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Tintoretto, the Miracle of the Slave

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Miracle of the Slave, 1548, oil on canvas, 415 x 541 cm (Accademia, Venice) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(playing piano) Steven: Tintoretto is quickly becoming one of my favorite Venetian artists. Beth: Me too, his works are amazing in person. We're looking at a large painting by Tintoretto called the Miracle of the Slave. Steven: It's a painting that is full of energy, full of color. Beth: Full of dramatic action, it's a great story. This was painted for the Scuola Grande di San Marco. This was a major confraternity or a kind of club in Venice and they commissioned author pieces, they commissioned paintings, and they were very active in charity and the civic life of Venice. Steven: And in this case, they commisioned the young artist Tintoretto to create a series of four canvases. This was meant to hang directly opposite the altar. Beth: In the home of their confraternity. Steven: That's right, so this was not a church, this was really more of a civic organization. Nevertheless, this is a painting that is absolutely tied to the city of Venice, whose patron saint is St. Mark. Beth: And here we have St. Mark performing a miracle. Steven: So let's tell the story. St. Mark is long dead. A man wants to visit Venice specifically to visit the basilica of San Marco where the relic that is the body of St. Mark resides, but his master says no. He goes anyway. And when he's there he devotes his entire body, his soul, to St. Mark. He returns and as punishment the master orders that he have his eyes gouged out. Beth: The master says, "Not even St. Mark can save you now." Steven: But the servant responds, "I have given my body to St. Mark. "I am not afraid." But the instruments break. Beth: Not satisfied with this as a miracle, the master then orders that the slave have his legs cut off. Steven: But the ax also breaks. Beth: As a last resort, the master says, "Well now we're going to take a hammer "to your mouth so that you can't call on St. Mark anymore." Steven: And then the hammer is broken. Beth: At that point everyone is convinced of the miracle and visits the relic of St. Mark in San Marco in Venice. Steven: That's right, he repents his sins and all is forgiven. We see at the very top of the painting, St. Mark whose body is this tour de force, foreshortened figure that flies down. His head radiating his spiritual power, who lowers his hand in a kind of healing, protective gesture. Beth: And below him, foreshortened in the opposite direction with his head toward us, is the slave himself. Steven: Now surrounding the slave are the instruments of torture that have been broken or that are still being used to brutalize him. Beth: The entire crowd on the left is reacting to this miracle that they're witnessing but no one looks up at St. Mark. St. Mark is a spiritual figure that perhaps they can't see but that we are privileged to see. Steven: Those figures that crowd around are so varied and this is one of those typical 16th century conventions where you have this sort of wonderful confusion of different types. You have nobles that are dressed as contemporary Venetians. You have military figures, exotic figures that have come from the east. Beth: And all of this implies that this miracle has universal significance, not a significance just for the slave or just for Venice but for the world. So just like the foreshortened saint and the foreshortened figure of the slave structure the composition, we also see Tintoretto using color to organize and structure the composition. Steven: Well that's right. If we start at the top again we see the red of the costume of St. Mark and we see that repeated in the turban just directly below him, but we see it especially in three figures on the edges of the painting. Of the master of the house on the upper right, of one of these marvelous lounging figures on the lower right, which actually reminds us of Michelangelo, perhaps of the Ignudi in the Sistine Chapel, and then all the way on the upper left, the observer who is perched rather precariously at the base of one of the columns. Beth: And similarly we see a punctuated use of gold. First in that billowing drapery around St. Mark. Then on the lower left of the mother holding a child who's careening her neck to watch the miracle that's happening. Then in the brocade of the turbaned figure and then in the figure wielding an ax leaning over the body of the slave, and finally on the drapery of the lord who's ordering all of this punishment. Steven: So there is this very self-conscious understanding of the relation of color and Tintoretto has used them to create a kind of pattern to create a kind of rhythm throughout this painting. Beth: And yet, it is a difficult painting to read. When we look at a painting of a subject like this we might expect something much more legible, where the action, the drama is more unified. Where we have one moment of time that we can easily recognize. But here Tintoretto, and this makes sense for the mid 16th century, for the moment of mannerism, he's rejecting that legibility of the high Renaissance. Steven: So there's this emphasis on both line and color, which had been such a topic of conversation at this historical moment, and because there is this hyper attention to both color and line the forms that they define almost get lost. Beth: So this was painted when Tintoretto is just about 30 years old. It's a tour de force by a young artist and apparently a critic at the time commended this achievement, but also said, "Look, you've got to be careful. "It's evident that your brushwork is rapid. "You've got to slow down, you've got to draw more carefully." And you really can see this bravura brushwork in this painting. Steven: The critic was suggesting that this was a little too unfinished. That it felt as if there was too much energy, that the velocity of the artist's own brush moving across that surface was too evident. But of course this is now something we value. Beth: And that criticism suggests that this is not a painting that is carefully thought up but it so clearly is. We talked about the way that the color is unified, the very careful way that the narrative is told. We can see that he's using linear perspective with a vanishing point up at the halo of St. Mark. So this is clearly carefully constructed and that loose brushwork, that open brushwork, is something that Tintoretto valued. Steven: And as that critic was looking at this painting, so we can see the man who commissioned it looking in, clearly not part of the pictorial space. In a funny way, very much closer to our space but witnessing what's taking place just as we do. (piano playing)