The Miracle of St Mark Freeing the Slave by Tintoretto

The Miracle of St Mark Freeing the Slave (1548)

So do you know who is Jacopo Comin ?   Have you heard of Jacopo Robusti ?  Jacopo Comin was born in Venice in 1518.  His father, Giovanni, was a weaver and dyer of cloth, who fought in the War of the League of Cambrai, which was part of the Italian Wars involving, France, the Papal States and Venice.  He put up such a stubborn and robust defence of the gates of Padua that his son, in his youth, became known as Jacopo Robusti.  However the father’s profession, dyer or tintore, gave Jacopo the name we know him by now.  Being the small son of the tintore he was given the nickname “little dyer” or Tintoretto.

Tintoretto was the eldest of twenty one children !   He was always interested in drawing and painting even from an early age.  Although he was to become, along with Bonifacio Veronese, the most successful of Venetian painters after the death of Titian, little is known of his early life although it is thought that he was at one time one of Titian’s pupils.  A lot of his artistic ability was self-taught.  His works were made to be spectacular, in size and quality to attract attention and his style was continuously imaginative.  His output of art works was prolific as he retained a large entourage of assistants. According to his contemporary and biographer, Carlo Ridolfi, the Italian artist and art historian, Tintoretto had inscribed on the wall of his workshop the motto: 

                    “The drawing of Michelangelo and the colour of Titian

These were his idols and  but his drawings were more emotive than those of Michaelangelo and he tried to synthesize the drawings of Michelangelo and the colouring of his old master Titian, but he used more sombre colours than those used by Titian.  For his phenomenal energy in painting he was termed Il Furioso.

His early works were signed “JACOBUS” followed by a drawing of a wheel, which was the symbol of the Dyers Guild, identifying himself as “Jacobus the Dyer’s son”    His first work, and My Daily Art Display painting today, was exhibited in 1548 and entitled The Miracle of St Mark Freeing the Slave.  It was this painting that launched Tintoretto’s career and made him an overnight sensation.   This enormous oil on canvas painting measures 415cms x 541cms (almost 12ft x 18ft).   He painted it at the age of thirty and it was to be the painting which made his reputation.  In this work of art we see Tintoretto’s use of foreshortening, which is a technique for creating the appearance that the object of a drawing is extending into space by shortening the lines with which that object is drawn.  He had an unusual way of coming to a decision about light and shading for his paintings.  He would create wax models and arrange them on a stage and then by training the light from spotlights on them he could see the effects the light would have on them and the shadows they would form.

This painting was one of four pictures he was commissioned to paint in the Scuola di San Marco.  The painting represents the legend of a Christian slave who was condemned by his master to have his legs broken and his eyes put out for worshipping the relics of Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice, in defiance of his master’s wishes but was saved by the miraculous intervention of the saint who shattered the bone-breaking and blinding implements which were about to be used on the slave.  The naked slave lies face up in a stone courtyard, his torso twisted and his face turned toward the viewer.  His “owner” the slave’s master, dressed in black can be seen leaning into the center from a balcony on the left side of the canvas.   Saint Mark appears high up in the centre of the painting winging down from heaven to save the slave signifying that the latter should not be punished for his faithfulness.  His sharply foreshortened figure is shown in swirling orange and pink robes.  Surrounding the main characters are a myriad of people above and to the sides, more than twenty five in all,  pages, maids, servants etc. Those on the right hand side lean back as they look on whilst those on the left lean in to get a better view of the impending torture and killing.    The artist’s positioning of the figures around the slave and their disposition draws the eye of the observer to what they are all looking at – the slave and his miraculous rescue.  The way in which Tintoretto has depicted the varied reactions of these on-lookers is compelling.  His use of light and shadow add to the mood and aura.  But the most striking is the image of Saint Mark as the divine saviour as he descends.  

It is difficult to summarize the painting.  I believe it to be, in some ways, unsettling but thought-provoking.  Tintoretto’s use of “arrested motion” of the groups of onlookers adds to the aura of the painting.  The omission of a landscape makes us concentrate on the main scene.  The atmosphere of the painting is characterized by sudden and strong contrasts of light and shade.