Tintoretto painted this altarpiece for the Chapel of the Presentation in the Venetian Church of Santa Maria dei Carmini. It was commissioned by the Confraternity of Fishmongers who were the chapel’s patrons. The frame is inscribed with the year 1548, and has a relief of a fish on the bottom right. Prior to 1548 Tintoretto received several commissions from such humble confraternities. In that year, his “Miracle of the Slave” won him renown and far more significant public commissions followed. Some scholars date this painting as early as 1541. The delay in finishing the chapel is unexplained but in any case this It is likely to be one of his first altarpieces.
In Luke’s narrative three distinct events are combined. The first born son is presented in the Temple, the child’s mother is purified and the old man Simeon encounters the child and his mother. This is reflected in how artists depicted the scene. Some artists showed the meeting with Simeon happening at the entrance to the Temple. Sometimes the Temple is not shown at all as in Giovanni Bellini’s “Nunc Dimittis” (1505-10, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), which sets the meeting against a landscape. Sometimes the figures are set against darkness as in Bellini’s “Presentation of Christ” (c. 1470-75, Museo della Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice).
However, in the 16th Century Venice it became common practice to show the child being passed from Mary to Simeon and to show a “church-like” Temple setting with an altar at which the child was presented. In this work, Tintoretto shows the child who is about to be taken into the hands of Simeon at the centre. The pale skin of the child is surrounded by the white of the altar cloth, the doves and Simeon’s sleeves and beard. This blaze of white is surrounded by darker tones and then darkness. You can imagine how this painting would have looked during a Mass, lit by candles burning on the actual altar below it, and how anyone attending the Mass would easily make the connection between the child on the altar above and the sacrament on the altar below. Tintoretto’s use of light and darkness reflects the theme of Christ as the Saviour and the words of Simeon : “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32). However, one of the most interesting things about this image is to be found in the background detail. Two men are holding processional candles. It is thought that in Venetian art, this is the earliest example of a paining of the Presentation which has candles included. And yet, at the time of Tintoretto, on the Feast of the Presentation every parish in Venice would have had the blessing of lit candles and a procession along the surrounding streets. The Feast of the Presentation was a particularly significant day for the Confraternity of Fishmongers. Their rule obliged all members to attend Mass on that day at their chapel. In the background of the painting twelve men are shown, two of whom bear lit candles. In fact, the group in charge of the confraternity were 12 in number and, if you look closely at the faces which emerge from the darkness, you will see that these faces might be their portraits. So you must imagine the candle lit scene with these humble but proud fishmongers gathered before the altar of their own chapel, gazing at Christ child and themselves, or later on their forebears, looking on, and with candles blessed and lit, ready to process out and bear his light into the life of the surrounding streets.
I am indebted to Joseph Hammond’s research and his excellent article on this painting
Hammond, Joseph. ‘Tintoretto and the Presentation of Christ: The Altar of the Purification in Santa Maria Dei Carmini, Venice’. <i>Artibus et Historiae</i> 34, no. 68 (2013): 203–17.
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