Text by Deanna MacDonald
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The Bible tells two stories of Christ feeding a multitude with a few loaves and fishes. Tintoretto has here chosen to represent the miracle recounted in John 6:1–14, when Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 followers with five barley loaves and two fishes. In typical Tintoretto fashion, the artist takes this moving, holy event and turns it into a party.
One of Venice’s greatest painters, Tintoretto often infused his imagery with a bit of the festive atmosphere of his city. The multitude is depicted not as a group of the humble early Christians but as an assortment of well-dressed blondes, some cherubim-like babies with a few elderly, white-bearded prophet types thrown in for good measure. The scene resembles a courtly picnic rather than a New Testament parable. The women wear jewels in their hair and few look even remotely hungry. Despite this, Christ stands at the centre of this unusual multitude and with exaggerated elegance, takes a loaf from the basket of the young boy who provided the food and gives it to his disciple, Andrew, to distribute. The landscape behind is dotted with the arched openings of tombs and dynamic greenery painted in the same iridescent tones as the figures. It reaches back in the far distance, sprinkled with groups of Christ’s followers.
A master of Venetian Mannerism, Tintoretto here employs the style’s characteristic complexity, instability and compositional tension to create a sense of restless energy. Almost everybody appears to twist or move in some fashion; even the trees seem animated. Mannerist painters weren’t interested in naturalistic representation but in virtuosity and expressiveness. Gestures are theatrical and exaggerated, such as the exchange between Christ and Andrew. Limbs and bodies are unnaturally elongated; note the woman in pink and pearls in the central foreground, whose thigh is as long as the rest of her body. Shimmering, acid colour illuminates the figures in an artificial glow. Rejecting the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance painting, it was a style that appealed to the intellectual and sophisticated circles of Venice.
Painted to be viewed from below, this long rectangular canvas would have been hung high on a wall in, perhaps, a Venetian church or confraternity hall; some scholars have suggested that some of the multitude could depict members of a confraternity. The exact patron is unrecorded but this picture is known to have been made as a companion work to Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples (today in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto).
Tintoretto often took more commissions than he could handle and this painting, like many of his works, was designed and partially painted by him but completed by his workshop. He was known to paint at breakneck speed, earning himself the nickname il Furioso. ‘Tintoretto’ was also a nickname (his given name was Jacopo Robusti), meaning ‘little dyer,’ a reference to his father’s profession. This humble start did not hinder his success. Legend claims he was apprenticed to Titian but was tossed out for showing up the master. He only once left Venice – for a short stay in Mantua in 1580 – yet his art, including this work, reveals a multitude of influences: the Venetian focus on color and atmosphere; the Florentine sense of form; the well-muscled figures and passionate energy of Michelangelo; the complex human drama and strong emotion of Titian. To this, Tintoretto added his own unique sensibility for sharp colour, lighting and unusual perspective.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
c1540–50 Bronzino: An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, London, National Gallery
1546 Titian: Pope Paul III and his Grandsons, Naples, Museo di Capodimonte
1547 Jacopo Bassano: Adoration of the Shepherds, London, Royal Collection