Tintoretto's Vision of Paradise

This year marks several significant art anniversaries: Rembrandt, Da Vinci, and Tintoretto are all artists who are especially remembered in 2019. In the United States, The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is hosting a splendid exhibition that honors Tintoretto. Among the many visiting masterpieces on view at the NGA is the painting sketch for the Paradise – a canvas often considered to be the artist’s greatest achievements, an illustrious summation of his genius. The sketch in the National Gallery is a scale version of the actual and vast painting housed in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.

Like all great artists, Tintoretto (1518 – 1594) evades facile classifications – an heir to Michelangelo and Titian, he cannot be described as a follower of anyone. His paintings are a symbiosis of careful, studied figural arrangement combined with the mastery of Venetian chromaticism and vigorous expressiveness that is uniquely his own. Tintoretto is also an undisputed but demanding prodigy of religious painting from whom many valuable lessons on religious art are still to be learned and hopefully put into practice.

The Paradise (circa 1588) has often been dismissed as a massive and convoluted composition - a tour de force too tremendous to appreciate. However, once the viewer adjusts to see beyond the five hundred figure consortium of angels, saints, and apostles – the Paradise discloses as one of the most natural, flowing, and graceful compositions. It is a throng of saints translated into an individual and thoughtful rendering of every figure, a veritable cascade yes, but following the succession of the Litany of All Saints.

The vision of Paradise begins at the apex of the canvas. There we see two reigning and noble figures: Christ, seated as if on a throne and Our Lady oriented towards him. From the top down, the entire scene is arranged in a curved space – as if one were looking up at an apsidal dome where dynamic, semi-circular groupings of saints are intertwined with almost transparent rings of the angelic choirs. This arrangement corresponds to the traditional iconography of heaven as a vault. Also from the top down light emanates from the figure of Christ and illuminates all other figures in the paintings. So the two principal means of composition – linear arrangement and light - collaborate to point and emphasize the Christocentric rason d’etre of this paradisial vision.

Every saint in the painting can be identified by their specific iconographic tropes and symbols. Particularly notable are: large St. Christopher at the lower right, penitent and ardent St. Jerome on the right side, entranced Moses bearing the Sinai tablets, King David with the lyre and Job reading a book (not too far apart from each other on the left), Archangel Gabriel bearing a blooming lily, hovering close to Our Lady, with his back to the viewer, St. Michael the Archangel suspended mid-air close to Our Lord, also with his back to the viewer, St. Peter with a giant key, St. Paul with the sword of his martyrdom (off center to the right), and all the Evangelists. The saints are mingled with the angels who are positioned and grouped according to choirs.

It seems that the idea behind the composition is to encourage the viewer to take in the vision slowly and with attention, moving from the top and to the sides, searching the crowd for familiar faces yet finding repose only with the principal figures of the Virgin and Christ at the open, light flooded summit. The joy inspired by looking at this painting is a foretaste of Beatitude. Nonetheless, it appears that the scene in the painting is happening now: the eternity breaking open into a temporal setting - confronting, encouraging, and sympathetically enticing the viewer.

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