The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is treating visitors to a special exhibit of Jacopo Tintoretto’s works in celebration of the Venetian painter’s 500th birthday.
Housed in around half a dozen rooms, the paintings span Tintoretto’s career. The second room contains a piece from about 1562, The Deposition of Christ. Christ has been brought down from the cross, abused and dead. But perhaps the painting’s most striking feature is the haunting expression on the Blessed Mother’s face. Tintoretto’s Mary is stricken, almost as lifeless as her son. The part of her face not obscured by shadows reveals darkened eyes no longer capable of producing tears. Her son’s body lies across her legs as she, herself, must be held up by another.
Just over half a century before, Tintoretto’s predecessor Raphael had offered his own rendition of the same subject. Youthful, standing, and mourning, Mary holds her son’s hand and stares at his lifeless face. She is saddened, but she is in control. By contrast, Tintoretto portrays the Mother of the Church and the Son of God in a scene almost devoid of hope. There is little sense of the anticipated Resurrection – just raw grief.
The image, which was probably initially placed above the high altar of the first Jesuit church in Venice, would surely have provoked meditation on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.
Whereas The Deposition of Christ contains five large figures, Tintoretto’s depiction of St Paul’s conversion is chaotic, with a multitude of figures thrown off horses and into water as God breaks through the clouds.
The painting takes a sharply different approach to St Paul’s conversion than Caravaggio’s work on the same subject more than 50 years later. Caravaggio’s piece consists of Paul, a groomer, and a horse. The light centers on Paul as he lies on the ground in a state of ecstasy, his arms raised in the air – although Caravaggio elected not to illustrate what he experienced.
Whereas Caravaggio’s painting is of an individual encounter with God, Tintoretto’s piece emphasizes disorder. He drew the combat imagery from Titian’s Battle of Spoleto, which was completed a few years earlier and, sadly, lost in a fire a few decades later.
If there is one flaw with the Conversion, it is that it lacks focus: There is no single point drawing in the eye. It is difficult to appreciate Paul’s transformation, whereas Caravaggio more ably captures the pathos of a sinner being called by – and turning to – Christ.
All in all, the National Gallery has put together an impressive collection of Tintoretto’s works, worthy of appreciation both for their beauty and their capacity to inspire prayerful reflection.