Reformation. “These things really happened,” Tintoretto seems to say, “and they matter for us.”

The Last Supper, c. 1570

Toward the end of the show we encountered a Last Supper from around 1563, one of nine versions of this subject that Tintoretto painted. It captures the explosive effect of Jesus’ announcement that one of his own will betray him—the same moment Leonardo da Vinci depicted in his celebrated version. Yet Tintoretto’s treatment couldn’t be more different. Here the bodies of the apostles twist in various manifestations of shock and horror. One of the chairs (wicker—Tintoretto has partially updated the scene to his time period) has been overturned. A cat lurks under the table, near Judas. In the corner, a page boy registers an expression of resigned sadness—an eloquent grace note. Christ’s features are far from idealized; the furnishings are dingy and poor.

This sympathy for the less fortunate may well give us a clue to the spiritual core of Tintoretto. Possessed of a businessman’s shrewdness and competitiveness, he became the leading painter in Venice after the death of his teacher, Titian; yet he also appears to have been a man of genuine faith and character. Although his patrons included some of the wealthiest Venetians, he also painted commissions for churches and lay confraternities for little or no fee. An anecdote has it that his wife gave him his spending money every morning in a handkerchief; at the end of the day, Tintoretto would return home saying that he had spent it on alms for the poor. According to his own testimony, he created the work that closed the show—a study for his massive final work, Paradise—in the hopes that it would gain for him the rewards of heaven.

The idea that art can be a “good work” in the religious sense is all the more inspiring today, when the arts are too often reduced to an idle diversion or an enhancement of the ego. This was for me the most powerful takeaway from the National Gallery exhibition, in which we met an artist whose forceful and aggressive personality was tempered by a lively charity and faith. If the placid perfection of a Raphael starts to pall, Tintoretto’s romantic “messiness” has the power to re-energize us.

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Editor’s Note: Images throughout the essay are courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, and are in the public domain. The featured image is a self-portrait by Tintoretto (c. 1588), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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