The art essay

The Finding of the Body of Saint Mark (1561–1565) by Tintoretto (1518–1594)


In 1561, Tintoretto received a commission for three paintings devoted to Saint Mark to be placed in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco—a sort of trade guild for citizens of any social class— in Venice. The patron who paid all the expenses was Tommaso Rangone, Guardian Grande (president) of the Scuola. Not surprisingly, in this painting, the second of the series, Rangone figures prominently in the foreground, kneeling to the right of Saint Mark, and is dressed in stunning golden robes—those of a Golden Knight of the Most Serene Republic. The body of Saint Mark had been smuggled out of Alexandria, Egypt, by the Venetians in a.d. 828 and had been lovingly housed in Venice, but its location was lost following a fire some years later. This painting, The Finding of the Body of Saint Mark, depicts its rediscovery in 1094, from which time it has reposed in the Basilica of Saint Mark up to the present day.  The painting is complex in its audacious techniques, visual organization, and multiple layers of meaning, celebrating the authenticity of the discovery of Saint Mark’s body while glorifying its donor. But if these were the only levels of meaning, the painting would be little more than an exercise in Venetian civic and personal pride rather than the masterpiece of religious art that it is. On the spiritual level Saint Mark, looming prominently in the foreground at the left and larger than the other figures, is depicted as a miracle worker. In a sweeping gesture the patron saint of Venice affirms the authenticity of his semi-draped body in the foreground. The body’s striking muscularity and foreshortening recall the work of Michelangelo, whom Tintoretto admired, considering himself Michelangelo’s artistic heir. This dramatic painting highlights the intensity of the Venetians’ search for Mark’s body, as under the entablature on the right bodies are being frenetically lowered from sarcophagi, and in the far back another body is being exhumed from a subterranean tomb, bathed in an ethereal light. In the right foreground three muscular figures lower still another body from its resting place. Amidst activity and bodies on all sides, Saint Mark raises his hand authoritatively to call an end to further searching, since his body has been found. The essential point is that Venice’s privilege of housing and venerating its patron saint’s body in the Basilica of Saint Mark is the result of the intervention of Saint Mark himself, and, by implication, the saint’s active protection continues to be experienced in the lives of Venetians to the current day. This is further reinforced by the male figure in the right foreground, his head turned toward Saint Mark, upon whom he fixes his gaze, as the saint delivers him from the possession of a demon, depicted as an emerging dark form. The demon lurches toward a woman, who flees his clutches.  Thus this painting, in more recent years, has been assigned an alternative, though not fully satisfactory, title: Saint Mark Performing Many Miracles.

A break with the Venetian pictorial tradition

Tintoretto’s painting is exceptional also for its innovative technique. The spatial organization places prominent figures in the foreground, a device often used by Tintoretto, but they are asymmetrical, as there is no central axis to the pictorial space. The tiled floor, the right-side entablature, and the arched vault plunge visually into the background, off-center and veering to the left, deeply drawing in the viewer’s eye and creating visual tension between foreground figures and receding space. This terminates in a hallucinatory view of the subterranean tomb, eerily illuminated by a torch, into which several figures descend, bathed in otherworldly light, suggesting the tomb of Jesus after the Resurrection—a subtle parallel between the Lord’s Resurrection and the discovery of the body of Saint Mark. Monochrome coloration, largely earth tones, further evokes a sepulchral domain. Despite well-articulated foreground figures, the rest of the scene is more suggested than depicted due to Tintoretto’s loose, almost spontaneous brushstroke—a method of painting revolutionary in 16th-century Venice. The exposed brushstrokes and improvisational application of paint, which prefigure techniques of 20th-century artists, were a radical break with prevailing traditions of his time.

A reflection of newly emerging spiritualities

This is a demanding painting, one that requires the viewer’s active participation on many levels. As to narrative, some elements seem inexplicable, including the appearance of ghostlike forms throughout the middle ground and just below the vault. Understanding the visual story requires concentration and imagination. The monochrome palette and piercing light demand acute visual effort to differentiate forms once past the foreground. Incomplete and suggestive brushstrokes force the viewer to participate actively in completing the unfinished spaces. Tintoretto places unprecedented demands upon the viewer’s active participation to navigate the narrative and space, and to fill the spaces between random brushstrokes. This technique, known in his time as non finito, encourages the viewer to supply the missing elements. This engagement of the viewer’s participation reflects new forms of spirituality that emerged in Tintoretto’s lifetime, in the wake of the Council of Trent. This painting of Saint Mark embodies innovative spiritual practices that were proposed by spiritual directors such as Saint Ignatius Loyola and Saint Philip Neri. These newly developed spiritualities, for both laity and religious, fostered an experiential prayer life, the reading of Scripture, and a deeply personal relationship with Jesus Christ. For example, Saint Ignatius encouraged experiential reading of Scripture, in which the individual would identify their role in, for example, the Passion narrative, and even imagine themselves present at the event narrated. These forms of spirituality, which appealed to the imagination, encouraged a more personal relationship with God. Tintoretto’s genius in this iconic painting of Venetian personal, civic, and religious pride is how he used such stunningly modern and evocative techniques to encapsulate and propose equally new approaches to personal spiritual life, fostered by some of the great spiritual directors of the time.

Francis J. Greene Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts, Saint Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. 

 The Finding of the Body of Saint Mark (1561–1565), Tintoretto (1518–1594), The Brera Gallery, Milan, Italy. © akg-images / Erich Lessing.