To have the quiet and concentration to call up into the mind’s eye a great work of art, and let that eye survey and pause, query and recall requires either daily monasticism or illness. Not illness of a ravaging sort, but quiet fatigue, or in my case, the stuffed sinuses of a cold, being treated on a chiropractic table in a shadowed room, my face stuck with acupuncture pins, my back thrumming in the on/off of electronic massage.
One can, of course, study reproductions of an art work. But for prolonged inner recollection, for the revival of a first visual encounter with all its excitement and discovery, and a chance to embed this first excitement with subsequent thought and emotion–well, the acupuncture table is for me.
I saw Tintoretto’s Crucifixion (1565) in early May. Accompanied by two friends, Bruce and Joe from Amherst, I climbed the huge staircases of the Venetian Scuola Grande di San Rocco and entered the piano nobile (second story). We spent several hours (with a break for lunch) studying the works, craning our necks and using notebook-size mirrors provided by the Scuola to try and appreciate Tintoretto’s enormous accomplishment–much of it on the ceiling. In his furious desire to attain the commission for decorating this huge building and nearby church of the same name, Tintoretto had inserted one painting in its place before the competition began. Though his competitors remonstrated, Tintoretto immediately gave the painting to San Rocco, thereby making it unreturnable. Needless to say, he won the competition.
In the several trips I’ve made to Venice within the last 10 months, I’ve thought intermittently about Tintoretto whose work has impressed me far more than any other Venetian’s I’ve seen. Of course, what I’ve seen is a tiny fraction of what Venice has to offer. In October, I was transfixed by his three enormous paintings in his parish church, the Madonna dell’Orto, not far from his home in the piazza del Moro. This is at the north side of the city, which is quiet, almost entirely free of tourists, and de Chiricoesque in its eerie panoramas. These three paintings, especially the Presentation of Mary at the Temple (see my blog), taught me three things: Tintoretto is a master of verticality, spreading a narrative from earth to sky and back again. The figures of Mary and her mother begin at the bottom of a canal staircase and at the top, against the sky stands the high priest. The compelling call to climb the stairs is dramatically unmistakable.
Second, his “side pieces,” meaning the secondary dramas, both influence and reflect (sometimes ironically) the main drama–see the other mother and child sprawling on the steps beside Mary and Anna, completely charming but unconcerned about a religious calling. Finally, Tintoretto has an uncanny ability to show an unfolding narrative in a static medium–now to the Crucifixion.
This enormous work fills one long wall in a side room of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. A first glance tells you that a lot more is going on than simply Christ’s Crucifixion. As I lay on the chiropractic table, eyes closed, I saw again what I had recognized when sitting before the painting–unlike many world-famous crucifixions, Tintoretto’s does not separate Christ on his cross from the tumult of a huge, horrific public killing We are not asked to contemplate Christ on the cross as an icon of self-abnegation–the supreme gift of a life to ensure our salvation. Instead of paring away all the dross of heat, agony, disinterest, supercilliousness, Tintoretto embraces the long unfolding. Three human lives are in various stages of suffering. Many others are engaged in causing that suffering.
Though Christ has already been raised on the cross which occupies the center of the enormous scene, the two thieves who will flank him are in the process of being crucified. To the left, burly soldiers, sweat and strain to raise the second cross which cants an an alarming angle. Suddenly the physical effort of this method of death strikes you.in all its force. Joe says out of the gloom: “It takes at least three days for a crucified body to die.” Ah, I think, returning to this memory as I lie under my almost imperceptible needles, three days of intolerable ache from hands and feet nailed to wood, from joints and muscles hanging with little support, from the demands of bodily functions–thirst, hunger, sweat, defecation, urination–and of senses reeling with pain, dizziness, clarity. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Yes in so many many ways.
To the right and somewhat further from the plane of these two crosses, the third man to be crucified is being made to lie down on his cross–his shoulders are prone but his head is raised as he stares at the nails being driven into his feet. Oh my god, what pain with the recognition of what will follow. The coarseness of soul required to enact such cruelty becomes immediately apparent. Then subject to consideration: what is worse? John Brown’s hacking up bodies prior to the Civil War–a “flaming sword” of righteousness–or this mundane functionary whose face we cannot see?
There is so much more anecdote and response–the soldiers already throwing dice for Christ’s cloak, hidden from the cross by a sandy hill. The women and men crowded around Christ’s cross–one (probably Mary) swooning. The sponge being lifted up to Christ’s lips from behind–it has vinegar in it. In the lower edge, to our right, a cavalier on horseback with his retinue behind him. He stares up at the scene with calm unconcern. He wears contemporary dress of the artist’s era. He is the powers of the moment. But unlike many such figures, he does not represent us. We are entirely driven into this scene from centuries ago, brought into such unfolding agony by an artist of consummate empathy and a talent almost cinematic in sweep
No doubt I will contemplate my inner images of this astonishing work again. It has entered that small museum of paintings that have touched heart, mind, aesthetic appreciation, and amazement.