The Bible according to Tintoretto - Ester Brunet - ebook

A biblical and theological guide to Jacopo Tintoretto's paintings at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco

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According to
the BiBle
A biblical and theological guide to Jacopo Tintoretto’s
paintings at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Ester Brunet
According to
the BiBle
A biblical and theological guide to Jacopo Tintoretto’s
paintings at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco
This volume was produced with the contribution
of the “Lorenzo Biasin” grant and the
Scuola Grande di San Rocco
© 2012, Marcianum Press, Venezia
On the cover:
Jacopo Tintoretto, Agony in the Garden,
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venezia
On the back cover:
Jacopo Tintoretto, Ecce Homo,
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venezia
The photographs of Tintoretto’s canvases were taken by
Cameraphoto Arte di Venezia and published with the kind
permission of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.
Paging and graphics:
Anna Maria Mendola
Translated from the Italian by
Sergei Tseytlin
The publisher assumes responsibility for any outstanding
copyright payments on photographic material.
All rights reserved. Any translation, reproduction, me-
morization, complete or partial adaptation of the texts or
photos, with any method, is prohibited without the autho-
rization from the publisher and the Scuola Grande.
ISBN 978-88-6512-139-9
Tintoretto in San Rocco: general inspirational themes
The guide’s characteristics and specifics
The Sala dell’Albergo
1. Ceiling
2. Crucifixion
3. Christ before Pilate
4. Ecce Homo
5. Ascent to Calvary
The Sala Superiore
The biblical typology as a parameter for interpreting the cycle
The theological structure of the cycle
Invention and construction of the cycle
itinerAry i: the Easter mystery as origin of the sacraments
6. Brazen Serpent
7. Vision of Ezekiel
8. Resurrection
9. Jacob’s Ladder
10. Ascension
itinerAry ii: the Baptism
11. Jonah Leaves the Whale’s Belly
12. Moses Drawing Water from the Rock
13. Baptism of Christ
14. Probatic Pool
page 12
page 16
page 20
page 24
page 30
page 34
page 38
page 42
page 48
page 50
page 54
page 56
page 60
page 62
page 64
page 66
page 68
page 72
page 74
itinerAry iii: Preamble
15. Adam and Eve
16. Adoration of the Shepherds
page 78
page 80
page 84
itinerAry iV: the Eucharist
17. Sacrifice of Isaac
18. Miracle of Manna
19. Agony in the Garden
20. Last Supper
The Sala Terrena
22. Annunciation
21. Elisha multiplies the bread
23. Flight into Egypt
24. Female figures reading and in meditation
25. Circumcision
Essential bibliography
page 88
page 90
page 92
page 96
page 98
page 102
page 106
page 110
page 114
page 118
page 120
page 124
The work of Jacopo Tintoretto, one of the giants of Venetian
painting, has always been the object of attention, study and in-
depth examination, as well as of dispute and mockery. A series
of writings – starting with quotations from Giorgio Vasari and
Carlo Ridolfi and ending with the recent studies produced by
Francesco Valcanover and Astrid Zenkert – allow us to grasp the
quality and the message in his vast collection of oil paintings.
The innovations in the fields of composition, perspective, light,
color, movement and technique do not only indicate the muta-
tion of figurative expression, which matured through his art in
Late Renaissance Venice, but also bear witness to the new and
dramatic representation of the human being that would go on to
distinguish the Baroque era.
This maturation of Tintoretto’s style, as a sign of existential anxi-
ety, can especially be seen in the narrative cycle that covers the
walls and ceilings of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where doz-
ens of “teleri” (canvases) created in what seems to have been a
period of solitude and compulsive work lasting more than twenty
years (1564-1587), depict the episodes of the Old and New Tes-
taments. It is a thorough illustration of biblical events, unique in
its completeness, stateliness and systematic nature, rendered op-
portune by the regulations promulgated earlier by the Council of
Trent with the aim of giving a unitary structure to the theological
foundations of the Roman Catholic Church.
These are the causes and reasons that determined the cycle’s
composition and that gave it homogeneity and coherence. The
exegetic depth and the symbolic precision of the paintings, ar-
ranged in cinematic sequence on the walls of the Scuola, imply
that the artist may have been assisted by a “consultant”.
Though Benedetto Croce’s methodology in the field of art criti-
cism, which throughout the 1900s stressed the aesthetic ap-
proach, ended in eclipsing the content and nexus of an artwork,
especially the religious ones, in the case of the San Rocco cycle
it was precisely the content and nexus that were fundamental for
both the client, a charity confraternity, and the painter, a pro-
found believer. In fact, to understand the dramatic sequence of
the biblical episodes depicted by Jacopo Tintoretto’s feverish
brushstroke at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, it was consid-
ered sufficient to allude to the tempestuous political climate of
the second half of the 16th century in Venice, Italy and Europe
in general, which were ravaged by plagues, famines, interdicts,
wars (with the Protestants, the Ottomans and other kingdoms and
empires), as well as to the economic and social decadence of the
Venetian Republic.
The relationship between form and content, an old dilemma, was
crucial in the history of figurative expression in the great mono-
theistic religions, which feared idolatry and therefore tended to
prohibit figuration, confining it to calligraphy, geometry, deco-
ration, or even limiting its typological development, as in the
case of the Byzantine icons after the iconoclastic interdiction had
been overcome.
It is the Catholic Church, instead, that turns to the language of
images with the intention of promoting the integration of story
and figure, aware that the word, limited by linguistic babel and
alphabetic diversity, can find its universal complement only in
form, which is comprehensible directly, even without any par-
ticular cultural mediation.
From the fresco narration, such as the “Biblia pauperum (Pau-
per’s Bible)”, which has existed for many centuries on the walls
of sacred buildings, we move on, through the Renaissance, to a
greater complexity in the representation, which, after the Council
of Trent, was given the task to evoke sentiments, to involve the
spectator, to reproduce the reality of the moment.
This is the revolution, in its religious and figurative implications,
that was created by the artists of the 16th century.
Although Tintoretto often contextualizes the biblical story in
historical events, it does not mean that his great compositions
will not dedicate a main scene to Moses, the Prophets or Christ
himself. For they are key figures of the salvation. They are the
ultimate protagonists.
The current volume wishes to fill the gap between form and con-
tent, that is, to reconstruct, even if only through mere divulga-
tion, the meaning of the single paintings and to reestablish their
relationship, emphasizing the pictures’ message and reproduc-
ing, if possible, the original texts that inspired them.
The Renaissance city that Tintoretto evokes becomes a home for
the entire biblical itinerary, from Genesis to the Resurrection.
The Mysteries and the Prophecies, just as the Truth and the Dog-
mas, thus constitute the essence of the pictorial representation,
even within the context of the contemporary “Babel”.
This approach, largely unusual and innovative, engendered unex-
pected discoveries and unthought-of interpretations, which were
made possible not only through textual research in the theologi-
cal field, but also by reinterpreting the epoch’s cultural crises,
such as the rise of Protestantism, the conflict with the Islamic world,
the relationship with Judaism, as well as the problematic acceptance
of classicism as a cultural and formal model.
Furthermore, the theme of reality, or rather the “truth” in the depic-
tion, emerges as an ethical and figurative force, since it helps to recom-
pose the mannerist laceration that had separated form from content.
This work, made possible through the “Lorenzo Biasin” grant
awarded to Ester Brunet and the collaboration between the Studium
Generale Marcianum and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, presents
a more complete, captivating and astonishing Tintoretto, not only as
an illustrious painter but also as a man of his time, with all the anxie-
ties, doubts and anguish that his epoch experienced.
His interpretation of biblical events, though rigorous from the ortho-
dox perspective, appears dramatic and unsettling. In a way it is rel-
evant also to our time, if it is possible to say that the present is charac-
terized by doubt, suffering and endless searching for the meaning of
These pages can help interpret the great “teleri” in a new light, in one
of literal content, one that will offer the contemplation of the pictorial
masterpieces the intelligence of their spiritual intention.
Jacopo Tintoretto deserved this interpretation.
Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Architect Franco Posocco
Guardian Grando
Venice, January 2012
Studium Generale Marcianum
Professor Brian E. Ferme
Tintoretto in San Rocco: general inspirational themes
The Scuola di San Rocco, founded in 1478, was erected with the
aim of helping the needy, particularly the sick during epidemics.
The Confraternity was therefore a center of assistance and devo-
tion that managed extensive patrimonies destined to supporting
the poor. Jacopo Tintoretto, who soon became a brother, worked
there for an exceptionally long period of time: almost 25 years.
Although the painter did not dedicate the entire cycle to the his-
tory of the patron saint, but only a few paintings, what happened
to Roch of Montpellier, whose remains the church possesses,
is an essential starting point for understanding the comprehen-
sive meaning of the decoration. According to pious devotion,
this medieval saint was born with a vermilion cross impressed
on his chest; having become a Franciscan tertiary at the death
of his rich parents, after having given all his belongings to the
poor, he moved to Rome and helped and miraculously healed
many plague victims with the sign of the cross. It is precisely
the cross, as a way to salvation and origin of the sacraments,
that is the main theme in the two halls of the first floor: the Sala
dell’Albergo, which is decorated with a cycle dedicated to the
Passion of Christ, culminating in the giant Crucifixion that cov-
ers the entire front wall of the entrance; and of the Sala Superi-
ore, whose ceiling’s main telero, dominating the room’s decora-
tive pattern, shows the biblical episode of the Brazen Serpent,
which prefigures the crucifixion.
The liberation from death, which occurs thanks to the redeeming
sacrifice of Christ, is attainable for man through the sacraments
and the cross, or rather by means of a life consecrated to the
emulation of Christ, just like that of St. Roch, who, on the central
oval of the Sala dell’Albergo’s ceiling, experiences the beatific
vision of God.
A complex and stratified view of the salvational meaning of the
sacraments, Eucharistic and Baptismal, in relation to the Easter
of Christ, is presented by Tintoretto on the walls and ceiling of
the Sala Superiore, in observance of the decrees passed by the
Council of Trent (1545-1563), which clarified the Catholic doc-
trine on the sacraments after it was challenged by the Protestant
Reformation Churches. Here the painter shows the impressive
History of Salvation according to a time that is no longer the
historically linear one: the events of the Old and New Testaments
that the cycle connects, the first being prefigurations of the sec-
ond, are not arranged chronologically, but rather reflect the di-
mension of the sacrament as an efficacious and always present
salvational sign.
Tintoretto returns to the story in order to show the mystery of the
incarnation, of the human and earthly body of the Son of God: in
fact, a cycle dedicated to the Lord’s infancy decorates the walls
of the Sala Terrena and shows a prelude to the public mission of
Jesus, who is the protagonist of the halls on the upper floor. The
key role of Mary as interpreter and custodian of the mysteries re-
lated to Christ’s infancy unveils the real meaning of this prelude,
which should actually be considered as an interlude, continu-
ously suspended between prophecy, fulfillment and prefiguration
of future events, especially Easter. The fantastical and poetic at-
mosphere, which above all envelops the Flight into Egypt and
the two vertical panels to the sides of the altar, emphasizes this
suspended and contemplative dimension.
The guide’s characteristics and specifics
More than one scholar has considered Tintoretto’s production at
the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, and not without reason, not
only one of the richest pictorial cycles of the 16th century and
of all time, but also one of the best organized and most complex
depicted theological “discourses”.
However, apart from some special cases, there have not been
many scholars who approached Tintoretto’s work from a histor-
ical-theological point of view. Therefore, first and foremost the
present book offers a close examination of the studies carried out
from this perspective, aimed at collecting, organizing and com-
pleting the most successful results. The reader will not find a
formal method of looking into the paintings, nor any profound
stylistic analysis – aspects that have already been dealt with in
other visitor guides, such as Francesco Valcanover’s book, which
has been reprinted many times. The present work intends to be a
deft, and yet accurate, text explaining the elements of faith and
devotion found in the teleri to a large public.
The guide follows the paintings’ chronological order: it begins
with the Sala dell’Albergo, the farthest from the entrance (to
reach it the visitor must pass through the Sala Terrena and the
Sala Superiore) but the first to be painted by Tintoretto (1564-
1567); it continues with the Sala Superiore (1576-1581; with an
altarpiece from 1588), for which it offers various itineraries; and
it ends with the Sala Terrena, which Tintoretto decorated, with
the help of his workshop, between 1581 and 1584. The visitor will
then have to proceed along a backward itinerary, one that is contrary
to the direction determined by the Scuola’s architecture, but one that
is indispensable in order to better understand the decoration’s internal
meaning and the expression on the whole.
After a brief introduction of each section, which contextualizes the
cycles and highlights the general themes, some specific notes are dedi-
cated to the paintings. Each note is composed of a citation in the actual
language of the biblical passage inspiring the painting, followed by a
comment. As can be seen from the plans placed at the beginning of
each section, if we also count the monochromes on the Sala Superi-
ore’s ceiling (repainted in the 18th century on the original Tintoretto
ones), there are about seventy Tintoretto paintings. Since the selection
process was inevitable, the paintings with the least biblical and theo-
logical importance were partially included in the notes explaining the
most prominent paintings. Some choices, such as the one to explain, at
the expense of the more famous works, teleri like the Circumcision in
the Sala Terrena or the Probatic Pool in the Sala Superiore, both sel-
dom taken into account by artistic historiography (the first, because it
was definitely painted by Jacopo’s son, Domenico; the second, due to
heavy reworking done as a result of floods), were based on the prior-
ity to have the decoration’s theological meaning stand out. Therefore,
paintings that are formally less remarkable or more unfortunate than
others offer some significant and original solutions.
The black numbers in square parentheses –
e.g. [5] – refer to the plans located in the intro-
ductive part of each section.
The caption in bold italics “note” followed by
a number – e.g. (note 5) – refers to the num-
bered notes.
The caption in bold blue italics “fig.” followed
by a number – e.g. (fig. 5) – refers to the ima-
ges published in the text.
Fig. 1 - The Scuola Grande and the Church of San Rocco
Fig. 2 - The façade of the Scuola Grande
the sala dell’albergo
6 7 8 9 10
1. St. Roch in Glory
2-5. Putti
6. Winter
7. Female figure (Humility?)
8. Happiness
9. Female figure (Patience?)
10. Autumn
11. Goodness
12. Allegory of the Scuola di San Teodoro
13. Faith
14. Summer
15. Allegory of the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista
16. Allegory of the Scuola della Misericordia
17. Allegory of the Scuola di San Marco