Tintoretto’s Last Suppers: From the Harmonious to the Mystical

Image of the Last Supper by Tintoretto at the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore.
The Last Supper by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, 1592-94). On display at the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore. (Wikicommons)

The Last Supper has been a popular subject in art since the earliest days of Christianity.  This was especially true during the Renaissance, which produced the most famous depiction of the subject in Leonardo Da Vinci’s mural for the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie.  Even in its poorly conserved state, we still admire the beauty and elegance of this work, which embodies the best of High Renaissance aesthetics.  Fifty years after Da Vinci completed his masterpiece, the great Venetian painter Tintoretto would find himself similarly captivated by the Last Supper.  From around 1547 to 1594, he would paint the Last Supper on ten occasions.  In Tintoretto’s hand, Leonardo’s Renaissance era harmony dissolves into something more chaotic, dark, and mystical.  Collectively, Tintoretto’s Last Suppers show an artist moving away from the heady intellectualism of the earlier era into something more purely emotive.

The Scuole del Sacramento

Da Vinci’s Last Supper looks as if it was painted from the climactic scene of a Greek tragedy.  The characters sit up on stage, facing out toward the audience; a harmonious classical backdrop behind them.  In this scene, Christ has just revealed to his companions that one of them will soon betray him.  The apostles react with a range of emotions – shock, anxiety, sadness, and anger – all carefully depicted by Leonardo’s expert hand. 

Almost every painting of the Last Supper throughout the succeeding century followed this model, arraying the figures across the canvas like actors on a stage.  Among the few exceptions to this are the works by Tintoretto, who chose to paint the Last Supper in a dynamic manner that brought the viewer into the world of the painting. Tintoretto’s break with tradition, however, wasn’t simply an artistic rebellion (at least at first). Rather, it was a pragmatic decision motivated by a desire to accommodate the unique needs of his patrons, the humble Scuole del Sacramento (Schools of the Sacrament).

The Schools of the Sacrament were lay confraternities – religious brotherhoods formed among the men of a particular church parish.  Originally formed to administer Holy Communion to the sick, their activities over time broadened to include more general assistance to the poor and arranging the burial of unclaimed bodies.  The Schools of the Sacrament were quite inclusive, with membership generally open to any man in the parish who could afford the modest membership fee.  

In Tintoretto’s lifetime, the number of Schools of the Sacrament in Venice grew rapidly.  While the first recorded Venetian school was formed in 1502, by mid-century, almost every church in Venice had one.  Most of these schools met in their home church, focusing their activities around a “banco” – a long table set up outside the Sacrament Chapel.  The schools took great care in decorating the banco, commissioning sculptures to be placed onto it and paintings to hang around it.  It was for the decoration of the banco which Tintoretto painted many of his most famous Last Suppers.

Exterior of the Scuola Grande di San Marco at sunset.
Exterior of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, Venice . The larger schools could afford to construct their own separate meeting houses. The smaller schools, however, would simply meet in church. Tintoretto did work for both small and large schools. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

The Banco

It was the Last Supper in which Christ established the sacrament of the Eucharist, offering to the apostles his blood and body in the form of wine and bread.  The Last Supper was consequently a logical subject for art commissioned by the schools given their primary focus on administering Holy Communion to the sick. 

The position of the banco, however, was not an ideal location for the large narrative paintings requested by the schools and preferred by Tintoretto.  In a small church, the banco was set against a wall running the length of the nave (the central part of the church where the congregation is seated).  Frequently, a row of columns – often connected by arches to form an arcade – would separate the banco from the central nave.  For the congregation seated in the center of the church, the columns and arches would frequently obscure all but the bottom portion of the painting. 

Interior of the Church of San Giacomo dall'Orio.  Shot is taken down the center aisle toward the altar.  One can see the columns and arches separating the center of the church from the side aisles.  These would have obstructed the view of any painting hung over the banco.
The nave of the Church of San Giacomo dall’Orio in Venice. The banco would have been in the side aisle of the church, separated from the central aisle by the pictured columns and arches. (Didier Descouens/Wikicommons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

This made the traditional depiction of the Last Supper (as shown in Leonardo’s work) less than ideal, as none of the figures would be visible to most in the church.  Tintoretto sought a better solution, breaking with the traditional depiction which set the table parallel to the picture plane with all of the apostles seated on one side.  Instead, Tintoretto began to paint the dinner table at an angle, with the figures of the apostles seated all around it.  This gave him more flexibility to paint Christ and other figures beneath and around the arches and columns, thus making the key elements of the composition visible from a wider range of vantage points within the church. 

While these constraints may have provided the initial impetus to abandon the artistic conventions for a Last Supper, Tintoretto quickly realized it also opened new expressive possibilities.  As seen in his later Last Suppers at San Rocco and San Girogio Maggiore, Tintoretto never went back to the traditional arrangement, even when the surrounding architecture would have permitted it.  Instead, he stuck to a style which placed no barriers between the viewer and Christ.  This makes his paintings feel as if they are extensions of the real world, allowing the viewer to feel as if they are right in the middle of the action.  This effect is seen throughout Tintoretto’s entire body of work, from his earliest paintings to his last.

Five Last Suppers by Tintoretto

Discussed below are five of Tintoretto’s ten Last Supper paintings.  In them, we see the evolution in Tintoretto’s painting style over the course of his entire career, beginning with the more conventional work at San Marcuola to the darkened world of miracles presented in his final version at San Giorgio Maggiore.  Collectively, they show an artist searching for meaning in one of the key moments of Christianity – a journey which takes him from the harmony of Renaissance depictions into the humble mysticism more characteristic of his later paintings.

1) San Marcuola

The Last Supper by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, 1547). On display at the Church of San Marcuola. (wikicommons)

Tintoretto’s first Last Supper was painted for the Scuola del Sacramento of the Church of San Marcuola in 1547.  The work is his most traditional treatment of the subject.  As in Leonardo’s work, the scene is arranged with the table parallel to the picture plane.  Christ sits in the middle, having just relayed that one of the apostles is about to betray him.  This prompts a range of reactions from the apostles, among them disbelief, anxiety, and anger. 

Where it breaks with Leonardo’s works is in the placement of the apostles on both sides of the table, which consequently becomes smaller.  Tintoretto also gets rid of the classical backdrop, allowing it to remain an evocative black.  These make the painting feel less staged and more spontaneous, as if we really are witnessing the scene as it happened. 

On the edges of the work are two serving women, likely representing the medieval personification of charity – the principal virtue of the confraternity. The chalice held by the woman on the left carries with it Eucharistic connotations, thus alluding to the School’s role in making communion more accessible.  Allegories of charity were common elements in many of Tintoretto’s Last Suppers.

2) San Trovaso

The Last Supper by Tintoretto ( oil on canvas, 1566). On display at the Church of San Trovaso. (wikicommons)

Fast forward almost 20 years and Tintoretto is again painting a Last Supper for the Scuola del Sacramento of the Church of San Trovaso.  Of all of Tintoretto’s Last Suppers, this is the only one which might actually have generated real controversy.  Finished in 1566, there is an almost comical quality to the work.  In this painting, which is set in the basement of an artisan, the apostles appear in the dress of working-class Venetians.  Several appear inebriated, a point emphasized by the foreground apostle reaching back for a cask of wine.  The wine induced stupor among the apostles seems so pronounced that some appear on the verge of passing out.  Against this basement scene is the oddly dream-like classical architecture in the background, perhaps signifying the paradise then within reach.

Critics, both contemporary and later, would see the painting as beneath the dignity of the subject, with one even labelling it vulgar.  Art historian Tom Nichols, however, points out that the painting is in keeping with a new movement in literature and theater which had then taken hold in Venice.  This movement, promoted by a group known as the poligrafi, did not view comedy and religion as two separate domains.  Rather, by adding a comedic element to tragedy, they believed art could become more accessible to the masses. 

This, of course, was a view well ahead of its time.  In Counter-Reformation Italy, to suggest God was anything but serious was regarded as heresy.  Tintoretto may have been fortunate in that this work seems never to have come to the inquisition’s attention. Somewhat ironically, Tintoretto’s contemporary – the traditionalist painter Paolo Veronese – was called before the inquisition for including comical figures in his Last Supper. Though he was acquitted, the inquisition ordered him to change the name of his painting to The Feast in the House of Levi.

3) San Polo

The Last Supper by Tintoretto ( oil on canvas, 1574). On display at the Church of San Polo. (wikicommons)

In 1574, Tintoretto painted another version of the Last Supper for the Scuola at the Church of San Polo.  This version, while restoring sobriety to the subject, continued the trend of steadily more dynamic compositions.  Here again, the table is positioned at an angle to the picture plane, breaking with the harmonious symmetry of Leonardo’s work.  The chiaroscuro is deeper, with shadow encroaching across a broader portion of the canvas.  In the background is another dream-like landscape, a new dawn just about to break.

Unlike the San Marcuola and San Trovaso paintings, in this work we no longer see the moment in which Christ reveals the betrayal.  Rather, Tintoretto returns to the theme of the Holy Communion, in which Jesus offers his body and blood to the apostles in an act of divine charity.  This in turn inspires his disciples to offer earthly charity.  One of the apostles offers food to a man laying in the foreground, while to the right, another offers a piece of fruit to a child.  This was a reminder that the Scuola’s charitable mission derived directly from the example of Christ.

4) San Rocco

The Last Supper by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, c. 1578-81). On display at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco – Sala Superiore. (Didier Descouens/Wikicommons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Between 1578 and 1581, Tintoretto was engaged in painting his masterpiece, the monumental narrative cycle to decorate the upper floor of the meeting hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.  San Rocco was one of Venice’s six “great” schools, a very different type of confraternity than the parish-based Schools of the Sacrament.  The resources available to a Scuola Grande were far greater, as suggested by the fact that each had its own lavish meeting house. 

Unlike Tintoretto’s other Last Suppers, this painting is a vertical piece, the shape of which was determined by the space between the two windows where it was placed.  This painting is darker than the earlier versions, but consistent with the general palette of the other paintings nearby.

The drama of the earlier works is more muted here, with greater emphasis placed on the humble circumstances of the meal.  Christ offers the wafer to Peter at the far end of the table, who bends down to receive it.  Around the table are the other apostles, who are depicted kneeling or seated on low benches.  In the foreground, two beggars sit near to the picture plane, marking the transition from the divine back into the earthly.  As in the earlier works, the humble figures of the apostles and Christ together with the two foreground beggars emphasize the virtue of charity – perhaps a response to suggestions that the School had abandoned its mission of charity in favor of lavish expenditures on banquets and ceremonial processions.

5) San Girogio Maggiore

Image of the Last Supper by Tintoretto at the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore.
The Last Supper by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, 1592-94). On display at the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore. (Wikicommons)

Not long after finishing the San Rocco cycle, Tintoretto painted his final version of the Last Supper for the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, completed between 1592 and 1594.  Unlike the earlier works, this one was commissioned by the church itself, not a lay confraternity.  This is perhaps Tintoretto’s most famous painting of the subject, exemplifying the deep chiaroscuro and mystic elements that infused his later works. 

Unlike his previous versions of the Last Supper, for the first time Tintoretto returns to the example of Leonardo and places almost all of the apostles (with the exception of Judas) on one side of a very long table.  The apostles look to Christ, who is there initiating the sacrament of the Eucharist.  Christ’s bright halo forms a sharp contrast against the dark surroundings.  Ethereal angels, seeming made up of smoke from the lamp, fly joyously near the ceiling of the darkened room.  Amidst all of this are a number of servants, who again appear to be allegories of charity (as suggested by their activity serving the apostles). 

Some art historians argue that Tintoretto himself may have had very little involvement in making this painting, leaving it primarily to his workshop.  This view notwithstanding, there is something in this painting of the dreamy mystical quality seen in other of Tintoretto’s works, such as Jacob’s Ladder and even Miracle of the Slave.  This is particularly evident in the angels formed from the smoke of the lanterns; the presence of which the figures in the scene appear unaware of.  This suggests the transcendent nature of the Last Supper, which cannot be apprehended by normal perception or intellect.  

However you look at it, Tintoretto had come a long way from his first Last Supper at San Marcuola.  With each painting, he took another step away from the conventional approach adopted by Leonardo and others.  By the end, little remains of the Renaissance template.  The unique style that emerges would come to exemplify the very best in Venetian art, marking Tintoretto as a pioneer of the movement out of the shadow of the Renaissance into a more emotive period in art.

Sources/Further Reading on the Last Supper by Tintoretto

  1. For more on the religious art of Tintoretto, see this post on Tintoretto’s Crucifixion.
  2. Tintoretto’s art reached its fullest potential at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Check out this post for further information.
  3. Most church bancos (banchi) in Venice have either been removed or heavily stripped down. For reconstructions of what they might have once looked like, see: Worthen, Thomas. “Tintoretto’s Paintings for the Banco Del Sacramento in S. Margherita.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 78, no. 4, [Taylor & Francis, Ltd., College Art Association], 1996, pp. 707–32.
  4. Sperling, Jutta Gisela. “Allegories of Charity and the Practice of Poor Relief at the Scuola Grande Di San Rocco.” Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, vol. 70, Freunde des Wallraf-Richartz-Museum und des Museum Ludwig e.V., 2009, pp. 119–46.
  5. LEVEY, MICHAEL. “TINTORETTO AND THE THEME OF MIRACULOUS INTERVENTION.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 113, no. 5109, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, 1965, pp. 707–25.
  6. HAHN, ROBERT. “A Witness to Tintoretto.” Southwest Review, vol. 89, no. 2/3, Southern Methodist University, 2004, pp. 192–212.
  7. Nichols, Tom. “Tintoretto, Prestezza and the Poligrafi: A Study in the Literary and Visual Culture of Cinquecento Venice.” Renaissance Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, Wiley, 1996, pp. 72–100.
  8. Nichols, Tom. “Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity.” London. Reaktion. 1999