This is the fourth and last part of my look at some of the Tintoretto works included in the Prado retrospective which just closed. Read part I, which includes an introduction and general remarks about the exhibition, here, part II here, and part III here.

The Washing of the Feet (1548-49)
Reunited for the first time in over 400 years with the Last Supper painted for the same institution, the San Marcuola Scuola del Santissimo Sacramento, a few years earlier (in 1547), the Prado’s own Washing of the Feet formed the natural centerpiece of the exhibition. The paintings have long been thought to have been conceived as pendants, hung opposite each other in the chapel, but the curators clearly rightly maintained that they were meant for two different locations in the scuola.

The long-held view that the San Marcuola Last Supper marked an important artistic breakthrough for Tintoretto seems emphatically proven by the juxtaposition. It is simply astonishing to see how much Tintoretto developed as a painter in the year or so separating the two canvases. The earlier painting is a rather awkward, boxed-in affair, while the Washing of the Feet is one of the most evocative renderings of three-dimensional space in Renaissance painting. It is not simply that he has constructed his deep lateral perspective correctly, or that his famous quotations from Sebastiano Serlio’s book of theater set designs lend to the composition an exalted grandeur, but rather the very palpable sense of moved-in space Tintoretto here achieves.

The placement of the figures : syncopated to the architecture’s rhythm : across the widescreen canvas, as well as in depth is key. The eye is encouraged to wander between them, and eventually trace the movement Christ has made through the hall, across the floor to the spot at the extreme right where he is now kneeling, with his apron fixed around his waist and his sleeves rolled up for the task at hand. There is both humor and solemnity to the proceedings; the quietness of the serpentine figure at the far left contrasted seemingly exertive removal of stockings in the centre, tempered by the absent minded glance of the blue-clad apostle looking at his standing companion as he performing the opposite operation. Some of the Apostles converse, while others are lost in thought. It is all eminently natural.

The remarkably rustic quality of their garments and the rough furniture the figures are clustered around add further materiality to the otherwise airily exalted space surrounding them. It is a brilliantly conceived contrast, achieved through lightness of colour as well as touch. The chimerical view upon the future supper through the dark doorway on the right completes the feeling of an otherworldly space for this touching physical scene of charity. As x-ray photography reveals, Tintoretto ingeniously substituted the original, square-tiled floor for the final pattern of octagons and squares. The visual effect of this is extraordinary. When seen laterally, the tiling surges away into the background, but as you move along it seems to contract, giving the feeling of being drawn into the composition, becoming company, being invited to follow in the footsteps of Christ.

Apologies for the piss-poor image. It’s hard finding one that isn’t either in black and white, or goes across the spine of the book. Argh!