Tintoretto’s Washing of the Feet

October 24th 2020

“The Washing of the Feet”,  Tintoretto, c.1547-48, Museo del Prado, Madrid.   You can see this picture in higher resolution on the Prado website at

Tintoretto painted this scene for the righthand wall of the apse of the Church of San Marcuola in Venice.  This large picture is to be viewed from the righthand side as it would have been seen in situ.  For the lefthand wall of the apse, he painted a companion piece showing the Last Supper which is still in San Marcuola.  He includes the Last Supper in this picture too.  It is through the arch just above the head of Christ. It should be mentioned that Tintoretto painted another very similar version of this same scene because it now hangs in the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead.  On the extreme right and nearest the viewer,  Christ kneels with a towel around his waist.  He is  about to wash St Peter’s feet.  On the far left, one of the Twelve is putting on his sandals.   Sometimes this figure is identified as Judas but, if so, there is no reference here to his betrayal of Jesus.  Like all the others, he is shown with a halo.  

But it is what is happening in the background of this painting which is most intriguing.  First, there is the strangely grandiose architectural setting.  Secondly, there is the odd way he shows the Apostles.  They are shown as ordinary lower class Venetians, who look out of place in this grand palace.  One critic said that they looked like a bunch of gondoliers, and perhaps they do! While some of them sit at a table others are overly concerned with their leggings.  The one standing to the right of the table is shown trying to pull on a legging, while another pair have got down on the floor,  as one attempts to pull off a legging from the other.  It is not very dignified.      

In fact, there are many ways to view this picture and it is likely that Tintoretto intended it to be seen differently by different people.  “Tintoretto” was a nick name he had been given. It meant “little dyer”.  He was given this nickname because his father was a dyer of silk.  This would suggest that his origins were humble.  But just how humble his origins were is not known.  But this story about his origins suited him. He adopted his nickname and signed himself  as “Tintoretto”.  It is worth noting that he got many of his commissions from parish confraternities, whose members were ordinary Venetians.   To show the Apostles as ordinary fishermen may have been so that members of a confraternity could more easily identify with these first disciples. The seemingly comic attempt of one Apostle to remove the other’s legging might have been seen by them as a simple act of fraternal charity.

The city of Venice itself was believed to have originated as a small settlement of fishing folk, who were said to have lived together in equality.  Venice was a republic and some contemporary writers, with whom Tintoretto had links, made the connection between the democratic republic and this founding myth.   In their writing they often portrayed ordinary folk as comic figures, but this did not preclude such characters from speaking wisely and with moral authority.  Tintoretto may have sought to achieve in paint what they achieved in ink.  It is no accident that the grand architectural setting looks like a theatre set.  In fact, it is taken from a contemporary illustration of a theatrical scene.  The antics of Apostles in the background do look like they might be from a comic scene on stage.  But to my eye at least, this grand vista brings out the contrast between the wealth and sophistication of Sixteenth Century Venice and the humble simplicity of the first fishers of men.  But what Tintoretto was up to in the way he shows the Apostles in this work remains a matter for speculation.   We celebrate the Feast of the Apostles Simon and Jude this coming Wednesday.  

Tintoretto’s Washing of the Feet

Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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