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Robert Echols, “Jacopo Tintoretto/The Conversion of Saint Paul/c. 1544,” Italian Paintings of the Sixteenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed May 20, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2019 Version

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Before he became known as Saint Paul, Saul was a persecutor of Christians. This early painting by the Venetian master Jacopo Tintoretto depicts the moment that led to Saul’s conversion. As described in Acts 9:3–7, he traveled from Jerusalem to Damascus to destroy the churches there. As Saul and his troops approached the city, he saw a flash of light around him and, falling to the ground, heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Tintoretto portrayed the scene as utter chaos. Frightened men and horses tangle and crash to the ground. Their terror seems to reverberate around them as ominous clouds and a strong wind seize upon the landscape.

In the artist’s time, the theme of Saint Paul’s conversion was a popular subject—one that provided painters an opportunity to show their skills. The ambitious young Tintoretto had studied works by masters including Raphael (Marchigian, 1483 - 1520) and Titian (Venetian, 1488/1490 - 1576), and his own bold treatment seems to challenge them. But while referring to their works, Tintoretto’s painting resets them within a broader, more dynamic scene. Also contributing to the energy of the picture is the artist’s varied brushwork, which in some areas is strikingly free.


The conversion of Saint Paul, known as Saul in his earlier life, is described in Acts 9:3–7. Saul, a persecutor of Christians, was sent from Jerusalem to Damascus to stamp out the churches there. As he neared the city with his troops, a great light flashed around him; he fell to the ground and heard a voice speak, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The theme was a popular subject for artists in the 16th century. From a religious perspective, the image of Christ winning over Saul represented divine power and specifically the victory of the Church over its enemies. For artists, the story provided an opportunity to show off their skills in what often came to be treated as a battle scene, although the biblical text states only that Saul’s companions heard the sound but saw nothing.[1]

In the Gallery’s painting, the high drama of the episode is raised to the level of pandemonium. In the moment immediately after the thunderous voice of the divinity has sounded, shock waves still reverberate through the scene. A mighty wind whips banners, sails, and trees; the waves roil; clouds roll down from the sky to hide the distant mountains. Horses plunge in terror, throwing their riders and trampling men underfoot. Three horses fall down a fantastic outdoor stairway, one upside down, his rider beneath him. On the far shore a riderless group gallops away in panic. A soldier holds his hands to his head. A ruptured drum lies on the ground.[2]

The picture is unmistakably an early work by Jacopo Tintoretto and has been accepted as a key document of the artist’s youthful career for the past half century.[3] As in other works from this phase, such as the Supper at Emmaus (Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest) and Christ among the Doctors (Museo del Duomo, Milan), the extreme dynamism seems intended to challenge and even shock, as does the unconventional pictorial technique.[4] The brushwork in some passages is strikingly varied, bold, and free—for example, in the horses galloping in the background and the sailboat just beneath them, painted so gauzily that only a ghost of the original image remains today. Other parts of the picture are unfinished in a conventional sense: the head of the mounted soldier on the bridge silhouetted against the banner is represented with a single circular brushstroke; the waves in the water are rendered with a few quick strokes of dry white paint, clearly showing the mark of the individual brush hairs. Tintoretto’s familiar early palette of isolated, high-keyed colors—bold greens, yellows, blues, pinks, and reds—is set off here against areas of brown and gray, which have darkened over the centuries, making the bright colors appear out of key. The increased transparency of the paint layers over the centuries has made it evident that Tintoretto painted the figure of Saint Paul first in the nude, then added the garment on top of the nude figure (see Technical Summary). The same is true of the figure of Apollo in the Contest of Apollo and Marsyas (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford), which shows a similar palette and figure types. Although any chronology of Tintoretto’s early works must remain somewhat speculative, the Gallery’s picture might reasonably be placed shortly before the Hartford painting, which is the subject of a letter by Pietro Aretino of January 1545.[5]

As in other early paintings, the ambitious young artist sets up an implicit challenge to the great masters of the present and recent past through references to some of their most celebrated works.[6] His Saul is based on the same figure in what would have been the most famous depiction of the scene at that time, Raphael’s design for the Sistine Chapel tapestry of the subject [fig. 1], the cartoon for which was then in Venice in the collection of the patricians Giovanni and Vettor Grimani. Also, a version of the tapestry was in the collection of Zuanantonio Venier.[7] The setting and battle imagery are derived from one of the most prominent paintings in Venice, Titian’s Battle of Spoleto in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Palazzo Ducale, completed in 1538, and now known only from a compositional drawing (Département des Arts Graphiques, Musée du Louvre, Paris) [fig. 2], copies, and prints (the painting was destroyed by fire in 1577). From Titian’s lost masterpiece Tintoretto took his arrangement of water, bridge, hillside, and distant panorama, as well as his vision of nature echoing the maelstrom of men and horses. The white horse plunging out of the picture space at left evokes another much praised Venetian work, Pordenone’s facade fresco for the Palazzo Talenti (later d’Anna), depicting Martius Curtius leaping on horseback into the void, known today only from prints [fig. 3] and a compositional drawing. Pordenone had been Titian’s chief rival up until his death in 1539, and the young Tintoretto seems to have sought to set himself up as the inheritor of that mantle. Tintoretto’s painting is also similar to a drawing by Pordenone of the Conversion of Saint Paul (Morgan Library and Museum, New York).[8] Indeed, the whole atmosphere of explosive violence and chaotic action in Tintoretto’s picture embodies the characteristics that Pordenone brought to Venetian painting during the brief period of his ascendancy in the mid- to late 1530s. In addition, the figure in the water in the lower right seems to echo one of the fallen giants in Giulio Romano’s Sala dei Giganti, which Tintoretto probably saw on a visit to Mantua in the early 1540s.[9]

Tintoretto’s picture also documents the relationship of his early works to the art of Andrea Schiavone, who is mentioned by Carlo Ridolfi and others as a painter whom Tintoretto especially admired and emulated. Although Schiavone’s The Conversion of Saint Paul (Pinacoteca Querini-Stampalia, Venice) [fig. 4] cannot be dated firmly, it was probably executed at roughly the same time as Tintoretto’s version.[10] By this point in their respective careers, Schiavone may have taken as much inspiration from Tintoretto as the younger artist did from the elder. While Tintoretto’s waving banners show something of the cursive elegance and free brushwork of Schiavone’s, the latter’s treatment is more dynamic than is usual for him, and may reflect an earlier version by Tintoretto, such as the one painted in fresco on the facade of the Palazzo Zen ai Crociferi, where, according to Ridolfi, Tintoretto had assisted Schiavone in order to learn his techniques.[11]

Although the Gallery’s Conversion of Saint Paul is the only known surviving example of the subject by Tintoretto, he painted it a number of times: as a fresco on a Venetian palace facade (Palazzo Zen ai Crociferi, mentioned previously); on the outer doors of the organ shutters for Santa Maria del Giglio;[12] in a version purchased by Diego Velázquez for King Philip IV;[13] and in several works documented in Venetian private collections. Descriptions of the latter suggest that they shared the large cast, explosive drama, and panoramic vista of the Washington picture. The Gallery’s picture was probably painted for the central hall of a private Venetian palace, which were frequently adorned with large pictures in a horizontal format, many with a martial cast.[14] A 1632 inventory of the collection of Roberto Canonici lists a “Saint Paul by Giacomo Tintoretto, who falls from his horse, accompanied by many others also on horseback, who from fear are driven to flight and rush away precipitously in different directions.”[15] (This version is presumed to have been lost in a fire that destroyed the collection in 1638.) Ridolfi describes in the collection of Senator Gussoni a “Saint Paul being converted by the voice of Christ, and as he falls from his horse we see his followers fleeing in terror in many directions.”[16] (This is unlikely to be the Washington picture because Ridolfi describes it as one of two “piccole historiette.”) A version in the collection of Nicolo Cornaro was described as “beautifully large, with many horsemen.”[17] The Washington picture’s early provenance seems most likely to be related to a version of almost exactly the same dimensions in the picture gallery of the Palazzo Pisani a Santo Stefano, inventoried by Pietro Edwards in 1809.[18] However, no link can be established between the Pisani painting and the first documented appearance of the Gallery’s painting in the Kinnaird collection in 1857.

Robert Echols

March 21, 2019


Probably Palazzo Pisani a Santo Stefano until c. 1809.[1] George William Fox, 9th baron Kinnaird [1807-1878], Rossie Priory, Perthshire, Scotland, by 1857.[2] Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi [1878-1955], Florence, by 1939;[3] sold June 1954 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[4] gift 1961 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Tintoretto, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2007, no. 3, repro.
Tintoret: Naissance d'un génie, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne; Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 2017-2018, no. 5, repro.
Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia and Palazzo Ducale, Venice; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2018-2019, no. 70, repro.

Technical Summary

The support appears to be formed of at least two pieces of open, plain-weave fabric, joined with a horizontal seam. The seam is located approximately one-third from the bottom of the painting and stands slightly proud of the surface. The cusping along all four sides indicates that the picture probably retains its original dimensions. The x-radiographs indicate that the warm, off-white ground may have been applied with a spatula or knife in sweeping, arched lines. On top of this, the artist applied a dark layer, which he left visible in some areas. The lighter areas of the composition were then blocked in with light-colored paint. Fluid drawing is visible with the naked eye both on top of and under the paint. The increasing transparency of the paint allows us to see that the artist painted the figure of Paul first in the nude, then adding his armor, a technique that Tintoretto used throughout his career.

In places, the dark colors have deteriorated and darkened, making the highlights appear out of key. The paint surface is abraded, especially in the clouds and vegetation in the upper section and in the white horse on the left. There are numerous complex tears and areas of retouching, many of which have become discolored and have developed a glossier sheen than the surrounding areas. In 1955 Mario Modestini removed a discolored varnish, inpainted, and relined the picture.

Robert Echols and Joanna Dunn based on the examination report by Ann Hoenigswald

March 21, 2019


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Suida, Wilhelm. “Zwei unbekannte Werke Tintorettos.” Pantheon 23 (1939): 122, repro., 123-125.
Bercken, Erich von der. Die Gemälde des Jacopo Tintoretto. Munich, 1942: 96, 100, fig. 46.
Pallucchini, Rodolfo. La giovinezza del Tintoretto. Milan, 1950: 86-87, figs. 113-115.
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Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection Acquired by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation 1951-56. Introduction by John Walker, text by William E. Suida and Fern Rusk Shapley. National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1956: 174, no. 69, repro.
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Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Venetian School. 2 vols. London, 1957: 1:176.
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Ballarin, Alessandro. “Jacopo Bassano e lo studio del Rafaello e dei Salviati.” Arte Veneta 21 (1967): 98.
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