A Curious Last Supper by Tintoretto

Tintoretto was irregular. When he was good, he was one of the very best; but he wasn’t always good. Another painter said of him: “He was in many pictures equal to Titian, in others inferior to Tintoretto”.
He painted all over the place and any which way. He was always in a hurry. He bragged about not doing preparatory sketches for his works. Often he left features of his paintings unfinished. Many of his designs are cock-eyed. Are they the innovation of genius or plain blunders? Or maybe problems that he didn’t stick around to solve.
The Last Supper was a favorite theme of his. Here are two of his many versions.
The first is from the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, painted between 1578 and 1581.

The knot of Apostles in the center of the picture is irksome. Shouldn’t he have spread them out a bit? Christ sits at the far end of the table—a very daring place to put Him. But then St. Peter at this end seems to steal the show. And even allowing for the distortion of perspective, isn’t he gigantic? The table does not run parallel to the wall. It is set up diagonally in the room—an offense to nearly everyone’s sense of order and good arrangement. This would have bothered everyone from Leonardo to the maître.

The other Last Supper is from the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, in Venice, painted in about 1591.

The Upper Room is so crowded and stuffy you might want to leave it and duck outside for a breath of fresh air. Christ is somewhere in the crowd—you know Him by the halo but not by His place at the table. Wasn’t Tintoretto’s idea to repeat His pose in a bigger figure nearer the viewer an error? And wouldn’t it have been better to leave out those two big figures at the left that block the way around the table and also prevent the viewer from standing back to take in the scene from a comfortable distance? If you were a photographer at the banquet you would ask them to go and stand somewhere else.

As a curiosity, here is a sixth-century parchment illustration of the Last Supper, called the Codex Rossano.

It shows Jesus and the Apostles reclining at the table, the traditional posture for dining. That’s Judas sticking his hand in the bowl.


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10 Responses to A Curious Last Supper by Tintoretto

  1. iondanu – I am a visual artist of Romanian origin (a draughtsman, painter, photographer and digital artist) living now in Canada.
    iondanu says:

    Very good post,100s! Ironic, erudit, interesant…

    In the first Cenna, St. Peter (the giant) seems to have a cigarette or a joint in his left hand! and the second Cenna is quite Baroque in the swirling and aglomaration of the space… The angels (unfinished?) in the upper parts are original stuff… But I don’t think I like that much Tintoretto as a man… always in a hurry! That contradicts my essential zen motto: Hurry is fatal!

  2. iondanu – I am a visual artist of Romanian origin (a draughtsman, painter, photographer and digital artist) living now in Canada.
    iondanu says:

    I forget: do you know what the birds (seems like crows or that family of birds…) signify? I know fish is the symbol for Christian but those birds…?

  3. 100swallows says:

    I don’t know what that white line near St.Peter’s hand is–maybe a scratch in the canvas. Nor do I know what the black birds are supposed to stand for in the parchment illustration, Danu. Don’t turn away from Tintoretto because of my caricature. He worked hard all his life and painted some wonderful pictures.

  4. kimiam says:

    I wonder if those birds are ravens.

  5. ivdanu – Quebec – Canadian visual artist of Romanian origin.
    ivdanu says:

    I won’t turn away, swallows! I know what hard work means, painting wise… But sometimes is good (as you well know!) to make a bit fun about those we love… Van Gogh would have done better with a bit more humour in his life…

    By the way, did you heard of Zimbio? (I send you a email…) Sorry if I bother you, ok? Just trying to learn my way in this maze of Internet…

  6. James says:

    I love Tintoretto and have seen many of his works in person. It always gives me intense pleasure, even when the work is sloppy. Sometimes it is shocking how sloppy certain passages are when you see the work in person. I think as a modern viewer the flat and sketchy parts of his works, even unfinished areas, have an energy that complement the bold and refined elements. As a painter myself, this mix is fascinating. I think you have to take the work on its own terms. The weird drawing is Tintoretto’s expression.

  7. 100swallows says:

    James, thanks for coming in. I suppose you are right about Tintoretto’s “expression”. He is so good when he’s good.

  8. Ken Januski says:

    Hi, 100swallows,

    I’m going to need to fish out the catalog of Tintoretto from Scuola di San Marco that I bought 35 years ago when I visited (is it REALLY that long?!). But the thing I remember is that I really didn’t have much interest in Tintoretto. I was just in Italy for the summer, mainly in Florence, and wanted to also spend a few days in Venice. But I was stunned by Tintoretto. I kept going back to Scuola di San Marco. I believe I went twice and maybe three times in the 4-5 days I was in Venice.

    But 35 years later I really can’t recall specifically what it was. The paintings you illustrate give me a clue: Tintoretto uses a wildly fluctuating space. It almost seems to breathe in and out as you look at it. That combined with what I recall is very fluid brushwork combine to create very stirring paintings. As I say I’m basing this on what I recall from 35 years ago and what I see in your two illustrations. I may have a more developed idea when I get out the catalog. But I do think that this is one of the appealing sides of Tintoretto.

    It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m not even sure it’s mine anymore. But I do think that the very active space is part of his overall appeal.

    By the way I happened upon your Tintoretto post by way of your Veronese post. Given what you say about Veronese I’m sorry I didn’t pay more attention to him when I was in Italy. But I’ll see what I can do to remedy that.

    Best wishes,


    P.S. I’ve changed my link to point to my blog rather than my main web site. I don’t post often there but it seemed more appropriate to link to a blog than a website.

  9. Ken Januski says:

    It really has been 35 years. I mean Scuola Grande di San Rocco, not Scuola di San Marco……………

  10. 100swallows says:

    Ken: You are luckier than I—at least you saw the Tintorettos right there at the Scuola. When I was in Venice I missed them and so I have had to make do with photos. I did see a big collection of Tintorettos here in Madrid but I know the Scuola was his great work and so I will forever have to reserve judgment on him until I see those paintings. And you’re going to have to go back and judge again.
    You’re right about the strange fluctuating space and the brushwork. Thanks for the nice things you say about The Best Artists in your blog.

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