Tintoretto’s Nativity

Tintoretto’s, Nativity provides the viewer with a unique portrayal of the familiar nativity story. Skillfully using light, and the distinctive architecture of a two story barn, Tintoretto connects the iconography of the Nativity with that of the Last Supper. Providing multiple examples of food, drink and nourishment, Tintoretto links our physical need for sustenance with our need for spiritual feeding. The imagery of nourishment is dramatically emphasized in the top of the barn with the bared breast of the wet nurse.

Then in the lower level, Tintoretto cleverly ties together the three animals to sum up the meaning of the scene above them; that Christ came to redeem a sinful people.

So who was Tintoretto

A man of many names Tintoretto started out as Jacopo Comin, or Jacopo Robusti but came to be known as Tintoretto which means ‘little dyer’ as his father was a dyer. Later the name Il Furioso would be added because he painted with such energy and speed.

Tintoretto's Nativity

The eldest of 21 children, he showed an artistic bent early. His family lived in Venice and so his father took him to Titian when he was 13 to see if he could be trained. The story goes that he only lasted 10 days in the Master’s workshop due to jealousy. When Titian found out that the drawings he was looking at were those of the young, untrained boy he sent him home saying he wasn’t trainable.

True or not, Tintoretto admired Titian greatly and was influenced by his use of color and light. Titian, and those in his workshop, had unflattering things to say about Tintoretto because he didn’t do what was expected.  This seems to be the recurring theme in art.

Why was Tintoretto’s style considered unique

Many of the negative comments Tintoretto suffered during his life were due to his fast, loose brushstrokes and emotional style. The style would become fashionable later, but in his time it was considered lazy, as if he didn’t care enough to work slowly and carefully.

This style, however, give his His paintings tremendous energy, as if the artist’s frantic speed while working transferred itself to the canvas.

Who commissioned Tintoretto’s Nativity

Tintoretto’s Nativity was created for the Scoula di San Rocco. St. Roch was the patron saint of plague sufferers. As the plague regularly swept through Europe, St. Roche was a popular saint.

The Scoula di San Rocco was a confraternity. That means it was a charitable organization that was run by laity as opposed to being run by monks, nuns, or other clergy in the church. Confraternities were recognized by the church and were able to accomplish a great deal. Consisting of a church and school this confraternity continued to grow in wealth because many came to give alms in the hopes of healing from the plague.

What is Sacred poverty and why was it popular

This work was also created during the Catholic Counter Reformation or the Catholic Revival. In response to corruptness within, and the ongoing Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church underwent it’s own revival. They reaffirmed doctrines they felt central to their faith, and instituted stricter rules about training and wealth among the clergy. The Council of Trent, over a 20 year period, continued the work of cleaning up, redefining and invigorating the church.

To this end, new guidelines were in place about art within the church, and there was an emphasis on sacred poverty that appealed to the lower classes, and to those inspired by the Counter Reformation. Our work today is a good example of the appeal to sacred poverty inherent in the story of the Nativity.

A close Reading of Tintoretto’s Nativity

It’s believed that the Adoration of the Shepherds that we are going to look at today was inspired by the Durer woodcut we examined earlier in our series. Tintoretto’s Nativity is at once very modern and unusual with it’s two levels and striking light, and then oddly conventional with the halo’s and angelic beings. The work is massive…nearly 18 ft by 14 ft. It is painted on canvas, and two canvases had to be joined to get that size.  The seam is where the beam separating the two stories is, perhaps the seam is the reason behind the unusual composition.

Architecture and light

Detail from Tintoretto's nativityI was first struck by the unusual strength of the architectural elements. Tintoretto’s Nativity is life sized, like walking into the dilapidated barn. We have the wood of rafters, walls, and floors as major elements of the work. Secondly, I was struck by the use of light. Complicated bursts of bright light and deep shadow play on the scene.

Traditional holy Family

The holy family is in the loft of the barn. The right half of the loft is a traditional portrayal of Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child. The baby lies in a basket with light emanating from Him.

In the rafters above, is one large beam that is on a diagonal, setting it apart from the rest of the ceiling. The beam draws attention to the Holy Family and shifts the light onto Mary. The beam is also the basis of a cross, reminding us of our Christ death. Reminders of the death of Christ in nativity works was quite common.

Mary is seated on the ground next to the baby Jesus, connecting her to the earth. In this rendition of the familiar scene she is neither holding nor worshiping the baby, instead she is glancing toward the two women who are in the loft with her

Non-traditional visitors in Tintoretto’s Nativity

Detail from Tintoretto's nativity

One of these women, with breast bared and holding a spoon and bowl, is there as wet nurse and support to the family. In our context a wet nurse is a pretty odd concept, and breastfeeding in public controversial. While we think of ourselves as so sophisticated compared to those in the 1500’s, they would find our attitude toward breastfeeding baffling and backwards.

In a society without formula, wet nurses were a necessary, often life saving, part of the community. Many women, from every walk of life, died in childbirth, and for a baby to survive a woman had to nurse it. Many women, for a variety of reasons, are not able to nurse…and again, a baby would still need feeding.  Nursing was a normal, accepted part of life.  Many Madonna and Child paintings show Mary breastfeeding the baby Jesus. Quite obviously, there were no sexual overtones or shame in breastfeeding.

Nourishment for the babe

So, we can assume the exposure of this woman’s breast is not gratuitous, but is to remind us of nourishment, as is her bowl and spoon. The men down below, who are handing food up to the family, serve the same purpose. These common people have gathered around, as people do after a birth, bringing food for the mother and evidently milk if needed, for the baby.

Nourishment for the spirit

As there is wheat around the barn, and bread, we can safely assume we are meant to connect this to the Eucharist. or communion. During the last supper Christ had with his disciples, he broke a loaf of bread, and told his disciples that the bread represented his body, which would be broken for them. He also took a glass of wine which he said was his blood, poured out for them. They were to drink this cup, and eat this bread in remembrance of him. This began the practice of Communion.

The bringing of the imagery of the Eucharist into Tintoretto’s Nativity serves two purposes. First, it is another reminder of Christ death.

Second, it reminds us that Christ brings us spiritual sustenance necessary to live our lives in faith. The element of spiritual nourishment therefore present here as well.

Nourishment as the goal of the Scoula di San Rocco confraternity

The emphasis in Tintoretto’s Nativity on the nourishing and feeding of each other is unprecedented in nativity art, but it would have struck a chord with the confraternity whose mission was charity and helping those impacted by the plague.  The food and neighbors gathering around would remind viewers that gathering around our communities and offering support and food is a spiritual act of devotion, calling to mind Jesus’ words, ” I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” While these shepherds were able to care for Christ directly, all of the confraternity who viewed this massive work would be reminded why their charitable actions matter, and that in helping those who suffer, they are serving Christ.

The Seraphs

detail from Tintoretto's nativityBefore we leave the loft portion of this painting we need to note the seraphs in the roof beams. They are symbols of divine love and radiate a warm orange light over the scene below.  As I’ve noted in several of the last paintings we have considered, I personally find these depictions a bit creepy. They are not the adorable cherubs of some early artist, but orange, semi-transparent beings. Maybe that’s just me.

The Lower Level of Tintoretto’s Nativity

Detail from Tintoretto's nativityThe room below echoes the theme of sacred poverty in this humble, decrepit barn.

Two shepherds kneel to the right, two men on the left are handing the food up, and in case we might miss it, a woman points to the ox. Always pay attention to figures who are pointing in a piece of art, this is the artist shouting, look at this!  The ox lays in the center of the scene looking out of the painting at us. We are reminded of Isaiah 1:3…The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.

A peacock and a rooster

We also have two birds in this depiction, an unusual addition. A peacock sits just above the Oxen’s head and a rooster stands at his feet. The rooster, or cock, calls to mind Peter’s denial of Christ on the night he was arrested before the crucifixion. During the Last Supper Christ told Peter that before the cock crowed he would deny him three times, and he did. Again, we have a tie in to the Last Supper.

The rooster stands as a symbol of our sinfulness directly in front of the ox. That imagery, the ox and rooster standing together, connects the sin of Israel denying Christ as alluded to in Isaiah, and Peter’s denying Christ after his arrest.

Offsetting this dismal message, we have the peacock at the Oxen’s head. The peacock is a symbol of immortality and the bird or it’s feathers were used by Christian artists to remind us that  Christ coming offers those who believe forgiveness from their sins and eternal life. The three animals pictured together in this humble barn sum up the message of the painting quite eloquently. The nativity is about God’s plan to redeem his creation from their fallen state.

Tintoretto’s, Christ Washing the Disciples Feet, is another painting I’ve looked at, you can find it here. 

I hope you are enjoying this series, if you want to read more just follow this link.

Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 24 Rembrandt

Rembrandt’s Dream of Saint Joseph


E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)

Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses

Professor William Koss, History of European Art  Lecture series, Great Courses

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)

National Gallery of Art website  www.nga.gov

Metropolitan Museum of Art website  www.metmuseum.org

The Getty Center www.getty.edu

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

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