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.
Today is Maundy Thursday. The event commemorated on this day in holy week is the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet. I want to share a portion of this devotional based on the work of Tintoretto entitled “Christ Washing the Disciple’s Feet.” The full video and PDF along with more devotionals like this are on the courses page under Lent Devotionals. There you can purchase all 20 visual devotionals that you can use all year but especially during Easter Season.
Tintoretto was a man who had many different names. Early on he was known as Jacopo Comin, his last name is a derivative of the spice cumin. Then he became known as Jacopo Robusti. His father earned a reputation as a robust fighter in the Venetian Wars. People began to refer to him as Robusti, and that became the family moniker. Tintoretto was also known as El Furioso because he painted with such energy and speed.
The name that seems to have stuck across centuries is Tintoretto, which means “little dyer.” Tintoretto’s father, Giovanni, was a dyer of fabric and so he was known as the “Dyer’s little boy,” or the “little dyer.”
Tintoretto was the eldest of 21 children and showed an artistic bent quite early. He used to draw on the walls of his Father’s workshop. His father recognized his talent and took his son to the workshop of Titian to be trained.
Titian took him on as an apprentice. Tintoretto only lasted 10 days due to jealousy on the part of Titian. When Titian found out that the drawings he was looking at were those of this young, untrained boy he sent him home claiming he wasn’t trainable. True or not, Tintoretto continued to admire Titian and his work. Titian, on the other hand, had a lot of unflattering things to say about Tintoretto.
Some of the negative comments were due to Tintoretto’s fast, loose, brush strokes and the emotional style that he adopted. While Tintoretto’s style would eventually gain popularity, at this time it was considered lazy. Often innovators are looked down on by their contemporaries, and innovations are not valued until later.
Tintoretto was known for painting quickly and with an energy that transferred itself to the canvas. He ignored the many critics who were unimpressed with his brushwork.
Tintoretto 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. He 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.
Giorgio Vasari, a Florentine art critic and biographer, had this to say about Tintoretto:
“Had he not abandoned the track but rather followed the beautiful style of his predecessors he would have become one of the greatest painters in Venice.”
Instead Vasari felt Tintoretto’s work was careless, eccentric, and his drawings were downright crude.
Often great innovators in art concentrate on what they feel are essential elements. They tend not to worry as much about the technical perfection that others might expect. That was definitely the case with Tintoretto.
In Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper we find a careful composition, perfect balance, even lighting, and perfect, invisible brush strokes. While there are plenty of details to consider the overall feeling of the painting is serenity and beauty. This is the quintessential High Renaissance work.
On the other hand, with Tintoretto we have diagonal compositions, uneven groupings and drama.
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. It is presently housed in the Museo del Prado in Spain.
The Reading: Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet
When we view the painting one of the first things that we notice, as we do with many of the works in the series, we are in a beautiful Renaissance hall with grand architecture and a beautiful view out the back.
Like El Greco’s cleansing of the temple, Tintoretto is trying to show us the timelessness of the story. This is a very complex painting to read, with a large group of characters and iconography that might be missed. So, before we get to the reading of the painting I want to read the portion of the Bible that Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet comes from so the details will be fresh in our minds. I’m going to be reading John 13 from the New International Version:
1 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.2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 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. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” 9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” 10 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.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. 12 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. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 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 place him just slightly off center but in a bottom corner which adds an interesting element to how we read the story.
Beyond that Tintoretto doesn’t just put Christ in a corner, but the rest of the disciples are scattered about in groups that leave large open spaces in the painting.
Beyond lending drama and the unexpected to his painting, Tintoretto knew where this painting was going to be hung, 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 wouldn’t have a straight on view of the painting. 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 when viewed from the side.
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.
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 can’t wash my feet.”
The painting appears nearly theatrical. It’s as if we’ve walked in on a play and someone yelled freeze at this moment in the story. 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, which are probably the first ones that you noticed, are almost comic. Pulling off each other’s boots, 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, he is separate from the rest and 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 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.
A View into the Past
We have an odd detail up in the upper right-hand corner of the painting. The top right corner has a doorway where we can see into a little room. All the disciples and Christ are in that room having the Last Supper. They are right across the middle of the painting, and we have this view into the immediate past in that room.
When we read the story, we notice that 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. We are reminded of that because we have this view up in the corner of the Last Supper meal happening. This is also a nod to the fact that this painting was going to be hung right across from Tintoretto’s painting of The Last Supper, so he’s included it in this painting.
In case we need further reminders that this is the Passover meal, and the beginning of our practice of communion, on the table where all the disciples are sitting, there is still a loaf of bread and a jug of wine. The Eucharist is present.
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 you could enter either Paradise or Hell depending on how your 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 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.
Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet – Summary
This painting of “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet” is set in a Renaissance Palace. This emphasizes the message that this story is outside of time. We’ve had him remind us of that by putting the Last Supper the past that’s already happened in one corner, the present is going across the center of the painting, and we see the future in the background. We have all of those. But the story itself, of Christ humbling himself and washing the disciple’s feet is also a timeless story. No matter when you live, whether in the Renaissance, in Christ’s day, or today, the message remains pertinent and Timeless.
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, and it 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 meaning. They were used to denote faithfulness and fidelity or sometimes guidance and protection. Maybe Tintoretto included the dog to signify those things.