Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet was a favorite theme of the artist Tintoretto. He painted at least 6 versions of this famous Bible scene and this is the most refined and notable. If you are looking for the video, it is at the end of this post.
A man of many names Tintoretto started out life as Jacopo Comin, or Jacopo Robusti but came to be known as Tintoretto which means ‘little dyer’ as his father was a fabric dyer. Later the name Il Furioso would be added because he painted with such energy and speed.
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.
Tintoretto grew tired of the beauty of Titian and the other Italian masters. He felt that beauty was overrated. While pleasing the eye, beauty didn’t move the viewer emotionally. Tintoretto held to the belief that perfect beauty simply wasn’t exciting enough to convey the stories of the Bible and make them come alive. Therefore, Tintoretto sought innovations to make his paintings unusual, dramatic, captivating and tense. His art is different because he had different goals.
Who Commissioned the Work
Tintoretto painted “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet” in 1548 for the church in San Marcuolo. The painting was to hang to the right of the altar, opposite another Tintoretto of the Last Supper. Christ washing the disciples’ feet was actually a very popular topic for Tintoretto and we know of at least six paintings that he did on that theme. This work is presently housed in the Museo del Prado in Spain, and a copy hangs in the church in San Marcuolo.
Why are we in a Renaissance Palace
When we view the painting one of the first things that we notice is that the scene is set in a beautiful Renaissance hall with grand architecture and a beautiful view out the back. Tintoretto is aware this is not the setting of the original scene, but is communicating the timelessness of the story. The message was that every new generation of believers has to ponder how the bible story is relevant to their times, their lives. Placing the story in a setting so familiar to the viewer encourages them to reconsider how Christ actions and message translates into their modern (to them) lives.
This is a complex painting with iconography that is easily missed. So, before we get to the reading of the painting I think it will be helpful to review Tintorreto’s source material, taken from the gospel of John, chapter 13.
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
The Main Scene of the Painting
We are going to start reading “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet” in the bottom right corner with Christ. Christ’s placement immediately tells us that Tintoretto is not your typical 16th century artist. If Christ is portrayed in a work, he is almost universally placed in the center. Tintoretto doesn’t position him slightly off center, but in a bottom corner, which adds an interesting element to how we read the story.
Beyond that, Tintoretto the rest of the disciples are scattered about in groups that leave large open spaces in the painting.
In addition to lending drama and the unexpected to his painting, Tintoretto knew where this painting was going to be hung. The placement within the church was taken into consideration. Originally the work was placed on the right side of a church, in the altar area. This means it was all the way to the front of the church in an area where, unless you were a priest, you would never view the painting standing directly in front of it. Instead, as you sat in a pew, you would be looking at the painting at an angle. That change of perspective would make Christ the first thing you saw, and the open spaces in the painting seem to diminish.
Often artists, if they knew where a piece of work was going to be displayed would take that into account when they composed the piece and so that’s what we have going on here.
Reactions of the disciples to Christ washing their feet
Moving from Christ to Peter, we see Peter’s hands raised and he appears to be backing away. We are obviously at the part of the story where Peter is horrified that Jesus has taken on the role of the servant and tells Jesus “you cannot wash my feet.”
The painting appears theatrical. It’s as if we’ve walked in on a play and someone yelled freeze. As we look around the room, we see that all of the other disciples are responding to the conversation between Christ and Peter.
Christ, our humble, servant leader is providing the example we are all to follow. His disciples respond in a variety of ways. The disciples in the center are almost comic. Pulling off each other’s boots as quickly as possible, one of them appearing to be on the verge of toppling over.
The figure in the left foreground is a bit less urgent and is steadily unlacing his shoes. The disciple at the very back leaning against a pillar is praying. One is standing in front of the table pulling off his sock and still others are sitting around the table. They haven’t gotten up quickly to participate. Probably they are discussing what’s going on. Generally, a servant would have arrived, or the ‘least’ member of the party would have taken care of the feet washing, so the fact that Christ is doing it would have generated conversation.
As we continue looking at the disciples, we notice there is one lone figure, alone and in the shadows, wearing a red hat, all the way at the back of the room. He appears to be a bystander, is separate from the rest. It is easy to imagine that he looks suspicious and resentful. This is Judas.
One interesting note about Judas is that he still has his halo. Some artists, by this point in the passion story, have removed Judas’s Halo, or made it a dark halo because he has already made the decision to betray Christ. But Tintoretto has left his halo just like the others.
Judas is lingering in the shadows, reminding us that soon we enter the darkest hours of Jesus’s passion. This very night Judas will betray Christ, he’ll be arrested and the next day we will be moving into Good Friday.
We have an odd detail in the upper right-hand corner of the painting. There is a doorway where we can see into a little room, where a group has gathered. The disciples and Christ are in that room having the Last Supper. Tintoretto is including the events that have just occurred.
In John’s account of the evening Christ actually rises during the meal to wash the disciple’s feet. So, at least a portion of the Passover meal has already occurred when the events in the painting unfold. Tintoretto is reminding us of the sequence of events. As you’ll recall this work was intended to be hung directly opposite Tintoretto’s painting of the Last Supper, uniting the works into one continuous narrative.
Tintoretto is also, purposely, uniting the images of Passover with communion. The origins of the Christian sacrament of communion is this evening meal. On the table where all the disciples are sitting, there is a loaf of bread and a jug of wine, symbolizing the Eucharist, or communion.
Past, Present, and Future, they are all in the painting. The past is in that view into the room where the Last Supper has just occurred. The present is the main scene of the painting with Jesus and his disciples. The future is in the background.
A Look into the Future
Let’s take a closer look at the background. Looking through the building, off in the distance we see that outside there is a long smooth pool with a boat on it, an arc of Triumph, and an obelisk. All of these are symbols with roots in mythology and Ancient Greece and Rome. The classical architecture is our first clue as to how we are to read the iconography of this portion of the painting.
The pool, and the boat are symbols from Greek mythology. The pool of water is the River Styx, or death. One had to cross the River Styx in the boat steered by Charon. Charon’s job was to ferry the dead across the river so that they could enter either Paradise or Hell, depending on how their soul was judged.
The image foreshadows Christ’s death. We are looking into Christ future. Although we see that Christ’s death is coming, the background is quite hopeful because we see the arc of triumph. Yes, Christ will die, but ultimately Christ will be victorious. The obelisk is also a symbol of victory.
The background is meant to give us hope, even though we see that death is coming, and we know that Judas is about to betray Jesus, we also know that Christ will emerge from these dark days victorious.
Now one thing I haven’t talked about yet – there’s a dog in the painting, right in the center, which is a little odd. The dog caused Tintoretto some problems. Paintings that were going to hang in churches were subject to evaluation by the authorities. Tintoretto was called before the Inquisition because they found the dog irreverent. Oftentimes the Inquisition would require artists to paint over something they found objectionable.
Tintoretto must have made a good argument, that the dog served a purpose or that it wasn’t irreverent, because he was allowed to keep it. In Renaissance art dogs had a lot of symbolic meanings. They were used to denote faithfulness and fidelity or sometimes guidance and protection. Maybe Tintoretto included the dog to signify those things.
If you would like, you can view my YouTube video on this work.