The Crucifixion (1565) by Tintoretto
Interpretation of Venetian Mannerist-style Religious Painting

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The Crucifixion (detail)
By Tintoretto.
Regarded as one of the
greatest paintings of
the Venetian School.

The Crucifixion (1565)


Analysis of The Crucifixion
Interpretation of Other Venetian Renaissance Paintings


Name: The Crucifixion (1565)
Artist: Tintoretto (1518-94)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Genre: Christian art
Movement: Renaissance art in Venice
Location: Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

For the meaning of other celebrated masterpieces,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).


Jacopo Comin (or Robusti), usually known as Tintoretto, was the immediate successor to Titian (1485-1576) as the leading light of Venetian painting during the second half of the 16th century. If Titian painted for princes and rulers the length and breadth of Europe, Tintoretto rarely left the city and specialized almost entirely in producing art for local patrons. But while limited geographically, Tintoretto was certainly not limited in his range of painting. As well as creating a number of innovative Venetian altarpieces, he dominated the local market for Venetian portrait painting (commissioned by local celebrities such as sea captains, soldiers, magistrates, and senators) and - along with Paolo Veronese (1528-88) - was the leading contributor to Venetian drawing of the time. All in all, it is fair to say that Tintoretto was the most original painter working in Venice in the later 16th century. Although Mannerism is a difficult term to apply to Venetian art, which did not experience the same transformations that took place in Florence and Rome, Tintoretto's innovative and dynamic compositions, raking perspectives, shifts in scale, and Michelangelo-style figure painting are probably the closest that Venice gets to Mannerist painting, in spirit if not in content. Tintoretto's ideal was to combine the drawing (or disegno) of Michelangelo with the colour (or colorito) of Titian - an ambition perfectly illustrated in the The Crucifixion. Deeply devout, Tintoretto spent a good deal of his life creating religious paintings for the Venetian scuole - the confraternities devoted to charitable works, which were also significant patrons of the arts (most of his works are still in situ in Venice).

Analysis of The Crucifixion by Tintoretto

Tintoretto's greatest work is the huge and complex series of fifty canvases painted between 1565 and 1587 for the meeting rooms of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (a confraternity devoted to combating the plague, a repeated scourge of the city.) A masterpiece of Biblical art, they illustrate scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin in the upper and lower halls respectively, and scenes from the Passion - dominated by this huge Crucifixion - in the Sala dell' Albergo. The Crucifixion embodies a number of key characteristics of Tintoretto's art. The teeming canvas, full of incident, also recalls several of Veronese's monumental works - indeed, the sheer scale of the canvases sometimes used by these artists required a wealth of detail to fill the large area. The canvas of the Crucifixion took up an entire wall, and to help him create his intricate series of poses and compositions, Tintoretto made use of numerous small wax models which he moved around and illuminated from different angles.



In conception and execution, Tintoretto's Christ on the cross is one of the most unusual and compelling scenes of the crucifixion of the 16th century. Instead of focusing on the individuals directly involved in the event, the artist provides us with a panoramic scene of Golgotha, populated by an astonishingly varied throng - including soldiers, executioners, horsemen, tradesmen, onlookers, thieves and apostles - engaged in all sorts of different activities and movements with almost insect-like urgency.

In the process, he explores every aspect of the scene. One very rare feature for Renaissance art is the inclusion of the two thieves in the composition, one being nailed to a cross, the other being raised. All four Gospels relate that two thieves were crucified with Christ.

According to Luke, the one on Christ's right rebuked the other, saying that their punishment was deserved whereas Christ was innocent. Christ said to him, "Today you shall be with me in Paradise." The role of the thieves clearly gave Tintoretto a means of filling the vast canvas. But it is also true to say that all his paintings for the Scuola emphasized the humility and mercy of Christ, as well as his links with ordinary sinners, the poor, and the destitute, and the story of the thieves fits nicely into this theme.

In his thought-provoking article on Tintoretto's Crucifixion, published in "Painters on Painting" (1969), Brian Robb states that the man who is busily securing the second thief's cross is employing the same techniques and same type of tool (a gimlet) that he himself had observed being used by a Venetian carpenter constructing a jetty. This is not simply a curiosity - it underlines the extent to which Tintoretto's work drew on the life around him, not least the balance and lean and thrust of gondoliers, whose gestures surely inspired many of the figures' tenuous relation to gravity. In the foreground, on the right, is a man with his back to us, digging; perhaps he is preparing a hole for the stake of the cross, but more particularly he serves as a striking example of the energy being expressed across the painting.

The raising of the crosses also afforded Tintoretto the opportunity of depicting numerous muscular individuals in vigorous motion, testifying to his interest in the figure drawing of Michelangelo, while it also enabled him to introduce two strong diagonals that bring dynamism to the scene and help to create a strong underlying structure. In particular, the diagonals focus attention on the figure of Christ, who is still and calm on his cross - a figure of calm amid the chaos and turmoil below. Under a clouded sky that somehow manages to be at the same time calm and apocalyptic, Christ's body is parallel to the picture-plane, reinforcing the impression of stillness, and he looks with special compassion upon the group at the foot of the cross, which includes the swooning Virgin and also his friends. The group is beautifully painted and brought together in a dignified and rhythmic movement.

NOTE: Christ is placed very high on the cross, almost at the top of the scene before us. The nails piercing his hands and feet are visible, but little is made of his suffering. The light radiating from Christ's head has physical substance, like wings, and though the head leans forward it is not drooping with exhaustion but rather looking down on the scene around him. And as he watches, so do we.

Another feature of the scene that is distinctly Venetian is the introduction of huge numbers of people, mostly richly dressed, who have come to witness the event. Men in armour or in luxurious clothes and exotic headgear crowd around from all directions, turning the episode into a spectacle. (See also Veronese's Wedding Feast at Cana and Feast in the House of Levi for later versions of this 'spectacle' effect.) The horseman on the left, pointing to Christ, may be Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced Christ's side and was converted at that moment to Christianity. See also the two men who offer Christ a sponge soaked in vinegar, pretending to help slake his thirst. It is a painting that involves the spectator in the highest degree, especially as details such as the ladder on the left are so close to the picture-plane and to the viewer's space. Although the Renaissance colour palette is limited, the dusky setting, out of which emerges a pattern of brilliant reds and whites, is reminiscent of some of Titian's early works and is almost certainly designed to take account of the lighting of the room. After Tintoretto's death, Venice had to wait for Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) before it had a master of such stature again.

Interpretation of Other Venetian Renaissance Paintings

The Ecstasy of St. Francis (1480) by Giovanni Bellini.
Frick Collection, New York.

Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan (1502) by Giovanni Bellini.
National Gallery, London.

The San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505) by Giovanni Bellini.
Church of San Zaccaria, Venice.

The Tempest (1508) by Giorgione.
Venice Academy Gallery.

Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) by Titian.
Saint Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.

Venus of Urbino (1538) by Titian.
Uffizi Gallery, Florence.


• For more Venetian oil paintings by artists like Tintoretto, see: Homepage.

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