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Tintoretto, Renaissance artist of charity

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Jacopo Robusti painted the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples at least nine times. Known to history as Tintoretto, “the little dyer,” in tribute to his father’s profession, Robusti’s paintings embodied the Catholic Church’s belief that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ, a foundational tenet that was under attack from Protestant reformers starting with Martin Luther. 

Yet his works reveal a sympathy for reformist trends in the church, emphasizing the poverty and humility of Christ and his followers. A key example is the “Last Supper” canvas painted for a side wall of the Sacrament Chapel at the church of San Trovaso around 1563 when Tintoretto was about 44. 

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Tintoretto: The Last Supper, loaned from the Church of San Trovaso, Venice, c. 1563/4. NORA HAMERMAN | FOR THE CATHOLIC HERALD


The church was associated with the gondola builders from a nearby shipyard who worshiped there. The picture is full of humble touches, from the rush-bottomed chairs, to the plain cloth covering a rough wooden table, and the patched clothes of the apostles.

The San Trovaso “Last Supper” is one of 46 paintings and 10 drawings in the exhibition: “Tintoretto, Artist of Renaissance Venice,” on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through July 7. The painting, which once faced Tintoretto’s “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet,” a masterpiece now in the National Gallery of London, is very difficult to see in the dark, narrow chapel.

Instead of the familiar oblong table with Christ at the center of earlier Last Supper depictions, Tintoretto places Christ at the back of a square table set at an angle. Aglow in supernatural light, Jesus explains the motives of the person who will betray him. Peter on the left lunges toward the Savior, while Judas is seated in the shadow of sin but his bright red stockings reflect the light. The apostles in their agitation have turned over a chair in the foreground. An old woman is sketched in light at the top of the stairs. On the right corner a beautiful still life with a bag and books refers to the Gospel of St. Luke, which exhorts those disciples who do not have a sword to sell their cloaks and take up bags to travel and spread the good news. A cat, symbol of sin, lurks in the darkness.

At the far left of this biblical scene stands a child of about 10 in contemporary garb. This might be the artist’s oldest child, Marietta, whom her father dressed as a boy and trained in his workshop, where she became an accomplished portraitist.

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Tintoretto: The Baptism of Christ, Church of San Silvestro, Venice, c. 1580.  SAVE VENICE | COURTESY


“Tintoretto was undoubtedly the most religious, in the strict sense, of all Venetian painters of the 16th century,” said Maria Agnese Chiari Moretto Wiel, the director of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, a charitable brotherhood decorated with 58 paintings by Tintoretto that remains intact today and is often extolled as the Sistine Chapel of Venice. “His religiousness was not only formal, but he was a painter who really sensed the spirit in himself.”

Two of his last paintings for the Scuola, depicting the Virgin Mary seated in a landscape, have recently been conserved and are among the show’s highlights. Never before seen outside Italy, the pictures crown the cycle of the “Life of the Virgin” decorating the ground floor assembly room of the Scuola di San Rocco. They seem to represent the Blessed Virgin reading and meditating on the events she has experienced.

The pictures of those other events, always on view at the Scuola in Venice, emphasize the poverty of the Holy Family and their need for charity. In the “Annunciation,” Tintoretto sets the Virgin Mary, a powerfully muscular figure, in a dilapidated house with a broken chair nearby and her workbasket at her feet. Outside, Joseph is busy surrounded by his carpenter’s tools. In the “Adoration of the Shepherds,” Tintoretto depicts the entire village coming to help the Holy Family, who sit in the loft of a barn. The villagers hand up a hot meal to Mary and Joseph and feed the newborn Savior. 

The church of San Silvestro in Venice has loaned Tintoretto’s incandescent “Baptism of Christ,” commissioned by the guild of bargemen. This altarpiece evokes the shores of the Venetian lagoon as the River Jordan. Tintoretto had a lifelong commitment to commissions from the more modest religious organizations serving the poor and downtrodden. In his last years, he deployed his large workshop to complete pictures in the prestigious Doge’s Palace, while devoting his own brush to works such as this.

The exhibit includes a section devoted to Tintoretto’s riveting portraits, and is accompanied by two separate exhibits of Venetian drawings and prints.

Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019