Jacopo Tintoretto, The Finding of the Body of Saint Mark


Jacopo Tintoretto, The Finding of the Body of Saint Mark, c. 1562-66, oil on canvas, 396 x 400 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan)



[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Brera in Milan, and we’re looking at an enormous painting by Tintoretto. This is only one of a series of paintings on the subject of St. Mark, the single most important saint for the city of Venice.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:19] This was commissioned for the Scuola of St. Mark (or the Confraternity of St. Mark) in Venice by a man named Rangone.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] He can be seen in the middle of the painting, kneeling in that fabulous gold brocade.

Dr. Harris: [0:34] Gesturing down toward the body of St. Mark. Now, this whole painting takes place, creepily, in a cemetery.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] [laughs] It’s really creepy.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] It’s really creepy. It’s really dark.

Dr. Zucker: [0:44] Well, it’s a night scene.

Dr. Harris: [0:45] It’s lit by a candle, so you have this vast architectural space created by this rushing, exaggerated perspective.

Dr. Zucker: [0:53] Before we get lost in the painting, let’s talk about what’s actually taking place, what’s happening here. This is the story of the finding of the body of St. Mark. St. Mark had died and was buried in Alexandria; that is, in Egypt. The story goes that in the 9th century, Venetian merchants went to retrieve the body.

Dr. Harris: [1:13] These Venetian merchants went to find the body of St. Mark, to bring it back to Christendom from Islamic Egypt, from Islamic Alexandria.

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] We have this perspectival space. It draws our eye all the way to the back, to that dark back wall. There, we see a number of figures, both in shadow and silhouette, finding the body of St. Mark in a tomb brilliantly illuminated. You can see the stone has been picked up.

Dr. Harris: [1:39] We have a continuous narrative. We have scene two in the foreground on the left, where we see the body of St. Mark foreshortened, splayed out on the ground on top of a carpet.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] Painted with a wonderful looseness. It also reminds me of Mantegna’s “Dead Christ,” with that wild foreshortening and the way that we look up the body from the feet up towards the head.

Dr. Harris: [2:01] You see the texture of the oil paint and very dark outlines and very stark illumination on that body.

Dr. Zucker: [2:08] You also see Tintoretto’s patron, the man who paid for these paintings, who seems to be gesturing towards the body of St. Mark in a very protective way.

Dr. Harris: [2:16] In a way that makes us sense that that figure does not belong to this time. He’s not a 9th century Venetian, he’s a 16th century Venetian.

Dr. Zucker: [2:25] There’s a kind of collapsing of time, of space. It’s a very complicated image. Not only was the body found in the back of the painting, and then we see the body in the front of the painting, but then we see this very noble figure in red and blue, who stands up just to the left of this yellow dead body. That is also St. Mark.

Dr. Harris: [2:46] Miraculously alive, making this grand gesture to stop the raiding of the tombs that’s taking place to the right, where we see yet another body being removed from a tomb.

Dr. Zucker: [2:56] If we look at the architecture, you can see again this wonderfully recessive space with all of these arches. To the right of those arches, we can see that there are a series of tombs that are attached to the walls. In one close to us, figures [are] gently lowering one of these corpses, so there’s a desecration at the same time that there’s a kind of honoring.

Dr. Harris: [3:16] Finally, on the lower right we see two figures who are possessed by demons who seem to be grabbing the body of a woman, who’s moving out of the canvas towards us.

Dr. Zucker: [3:26] We haven’t even talked about the thing that makes this painting most remarkable in my eyes, which is the radical use of light, of color, of space. I’ve never seen a painter this early that has taken such license with the traditions of painting.

Dr. Harris: [3:40] The space rushes back. The body of St. Mark is heroic and elongated. The contrast of light and dark are dramatic and intense. It’s as though all the tools of the Renaissance are being used for expressive purpose.

Dr. Zucker: [3:57] Look at the way that this produces an image that is so different from anything that we would have expect from say, Raphael. Instead, this is a world of mystery where only the faintest delineation of form is given.

Dr. Harris: [4:09] Here we are in the 1560s, after the Reformation, after the Council of Trent. This is Mannerism. All of the balance and harmony that we expect from the High Renaissance, when we think about artists like Raphael, we have the opposite here. We have a composition that’s coming apart, that’s stretching at its seams.

[4:29] We can see here decades of Venetian artists’ experience with oil paint: Bellini in the late 15th century, Titian, and here, brought to a height of painterliness, of real visibility of brush work by Tintoretto.

[4:44] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Jacopo Tintoretto, The Finding of the Body of Saint Mark," in Smarthistory, December 13, 2015, accessed February 29, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/jacopo-tintoretto-the-finding-of-the-body-of-saint-mark/.