Tintoretto – The Last Supper

With the exception of color, which is better preserved in the Academy Calvary, all the outstanding qualities of Tintoretto appear in this strikingly original and complex design. It is characteristic in using intensified streaks of light along limbs and garment-folds, to emphasize the direction of movement, and thus heighten the effect of dramatic action. These twisting, darting gleams of light, flaring out suddenly from deep shadow in the hanging lamp and in the haloes of Christ and the disciples, give the scene an eerie radiance and an air of quivering energy. At the same time they serve to distinguish and organize the picture’s many details, silhouetting dark heads against the light, or trans-fixing here and there some white gesturing hand or shoulder against the darkness. Such accents bring out the dramatic and emotional import of each principal element, and its part in the flowing rhythm of movement, while minor details sink into the shadows.

Largely through gradations in light, a distinction is made between the hovering angels and the human bodies below — the former translucent, weightless, insubstantial, vaporous forms lit by the flare; the latter lithe but solid, straining muscular limbs. (Such a contrast was later used by El Greco in The Burial of the Count of Orgaz at Toledo.) Several of the more sketchy human figures plainly anticipate El Greco’s late style in their extreme distortion and simplification by streaks of light—for example, the woman under the lamp in the background, and the two distant servants near the fire-place. Tintoretto, however, never quite loses touch with a basic realism, in drawing bodily proportions, and in expressing the color and texture of objects like the fruit, cloth and glassware.

The composition in space is bizarre and daring, yet successfully unified. Symmetry is brusquely violated—a step congenial to Tintoretto’s uneasy temperament. The table and its row of guests shoot back obliquely, in strange fore-shortening. They diminish in size to an unnatural extent at the farther end, which augments the room’s appearance of vast mysterious depth. The figure of Christ, though surprisingly small by comparison with the rest, stands out as a focus of light and color, and as a pivotal center about which the rest of the composition circles. Beginning (let us say) at the lamp in upper left, the movement travels down and to the right through the servant and disciple at the near end of the table, on through the cat and three servants in lower right (their line of heads parallel to the table) and back overhead through the wings and arms of the flying angels. This whirling movement is complicated in two ways: first by minor sidewise whirls and zig-zags, in the ring of ghostly forms around the lamp, and the swaying, gesturing limbs of the human figures. Second, it is complicated by swerving backward and forward in the third dimension: back from the nearby cat and basket to the two small distant servants at the far end of the room, and for-ward again along the table.

The result is an amazingly complex, ordered interplay of dynamic bodies—or rather forces, much less material than Michelangelo’s bodies—in deep space, enriched by countless variations in the color, light, texture, shape and posture of the moving parts. The drama of facial expressions, upon which Leonardo relies in his famous treatment of the same theme at Milan, is almost totally missing. The gestures, too, are arranged so as to contribute most to the general motion; not so as to be most expressive emotionally. Yet the story is conveyed, and its dramatic pace is quickened by the atmosphere of throbbing, electrical agitation.