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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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] [fig. 1] After Raphael, The Conversion of Saint Paul, based on a cartoon by Raphael from the series Acts of the Apostles, 16th century, tapestry, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua. © DeA Picture Library / Art Resource, NY, 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. 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] [fig. 2] Titian, Preparatory drawing for the Battle of Spoleto, c. 1538, charcoal and black chalk, brown wash, heightened with white, squared for transfer, on blue paper, Musée du Louvre, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais / Michèle Bellot / Art Resource, NY, 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] [fig. 3] Niccolò Vicentino, after Pordenone, Marcus Curtius, 1530/1560, chiaroscuro woodcut from three blocks in green, British Museum, London. © Trustees of the British Museum 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). 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.
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] [fig. 4] Andrea Schiavone, The Conversion of Saint Paul, 1540/1545, oil on canvas, Museo Querini-Stampalia, Venice. De Agostoni Picture Library / A. Dagli Orti / Bridgeman Images cannot be dated firmly, it was probably executed at roughly the same time as Tintoretto’s version. 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.
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; in a version purchased by Diego Velázquez for King Philip IV; 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. 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.” (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.” (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.” 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. 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.
March 21, 2019