Miracle of the Slave by Tintoretto: A Tale of Gravity

Miracle of the Slave by Tintoretto.
Miracle of the Slave by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, 1548). On display at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. (Didier Descouens/wikicommonsCC BY-SA 4.0)

As the 1540’s progressed, Tintoretto’s career was floundering.  His apprenticeship to Titian, the great Venetian Renaissance master, had ended acrimoniously.  Patrons were turned off by his experimental painting style.  And he never seemed able to obtain the sort of major public commission other artists had used to establish themselves in the city.  He needed a break if he was ever to see his work in the Doge’s palace or on the altars of Venice’s major churches.  That break came at last from the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which commissioned Tintoretto to paint Miracle of the Slave – a famous scene from the life of its namesake saint. 

Tintoretto poured everything into this painting, drawing on the best of past Venetian masters and the new Mannerist style then in fashion in Central Italy.  The work is a raw display of artistic talent, filled with heavily-worked colors and statuesque figures holding dramatic poses.  Yet what really holds one’s attention is the figure of the flying St Mark.  His gravity defying form and bright fluttering robes contrasts with the otherwise realistic depiction of those in the mob.  It lends the work a fantastical quality, which drew strong reactions from all who saw it.  With this piece, Tintoretto at last achieved the recognition he desired, setting him on a path that would forever change Venetian art.

Saint Mark and the Miracle of the Slave

Tintoretto completed the Miracle of the Slave for the Scuola Grande di San Marco in 1548.  The Scuola was one of several Venetian confraternities – lay religious organizations dedicated to charity.  These confraternities thrived in Venice during the 16th century, which in addition to their religious role, also served as a sort of social club for the Venetian middle class.  Among the confraternities, San Marco was the most prestigious, a position underscored by the fact that its namesake saint was also the patron of the city of Venice.

Exterior of the Scuola Grande di San Marco at sunset.
Exterior of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, Venice (© Artifacts)

The story of the Miracle of the Slave is found in the Golden Legend, a 13th century compilation of anecdotes from the lives of Christian saints.  In the story, a slave requests permission from his master to go on a pilgrimage to Venice to worship the relics of St Mark.  The master refuses, but the slave’s devoutness compels him to go anyway. 

When the slave returns, he finds that his master is furious at his insubordination.  As punishment, the master orders the slave’s eyes be put out, his limbs be hacked away, and his teeth be knocked out with a hammer.  The master’s servants attempt to carry out his orders, but in each instance, the tools used to inflict the punishment break or soften.  Eventually, the master relents, recognizing “the virtue of God so openly (displayed) by the miracles of Saint Mark.”  These miracles so inspire the master that he then goes on his own pilgrimage to Venice together with the slave.

Witness to the Miracle

In depicting this miracle, Tintoretto brings us right into the middle of the story, making the viewer feel as if they are actually witnessing the event as it unfolds.  We see evidence of the failed torture: a servant holds up the broken hammer while a broken ax and stake lie discarded near the slave’s head.  The master (in red on the far right) looks on in disbelief, powerless to inflict his desired torment.  All the while, the slave lies impassively on the ground, his eyes closed as the flying St Mark reaches down toward him. 

The connection between saint and slave form an axis in the middle of the work, around which the action of the scene seems to swirl.  We, as viewers, feel ourselves caught in its vortex, becoming a part of the crowd witnessing St Mark’s miracle.

Detail of the mirrored positions of the slave and St Mark at the center of Miracle of the Slave. (Didier Descouens/wikicommonsCC BY-SA 4.0)

Adding to this effect are several clever compositional techniques which make the world of the painting feel as if it is merging into the real.  Elements of this include: 1) the architecture, which pushes right up to the picture plane; 2) the man in black, who peaks around the bottom left corner (giving the illusion that he is standing next to the viewer); and 3) the expert foreshortening (particularly of the slave and St Mark) and clean perspective, which add to the three dimensionality of the piece.  These are all accentuated by the monumental size of the canvas (5.4 meters wide and 4 meters high), which allowed Tintoretto to paint all the figures as life sized. 

The combined effect of these narrative and compositional techniques is to give us, the viewer, the impression that we are a part of the crowd witnessing this miracle.  By allowing us the opportunity to participate in the scene, Tintoretto’s work adds to the glory of St Mark and, by extension, the Scuola that commissioned it.

Michelangelo’s Design and Titian’s Color

In addition to the compositional techniques highlighted above, there are a number of other stylistic elements in the work worth mentioning.  These would come to define Tintoretto’s unique artistic style in the decades that followed completion of Miracle of the Slave

First is the visible brushwork, the result of Tintoretto’s dry brush and glazing techniques.  This adds depth of color and texture to the work (which is difficult to make out in digital images of the piece but makes a profound impression when viewed in person).  These techniques had actually been pioneered by Titian decades before Tintoretto came on the scene.  In Titian’s case, however, the visible brushwork was seen as a sign of refinement, while for Tintoretto, it was viewed as proof of his excessive haste. 

Another element Tintoretto borrowed from Titian (and other past Venetian masters) is the broad color gamut.  Blues, reds, oranges, and blacks swirl across the surface of the painting following in the best traditions of Venetian art.  Even the famed poet and art critic Pietro Aretino, while critical of Tintoretto’s supposed haste, spoke glowingly of the colors, which he noted enhanced the naturalism of the piece.    

Where Tintoretto somewhat broke with past Venetian painters is in his statuesque figures, which were more characteristic of Central Italian painters.  These figures are the fruit of Tintoretto’s long studies of the works of Michelangelo.  Several in fact are pulled almost verbatim from sculptures of the Florentine master.

Close up image of two figures in Miracle of the Slave.  A turbaned servant and a soldier sit next to each other on a low step.  Both are depicted with highly individuated muscles.
Close-up of two figures in Miracle of the Slave, showing the fruit of Tintoretto’s studies of Michelangelo’s sculpture. (Didier Descouens/wikicommonsCC BY-SA 4.0)

Gravity

The painstaking detail evident in each figure and the imaginative composition gives us some sense of the long hours spent by Tintoretto in creating this work.  It was an exceptional demonstration of raw artistic talent from a (then) relatively obscure painter.  As such, it probably came as a shock to Tintoretto when the Scuola initially rejected it.

The precise reasons for this rejection aren’t entirely clear, but it’s likely the members of the Scuola were turned off by Tintoretto’s fantastical composition, which they may have viewed as pushing the limits of conventional decorum.  There is an almost a comic book-like quality to the flying St Mark suspended above the crowd.  Superman-esque flying Saints were not new to Italian painting (see Sansovino’s earlier bronze relief of Miracle of the Slave as well as Michelangelo’s The Conversion of Saul).  However, in Tintoretto’s work, St Mark’s gravity defying performance appears somehow more alien than in these other works.

Detail of the flying St Mark in Tintoretto’s Miracle of the Slave. (Didier Descouens/wikicommonsCC BY-SA 4.0)

Much of this is due to the stylistic elements noted above: the swirling colors and composition, the weighty statuesque figures, and the way in which the painting appears to merge into the real world.  It is also partially due to the orientation of the sharply foreshortened slave and St Mark, who are positioned perpendicularly to the picture plan.  This puts them in their own space, seeming apart from the laterally arrayed figures of the crowd.

The image of the flying saint was so striking that the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argued that it anticipates the work of Galileo and Newton.  Tintoretto, however, likely didn’t mean for it to suggest the harsh break with natural law that it at first appears.  Rather, it is more likely that the image of St Mark is meant to represent a divine vision internal to the slave.  This is suggested by their spatial proximity, the slave’s closed eyes, and (most importantly) the fact that no one else in the scene appears aware of the saint’s presence.  The idea of the divinely inspired internal vision was in keeping with Church teachings of the time.  Such visions, it was believed, were more likely to be divinely inspired than those outwardly visible.     

Miracle of the Slave and Tintoretto’s Arrival

Despite the initial rejection, the members of the Scuola Grande di San Marco were at last prevailed upon to accept the painting, which was placed prominently opposite the altar in the Scuola’s meeting house. However, as a parting snub, Tintoretto was not admitted into the Scuola’s membership, as was customary when a Scuola accepted a painting.  Regardless, the work achieved Tintoretto’s aim, establishing him as one of the leading painters in the city of Venice.  Following the completion of Miracle of the Slave, new commissions came in at a much faster pace, allowing Tintoretto to further refine the unique style already apparent in this work.  In so doing, he would create a body of work that would eventually come to embody the very essence of Venetian art.

Sources/Further Reading on Miracle of the Slave

  1. To learn more about the art of Tintoretto, see this post on the artist’s masterpiece – his monumental narrative cycles at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.
  2. For more on other monumental works by Tintoretto, see this post on Tintoretto’s Paradise, the largest painted canvas in the world.
  3. The Gallerie dell’Accademia’s page on Miracle of the Slave.
  4. The text of the volume of Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend containing the Life of St Mark. This is where the story of the Miracle of the Slave is recorded. This text comes from the Temple Classics edition, edited by F.S. Ellis and translated by William Caxton.
  5. Nichols, Tom. “Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity.” London. Reaktion. 1999
  6. 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
  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. Coffin, David R. “Tintoretto and the Medici Tombs.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 33, no. 2, [Taylor & Francis, Ltd., College Art Association], 1951, pp. 119–25
  9. Goldberg, Jonathan. “Conversions: Around Tintoretto.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 49, no. 1/2, The Massachusetts Review, Inc., 2008, pp. 163–91