Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen


The Miracle of Saint Mark freeing the Slave

Jacopo Robusti called Il Tintoretto (1512-1594). Galleria dell’ Academia – Venice. 1548.

Saint Mark heals Ananias

Giovanni Battista da Conegliano called Cima da Conegliano (1459/1460-1517/1518). Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer Kulturbesitz. Berlin. 1499.

Mark was the author of the second Gospel. He was not an apostle but one of the disciples of who is only told after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ is told that Mark went with Paul and Barnabas on the first mission. But Mark left them at Perga in Pamphylia and he turned back to Jerusalem. Later, Barnabas suggested taking Mark on a new mission, but Paul was not in favour of taking him along. There was heavy disagreement over Mark between Paul and Barnabas so that the two parted company. Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus, and Paul took Silas to Syria. Still later in the Acts, there is made a mention of Mark in Rome. Mark also accompanied or helped Peter and it is thought that Mark wrote down the Gospel as he had heard it from Peter. Mark allegedly travelled to Alexandria on demand of Peter, where he died.

Saint Mark’s relics were preserved in Alexandria of Egypt. According to legend, two merchants brought Saint Mark’s body in the ninth century, in 828, to Venice. They stole the relics of course. The ‘Golden Legend’ tells of many miracles that happened out at sea. Once in Venice, the relics had to be hidden for the clergy of Alexandria were making claims on them. The relics were put inside the San Giacomo pillar, close to the altar of the Sacraments in the chapel of the castle of the Doge. The relics stayed there but were ‘found back’ miraculously in 1094 under the Doge Vitale Falier and then brought inside the crypt of the basilica. According to the ‘Golden Legend’ of course, the finding was mysterious. For once the persons who had hidden at first the relics had died, no one knew anymore where they were. But after prayers the stones bounced from the column and the casket that contained the saint’s bones was visible.

Various churches were built in Venice for the devotion of the relics of Mark. A first church was already erected in 978. The current imposing Basilica of Saint Mark was consecrated in the same year 1094 that the relics were recovered. Mark had become the patron saint of the most famous port of the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Hence most paintings of Saint Mark themes were made by Venetian artists like Giovanni Bellini, Palma Vecchio and Jacopo Tintoretto.

Many legends were told in the lagoon town on Saint Mark. Venetian painters have made many pictures of these themes. There is for instance Mark’s shipwreck painted by Paolo Veneziano of the fourteenth century. And when the body of Mark was brought by the merchants through the lagoon, an angel would have pronounced the words ‘Pax Tibi Marce, Evangelista meus’, signalling that now according to the wish of God Mark would rest in peace for eternity in Venice. According to another legend Saint Mark gave the bridal ring of the Doges, by which Venice was married to the sea. In fact, Pope Alexander III would have presented this ring to the Doge as a symbol of the Venetian power over the Adriatic Sea. But legend superseded historic memory. The day of the marriage of Venice to the sea is on Ascension Day. Then is held the Vogalonga, or the ‘long contest’. Competitors in all sorts of boats roam for thirty kilometres to reach the island of Burano and then return to Venice. Venice was fecund with many vivacious legends, not just on it’s Saint Mark but also on a relic of Jesus’s cross. A piece of the Holy Cross was lost in the lagoon and miraculously recuperated by the Doge. The legends gave rise to many feasts, for which Venice is still famous.

One of the many stories of Saint Mark was ‘Mark freeing a Slave’. Jacopo Tintoretto made a painting of this theme among many other scenes of Mark’s life. Tintoretto (1518-1594) was a trueborn Venetian and he rarely left his hometown. He worked mainly for the Scuole of Venice. He was a contemporary of Titian (c.1490-1576), of Lorenzo Lotto (c.1480-1556) and of Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). In 1548 Titian was away from Venice and Jacopo Tintoretto received a commission for the Scuola Grande di San Marco that established his fame. Since this Scuola was connected to the patron saint of Venice, Tintoretto could not but paint a scene of Mark’s life. The Scuole are very ancient institutions in Venice. They are guilds or confraternities founded for the mutual assistance of the merchants and for charity. Pietro Lombardo who had also worked on the palace of the Doges had built the house of the Scuola di San Marco in 1489. Tintoretto was the main decorator of the building.

Tintoretto chose the ‘Miracle of Saint Mark freeing a Slave’; maybe to underscore the freedom of the Venetian Republic and the charity delivered by the Scuole. In the legend a slave was being drawn through the streets of Venice and being tortured. The slave was to be executed on the cross. Saint Mark descended from heaven to succour the slave and free him from his torturers. This legend may be a blend of two tales of the 'Golden Legend’.

One of the stories refers to the life of Mark himself. In Alexandria Mark built churches and the temple priests attacked him for that. They put a rope around his neck and dragged Mark through the city so that he was severely wounded. Straps of his flesh were torn away. When the Alexandrian priests wanted to repeat their act the next day, Mark expired. In another story, the servant of a provincial noble had made a vow to visit the body of Saint Mark. His master refused to let him go but he left anyway. The master ordered to have the servant’s eyes put out. But as the ruffians were poking at his eyes, the man prayed to Mark and the torturers got nowhere with the sharp sticks. Then the master ordered to break the man’s legs and to cut off his feet, but the iron of the tools melted to lead. When the cruel master commanded to smash in the teeth of the unfortunate servant, the iron of the hammers was blunted. Then the master recognised a miracle, begged God’s pardon and together with his servant visited the tomb of Mark in true devotion.

Jacopo Tintoretto painted the exact moment at which Mark fell down like a hawk into the tumult of the streets of Venice. The picture is an astounding chaos. All figures are in frantic movement. All have various gestures of surprise, of cruelty, anger, curiosity, pain, of expectancy and of fright. People are standing, seating, kneeling, lying down, crouching from under each other’s legs, and even flying (Saint Mark). Tintoretto sought dramatic effect as no other painter and he did it on a grand scale. Tintoretto stunned the viewer with movement, colours and nervous composition.

The background of the painting is an astonishing amalgam of classic and sixteenth century architectural structures, as well as of trees and bushes. The whole scene is set inside a square pergola so that it looks like a staged theatre scene. Saint Mark falls down on the slave, as a person would be lowered down on a stage. Saint Mark’s body is extremely foreshortened and the effects of the light that comes from the left side is particularly striking. The background in vague, light colours also resembles a theatre decoration. There are an astonishing variety of costumes, as one would only expect on the stage of an opera. There are oriental robes, soldiers’ cuirasses, ladies in bright cloaks, and all sorts of hats. The scene could be set in Alexandria for all the Orientalism that is introduced in this picture. All this then is shown in brilliant and diverse colours. Tintoretto was still young and he had not yet reached his fierce hues but dark tones of later age.

As we found so many times in pictures of chaotic, emotional scenes however, there is a strong underlying structure in the painting of Tintoretto. He used a structure in ‘V’ form that has its lowest tip on the slave and the lines of which go to the two upper corners of the frame. Thus a right line goes from the whitely lit slave over a torturer who shows the useless hammer and peg to the slave owner. This cruel master almost reaches to the top of the right border of the frame. But Tintoretto also used the stage construction that can be found in many Venetian pictures as for instance of the younger artists Paolo Veronese. All figures are painted in the lower band, whereas the frontispieces and the garden architecture form a higher band. To balance on left and right the upward movement of the lines, Tintoretto painted two half-standing figures both clothed in red. The figure in red on the right is the owner of the slave overseeing the execution. The most dramatic movement of an executioner showing the instruments of torture, pointed pegs and hammer draws the view to this elder, throning man on the right. Most dramatic is Saint Mark homing in from above on the slave.

Venetian painting reached its zenith with Titian, Palma Vecchio, Lotto, Tintoretto and Veronese in the sixteenth century. The seventeenth century would be a period of decline of Venetian pictorial arts. Art rolled on from the impetus of Tintoretto and Veronese, but it did neither innovate nor reached the depth of emotions and spirituality of the previous times. Tintoretto with his epic scale of representation, his grandiose decorations was the last outburst of energy of a society. Venetian art would have a comeback in the eighteenth century with Tiepolo, Canaletto and Guardi, but then it would disappear as a particular school together with the destruction of the Venetian republic itself.

Cima da Conegliano

Cima da Conegliano, who made the painting of ‘Saint Mark healing Ananias’, was of course also a Venetian artist. He was born in Conegliano near Venice around 1460. He worked first in Vicenza and Cima may have been the pupil of Bartolommeo Montagna there. From 1492 on however, he was in Venice and remained there all his life, until his death in 1518. His father was a ‘cimator’ or cloth-shearer, hence his name. He lived in the most splendid days of the high renaissance, just before its art would evolve in mannerism, and he was a contemporary of Giovanni Bellini in Venice and of course of the great Florentines such as Andrea Mantegna, Raphael and Michelangelo Buonarotti. The painting of Cima that we present here was made for the chapel of the silk weavers in the church of Santa Maria dei Crociferi in Venice D19 .

Many Venetian painters made pictures on themes from the legends of the patron saint of their town. Cima chose a scene of Mark’s life in Alexandria. A cobbler lived there close to mark’s house and one day the cobbler injured his hand with an awl. Mark healed Ananias miraculously. Ananias allowed himself to be baptised. He converted to Christianity he became Bishop of Alexandria after Mark’s death.

Cima da Conegliano showed an imaginary town’s place of Alexandria. The cobbler Ananias sits on a low chair with his tools on the ground next to him, and he tends his hand to Saint Mark. A miracle is in the making, so a group of merchants and other bystanders dressed with white turbans have gathered. The scene is set against marvellous Renaissance buildings, on which the various coloured marbles show the grandeur of the largest town of the Mediterranean in Mark’s times, Alexandria. Only in Italy of course were buildings thus covered with marbles, but Cima wanted to show mainly the wealth as his spectators knew it. Alexandria and Egypt were Mohammedan in Cima’s fifteenth century. But Cima knew Venice’s churches only, and saw how they were built with Greek friezes and columns, and covered with coloured marbles for the richest congregations of Venice. The use of such rich marble was less overwhelming in Venice than in Florence and Pisa, and Venetian churches were less grand. But Cima had to evoke in the viewer a good impression of Alexandria’s wealth, so he drew the imposing Renaissance architecture behind Saint Mark. Since Alexandria was Muslim, he showed a minaret tower in the middle of the building, as if of a mosque. But Cima da Conegliano did not know well Muslim temples, which had very slim minarets, so he did his best but painted a broad, round tower on top of the building. Muslim minarets allow only the Mullah’s on their minarets. They call all Muslims to prayer from the towers, and they call in all directions. Cima also drew a balustrade around the tower, but the balustrade is more used for sightseeing and several people walk there. The naïve way in which Cima thus painted a mosque is quite touching.

Cima painted a fine, richly decorated colonnade to the left of the frame and this architecture allowed him to draw a very strong set of fleeing lines, which from a very pronounced perspective. This perspective was necessary for Cima to create a feeling of space in the viewer, for the central buildings are parallel to the viewer, and so are the figures. The viewer has immediately, and by this aspect of the picture alone, a very strong sense of the space of the Alexandrian square. Of course, we see how the building’s base is situated a little higher than the figures, in the illusion of how a viewer would see the square. We must admire the patience and dedication that Cima applied to make a picture of a grand scene that was worthy of the leaders and members of the ‘Arte dei Setaiuoli’ or Association of Silk-Weavers of Venice for which the picture was made. A marvellous bright light whitens the buildings, but Cima also depicted very soft shadows behind the front part, to the left, and also on the tower, suggesting that the light enters the scene from the right of the frame.

The scene of figures in centred on the cobbler Ananias. So Cima brought the attention of the viewer to the left lower corner. The figure of Ananias I a little isolated in the group, so more easily perceived. If the viewer starts to look at Ananias first, his or her eyes will go over Ananias’ outstretched hands towards Mark and over Mark’s high profile to the horse-rider, who leads the eyes further upwards onto the towers of the mosque, the feature in the painting that must have been the pride of Cima. Cima guides the viewer thus nicely over the main features of the painting in a subtle way. Few painters take care of such details or have not learned enough from their predecessors and teachers to be even aware of such techniques. Cima had the knowledge, the intelligence and the intuition to design his placing of figures to thus guide the view. Guiding the view means holding the attention of the viewer longer; the viewer stays longer before the painting and admires it more.

In the scene of figures around the cobbler Ananias, most of the bystanders wear turbans and that is an element of Orientalism in the picture. Only Mark and his assistant wear no Muslim turban and thus are shown to be Christians. The scene is lively, as the men look at the cobbler, but they remain dignified. They all stand and do not move around. There are no women in the picture, since indeed in Muslim countries women were rather confined to the interior of their houses. Ananias shows his hand. He has just struck through it with his pick. A reference to a cutting knife is also with the figure behind Ananias; here a man prepares the pieces of leather that Ananias will use on the shoes, and that man holds a knife very visibly.

In the scene of the men, Cima da Conegliano used colours of high intensity but with nicely harmonising hues. Look at the foremost, leftmost man behind Ananias. This man wears a striped robe but between the green and the blue stripes, Cima drew a red band. Red harmonises in contrast with its complementary hue of green, but Cima’s red is deep enough not to look harsh and wrong next to the blue. Putting green and blue together would have modified these hues and not he harmonious. The cobbler wears green and the complementary red too, while Jesus is clad in a blue cloak and a red robe but this red colour definitely tends to purple to harmonise relatively well enough with the blue. The Christian assistant of Mark wears blue and gold, which are complementary colours also. The rich Muslim in the middle wears a white robe but on this cloth Cima painted very dark blue motives and golden patterns. The horse-rider has a green robe and a red hat. It is almost as if Cima da Conegliano had discovered for himself the rules of complementarity of hues and the harmony of contrast of these complementary hues. When we look then at the buildings, we find here much broken white in various ones, soft orange and brown and these last with a vaguely green background. Since all these hues are in the same tone, Cima has used harmony of tones, which is usually also a very pleasant combination to the eye. He placed the softer tones and softer intensities of hues to show a less obtrusive background and concentrated intuitively the attention of the viewer on the vivid, strong hues of much higher intensity in the foreground. The main scene is thus emphasised in vividness, liveliness of hues and catches more the eye of the viewer, whereas the background – which was even maybe already too loaded with decoration – stayed more in the background.

Cima painted shadows beneath the figures. This was a rare element for the Renaissance. Cima did give the viewer thus a surer impression of the direction of light. Usually in Renaissance paintings, it is more by the chiaroscuro on the robes and cloaks of the figures that one guesses where the light comes from. Cima however was very delicate and frugal with his chiaroscuro on the clothes of his personages, so he underscored the shadows on the ground.

Cima’s composition is rather rigid, as he emphasised the vertical directions in his picture. He painted clear areas of colour, very well delineated areas, and even harsh contrasts of colours in his figures. His figures are long and slim, and their robes do not flow in any wind but are also drawn in long, straight lines. The result of this is that, although the scene is quite lively, the viewer receives an impression of coldness and dignified distance between the figures and the viewer. The viewer stays some away, is not really involved in the scene, and remains the outside spectator. No personage looks at the viewer. All The looks of the figures are held within the scene. These features allow the viewer not to commit to the emotions of the cobbler and of Mark, but also evoke in the viewer a feeling of cold, of a halting moment that perpetuates and that belongs to the world of legends, as well as of a scene of outworldly dignity. This effect was of course expressly sought by Cima and it was indeed a main feature of most Renaissance pictures. Were it not for the wonderfully strong hues, we might believe that Cima had been born and taught in Florence.

Cima da Conegliano’s ‘Markus heals Ananias’ is not art that grips the viewer at his or her guts. The viewer is not immediately overwhelmed with strong emotions, but the painting belongs to those pictures that live by themselves in the world of self-sufficient masterpieces.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.