The Crucifixion by Tintoretto: A Divine Presence in a Fallen World

Image of the Crucifixion by Tintoretto, painted in 1565 for the Scuole Grande di San Rocco in Venice.
Crucifixion by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, 1565). On display at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. (wikicommons)

The Crucifixion is one of Tintoretto’s most dynamic works.  Painted to decorate the boardroom of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, it is a classic Tintoretto piece, giving equal focus to both the primary subject of the scene and the wide range of individuals there to witness it.  On the one hand is the powerful image of Christ, whose divine presence dominates the top-central portion of the canvas.  His striking appearance and icon-like demeanor belies his physical vulnerability.  Christ is no longer God incarnate but rather a divine presence felt within the painting.  Around him is a wide cast of individuals, among them soldiers, laborers, apostles, and merchants.  Tintoretto lavishes attention on these figures, many of which hold dramatic and tension-filled poses.  Provocatively, they wear the dress of contemporary Venetians, suggesting that the dark world they inhabit extends into the present. This is perhaps Tintoretto’s reminder to the brothers of the Scuola of the transcendental and timeless quality of Christ’s example, which they had committed to follow.  

Tintoretto at San Rocco

Painted in 1565, the Crucifixion by Tintoretto (real name Jacopo Robusti) was the crowning achievement of the artist’s narrative cycle telling the story of the Passion of Christ.  The cycle was painted for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco – one of the many religious confraternities which thrived in 16th century Venice.  Though ostensibly dedicated to charity, these confraternities also served as a sort of social club for the Venetian middle class.  Tintoretto’s Passion cycle – which also included paintings of Christ Before Pilate, Ecce Homo, and The Road to Cavalry – were created to decorate the confraternity’s boardroom (often referred to as the “albergo”). 

This monumental narrative cycle was an entrée into what would be a decades’ long relationship between the artist and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.  Over the course of this relationship, Tintoretto would paint almost 70 works for the confraternity, decorating every room of its sumptuous meeting hall and nearby church.  These paintings (which I wrote about in this post, here) are among the finest Tintoretto ever created and in which his unique compositional style reached its fullest expression. 

Tintoretto’s Crucifixion

Though one of four paintings in Tintoretto’s Passion cycle, the Crucifixion immediately drew the most attention.  A monumental work over 5 meters tall and 12 meters long, the painting takes up the entire wall opposite the entrance.  The work is a departure from earlier depictions of the Crucifixion, which were meant to provoke contemplation of Christ’s suffering on the cross (the word “passion” comes from the Latin word passus sum, meaning to suffer).  In Tintoretto’s work, Christ presents few obvious signs of suffering.  Rather, he appears to rise above the worldly, showering the dark scene around him with divine light.

While the image of Christ dominates the top third of the painting, the remainder of the canvas is given over to a wide range of other figures:  laborers busy erecting the other two crosses, soldiers rolling dice in a small hovel, richly clad merchants and townspeople gathering to look on.  Tintoretto dwells on each of these figures, skillfully capturing facial expressions, hand gestures, and even the folds in their clothing.  The figures of the laborers in particular are striking.  They hold dramatic, tension filled poses – a raw display of Tintoretto’s artistic prowess and the fruit of his long studies of the works of Michelangelo and other great sculptors.   

This almost extraneous flurry of activity is entirely in keeping with Tintoretto’s style of painting, which frequently relegates the traditional focus of a subject to the background or margins while bringing the common people to the fore.  While Christ is certainly not a marginal figure in this work (though he is in many of Tintoretto’s other paintings), he competes with the other figures present for our attention.

The San Severo Crucifixion

The San Rocco Crucifixion was not Tintoretto’s first attempt at painting this subject.  He had experimented with it before, most notably in an earlier painting Tintoretto did for the Scuola del Sacramento of San Severo, completed around 1558.  Like Tintoretto’s San Rocco Crucifixion, the San Severo work shows a scene filled with a broad range of bystanders, including mourners, merchants, and soldiers.  Above them, Christ hangs dignified from the cross – a strong presence even if not quite at the level he attains in the San Rocco work. 

Image of the Crucifixion painted by Tintoretto for the Scuola Sacramento di San Severo.  In this image, the crowd appears in a tighter area around Christ.  The crosses of the two thieves are already erect in this image, unlike in the later San Roco version.
Crucifixion by Tintoretto (oil on canvas, c.1558-59). On display at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. Originally painted for the Scuola Sacramento di S. Severo, this painting became the model for Tintoretto’s later Crucifixion at the Scuola di S. Rocco. (Didier Descouens/wikicommons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Again, the focus of the work is not Christ’s suffering but rather the disposition of those there to witness it.  We see the swooning Marys at the base of the cross, the gambling soldiers, and troubled onlookers.  Also similarly depicted are the thieves.  As recounted in the Gospel of Luke, the thief to Christ’s right acknowledges the justness of his punishment and requests that Christ remember him when he arrives in Heaven.  The thief to Christ’s left, however, remains unrepentant, mocking Christ for his inability to save himself from this painful fate.  In both the San Severo painting and the San Rocco work, the thief to Christ’s right is depicted looking toward Jesus while the one to his left looks away. 

From San Severo to San Rocco – Building Depth

Tintoretto’s Crucifixon for San Rocco borrows heavily from the earlier San Severo work while further accentuating its emotional tension.  No longer are the figures clustered in the lower half of the painting, but are rather arranged in an oval around the base of Christ’s cross.  This adds a sense of depth to the work, making it feel as if it is spilling out into the real world. 

Image of the Crucifixion by Tintoretto together with some of the sumptuous decoration which surrounds the painting in the albergo of the Scuola di S. Rocco.
The Crucifixion by Tintoretto in the Albergo of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. © Artifacts

Further adding to this effect is the busy foreground.  The viewer feels as if they stand near to the group of mourners: the three Mary’s, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus.  They sit at the base of Christ’s cross, right on the edge of the picture plane.  Their somewhat theatrical appearance in the San Severo painting is here a far more empathic resigned sorrow.  Around the mourners in the foreground are several still lifes, which add to this sense of continuity between the painting and the real world (particularly the foreshortened ladder in the center).  The combined effect is to make us, the viewers, feel as if we are actually there at Calvary, witnessing this execution ourselves. 

Timelessness in Tintoretto’s Crucifixion

Tintoretto’s attention to those in the crowd witnessing the Crucifixion left an indelible impression on early viewers of the work.  This was compounded by the fact that Tintoretto painted many wearing the clothes of contemporary Venetians.  This would have left the impression that this was not some distant historical event but rather a concrete happening still relevant to modern times.  Such a perspective, though perhaps provocative in other time periods, would have been in keeping with Catholic spiritual practices of the time, which put greater emphasis on the development of a personal relationship to Christ.

Stylistically, the painting also set the tone for many of his later works.  The feel of this painting, the naturalism of the figures, the disjunctive spatial composition, and heightened chiaroscuro would be recurring features of Tintoretto’s later works for the Scuola di S. Rocco.  As in the other works Tintoretto painted at the Scuola, it gives us a sense that we are witnessing something divine in an otherwise fallen world.

Sources/Further Reading on the Crucifixion by Tintoretto

  1. For more on the religious art of Tintoretto, see this post on the artist’s epic series of Last Suppers.
  2. The website for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. A great resource on this and other paintings in the Scuola’s meeting house.
  3. Nichols, Tom. “Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity.” London. Reaktion. 1999
  4. Goldberg, Jonathan. “Conversions: Around Tintoretto.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 49, no. 1/2, The Massachusetts Review, Inc., 2008, pp. 163–91,
  5. 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,
  6. HAHN, ROBERT. “A Witness to Tintoretto.” Southwest Review, vol. 89, no. 2/3, Southern Methodist University, 2004, pp. 192–212, 
  7. Christiansen, Keith. “Tintoretto’s ‘Christ Mocked.’” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 148, no. 1244, The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd., 2006, pp. 767–71,