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
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.
On the history of this theme in Renaissance painting, see generally Thomas Martone, The Theme of the Conversion of Saint Paul in Italian Paintings from the Earlier Christian Period to the High Renaissance (PhD diss., New York University, 1978; New York, 1985); see also Guillaume Cassegrain, “‘Ces choses ont été des figures de ce qui nous concerne’: Une lecture de la ‘Conversion de Saint Paul’ du Tintoret,” Venezia Cinquecento 6 (1996): 56.
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.
Thomas Martone, The Theme of the Conversion of Saint Paul in Italian Paintings from the Earlier Christian Period to the High Renaissance (PhD diss., New York University, 1978; New York, 1985), 214–215, related the staircases in the painting to Jacob’s ladder, citing associations between Saint Paul and Jacob’s dream made in sermons by Saint Jerome, where the rock that serves as Jacob’s pillow is seen as a prefiguration of Christ, the foundation rock of the Church, and the ladder arising from it embodies an image of descent from and ascent to heaven. Martone pointed out that in Tintoretto’s painting, the rock upon which Paul lies is shaped as a stairway, while behind him another stairway leads up to the vision of Christ. Guillaume Cassegrain, “‘Ces choses ont été des figures de ce qui nous concerne’: Une lecture de la ‘Conversion de Saint Paul’ du Tintoret,” Venezia Cinquecento 6 (1996): 55–84, building in part on this argument, offered a detailed interpretation that defines the painting as providing a moral lesson that goes beyond the narrative limits of the theme, invoking but standing apart from two traditions of representation of the conversion of Paul: one portraying Saul overcome by the violence of the divine light and word, and the other emphasizing the moment of revelation and the ecstatic quality of the conversion experience. For Cassegrain, the falling and drowning figures represent false paths to God, and Paul’s conversion becomes an act of divine grace. Jonathan Goldberg, The Seeds of Things: Theorizing Sexuality and Materiality in Renaissance Representations (New York, 2009), 17–30, discusses the painting as the starting point for an interpretation of the Lucretian strain in early modern painting and poetry, as well as contemporary theory.
The picture is unmistakably an early work by
Recent scholars have uniformly accepted the painting as an autograph work by Tintoretto dating from somewhere in the years before 1545: Pierluigi De Vecchi, L’opera completa del Tintoretto (Milan, 1970), 89, no. 27 (c. 1544/1545); Fern Rusk Shapley, Catalogue of the Italian Paintings (Washington, DC, 1979), 1:468 (c. 1545); Rodolfo Pallucchini and Paola Rossi, Tintoretto: Le opere sacre e profane (Venice, 1982), 1:142–143 (c. 1544); Francesco Valcanover and Terisio Pignatti, Tintoretto (New York, 1985), 72 (c. 1545); Roland Krischel, Tintoretto (Reinbek, 1994), 18 (c. 1539); Guillaume Cassegrain, “‘Ces choses ont été des figures de ce qui nous concerne’: Une lecture de la ‘Conversion de Saint Paul’ du Tintoret,” Venezia Cinquecento 6 (1996): 55 (1543/1545); Tom Nichols, Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity (London, 1999), 28 (1540/1542); W. R. Rearick, Il disegno veneziano del Cinquecento (Milan, 2001), 118, 219 (c. 1542); Robert Echols, in Tintoretto, ed. Miguel Falomir (Madrid, 2007), 192–195 (c. 1544); Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman, “Toward a New Tintoretto Catalogue, with a Checklist of Revised Attributions and a New Chronology,” in Jacopo Tintoretto: Actas del congreso internacional/Proceedings of the International Symposium, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, February 26–27, 2007 (Madrid, 2009), 121, no. 32 (c. 1544); Guillaume Cassegrain, Tintoret (Paris, 2010), 12 (1539/1544). Among the earlier scholars listed in the references, the only ones assigning the picture a post-1545 date are Erich von der Bercken, Die Gemälde des Jacopo Tintoretto (Munich, 1942), 96 (1546/1552); and Antonio Morassi, “Review of La giovinezza del Tintoretto, by Rodolfo Pallucchini,” Emporium 115 (1952): 240 (1560/1570). Only Edoardo Arslan, Le pitture del Duomo di Milano (Milan, 1960), 20, showed some hesitation about the attribution.
Rodolfo Pallucchini and Paola Rossi, Tintoretto: Le opere sacre e profane (Venice, 1982), 1: cat. nos. 41 and 42; 2: figs. 48–49 and 50; Miguel Falomir, ed., Tintoretto (Madrid, 2007), 189–191, cat. no. 2. (Christ among the Doctors); Frederick Ilchman et al., Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice (Boston, 2009), 150–152, cat. no. 22 (Supper at Emmaus).
Rodolfo Pallucchini and Paola Rossi, Tintoretto: Le opere sacre e profane (Venice, 1982), 1: cat. no. 82; 2: fig. 103; Miguel Falomir, ed., Tintoretto (Madrid, 2007), 196–199, cat. no. 4.
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.
For example, Christ among the Doctors (Museo del Duomo, Milan) is obviously modeled upon Raphael’s School of Athens; indeed, Paul Hills, “Decorum and Desire in Some Works by Tintoretto,” in Decorum in Renaissance Narrative Art, ed. Francis Ames-Lewis (London, 1992), 109, saw it as a parody of Raphael’s famous work.
Monika Schmitter, “The Quadro da Portego in Sixteenth-Century Venetian Art,” Renaissance Quarterly 64, no. 3 (2011): 716.
The influence of Raphael’s cartoon for the Conversion of Saint Paul, Titian’s Battle of Spoleto (or Battle of Cadore, as it is sometimes called), and Pordenone’s compositions was noted by Wilhelm Suida, “Zwei unbekannte Werke Tintorettos,” Pantheon 23 (1939): 122, and Rodolfo Pallucchini, La giovinezza del Tintoretto (Milan, 1950), 86, and has been discussed by many subsequent scholars. For a detailed analysis of how Tintoretto’s painting reflects these and related sources, see Robert Echols, “Jacopo Tintoretto and Venetian Painting 1538–1548” (PhD diss., University of Maryland, 1993), 130–143. On the Louvre drawing for the Battle of Spoleto, see Le Siècle de Titien. L’Âge d’Or de la Peinture à Venise (Paris, 1993), 574–575, cat. no. 225. Roland Krischel, Jacopo Tintoretto, 1519–1594 (Cologne, 2000), 10, pointed out that Tintoretto’s painting seems closer in some details to the drawing than to the painting as known from copies and prints. On the print after Pordenone’s Marcus Curtius, see David Rosand and Michelangelo Muraro, Titian and the Venetian Woodcut (Washington, DC, 1976), 248, cat. 74. The compositional drawing of the entire facade is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (inv. no. 2306 PD 114); see Miguel Falomir, ed., Tintoretto (Madrid, 2007), fig. 97. A very similar figure of a horse also appears in a drawing by Pordenone of the Conversion of Saint Paul (Morgan Library and Museum, New York); see Tom Nichols, Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity (London, 1999), 30, fig. 9. As Krischel in Tintoretto: A Star Was Born (Cologne, 2017), 84, noted, Tintoretto also seems to have looked closely at an earlier, anonymous, four-block Venetian woodcut of the same subject.
As proposed in Rodolfo Pallucchini and Paola Rossi, Tintoretto: Le opere sacre e profane (Venice, 1982), 1:143. On the likelihood of a trip to Mantua by the young Tintoretto, see Roland Krischel, “Jacopo Tintoretto and Giulio Romano,” in Jacopo Tintoretto: Actas del Congresso Internacional/Proceedings of the International Symposium, ed. Miguel Falomir (Madrid, 2009), 60 and 64 n. 23 with additional references. Several Leonardesque sources identified for the horses in the NGA painting are more speculative. Wilhelm Suida, “Zwei unbekannte Werke Tintorettos,” Pantheon 23 (1939): 122, cited a bronze statuette of a horse and rider by Leonardo da Vinci in Budapest (for the statuette, see Carlo Pedretti, Leonardo: A Study in Chronology and Style [London, 1973], fig. 175), while Guillaume Cassegrain, “‘Ces choses ont été des figures de ce qui nous concerne’: Une lecture de la ‘Conversion de Saint Paul’ du Tintoret,” Venezia Cinquecento 6 (1996): 59, and idem., Tintoret (Paris, 2010), 12–14, proposed the horses in the background of Leonardo’s unfinished painting of the Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi, Florence). W. R. Rearick cited a drawing of a horse formerly in the Türük Collection, Pittsburgh, as a preparatory drawing by Tintoretto for this painting. See W. R. Rearick, “Titian Drawings: A Progress Report,” Artibus et Historiae 23 (1991): 31–32, fig. 24; and W. R. Rearick, Il disegno veneziano del Cinquecento (Milan, 2001), 118, 219.
Tintoretto’s picture also documents the relationship of his early works to the art of
See Francis Richardson, Andrea Schiavone (PhD diss., New York University, 1971; Oxford, 1980), 176–177, cat. no. 296, fig. 61.
Carlo Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell’arte, overo Le vite de gl’illustri pittori veneti, e dello stato (Venice, 1648), 2:7; Carlo Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell’arte, overo Le vite de gl’illustri pittori veneti, e dello stato, ed. Detlev von Hadeln (Berlin, 1924), 2:15. Schiavone’s and Tintoretto’s paintings may both reflect a design by Francesco Salviati, preserved in an engraving by Enea Vico dated 1545 (The Illustrated Bartsch, ed. Walter L. Strauss, 166+ vols. [New York, 1978–], 30: no. 13). According to Giorgio Vasari, the drawing on which it was based was executed “much earlier, in Rome” (molto prima in Roma), and so could well have been known in Venice during his visit there. For additional analysis of the relationship between the print and the two paintings, see Robert Echols, “Jacopo Tintoretto and Venetian Painting 1538–1548” (PhD diss., University of Maryland, 1993), 138–140.
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;
Noted by Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori, ed. Gaetano Milanesi (Florence, 1881), 6:591.
Antonio Palomino de Castro y Velasco, El museo pictórico y escala óptica (Madrid, 1988), 3:235.
Monika Schmitter, “The Quadro da Portego in Sixteenth-Century Venetian Art,” Renaissance Quarterly 64, no. 3 (2011): 693–751, especially 716.
“San Paolo di Giacomo Tintoretto, che casca da cavallo accompagnoto da molti altri pure a cavallo, che dalla paura spinti in fuga vano precipitando in diversi luoghi.” Giuseppe Campori, Raccolta di cataloghi ed inventarii inediti: Di quadri, statue, disegni, bronzi, dorerie, smalti, medaglie, avori, ecc., dal secolo XV al secolo XIX (Modena, 1870), 120–121.
“San Paolo convertito alla voce di Christo, e mentre ei cade da cavallo, si veggono i di lui seguaci fuggirsene spaventati in varie parti.” Carlo Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell’arte, overo Le vite de gl’illustri pittori veneti, e dello stato (Venice, 1648), 2:44; Carlo Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell’arte, overo Le vite de gl’illustri pittori veneti, e dello stato, ed. Detlev von Hadeln (Berlin, 1924), 2:52.
Wilhelm Suida, “Zwei unbekannte Werke Tintorettos,” Pantheon 23 (1939): 122 n. 1, reported that he took this reference to the Cornaro version from a list of Tintoretto’s lost pictures in an unpublished manuscript by Hans Thode in the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz. Suida suggested that the Cornaro picture and the Canonici picture may be the same. The Pisani version (below) could also conceivably be the same as the Cornaro painting.
As proposed by Lino Moretti, “I Pisani di Santo Stefano e le opere d’arte del loro palazzo,” in Il Conservatorio di musica Benedetto Marcello a Venezia: 1876–1976: Centenario della fondazione, ed. Pietro Verardo (Venice, 1977), 170. The 1809 inventory by Pietro Edwards of the painting gallery of the Palazzo Pisani a Santo Stefano lists a Conversion of Saint Paul attributed to Andrea Schiavone, measuring 157 × 235 cm. Tintoretto’s early paintings have often been attributed to Schiavone. In addition, the collection included one other major early painting by Tintoretto (the Visit of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, now Château de Chenonceaux) as well as a Crucifixion from Tintoretto’s studio in the mid-1550s (now Museo Civico, Padua). The origin of the paintings in the Pisani gallery, a large majority of which date from the cinquecento, is unknown. The palace itself dates from the first two decades of the 17th century. In 1679 Almorò Pisani (1615–1682) bound the paintings along with the palazzo and the rest of its contents to pass by inheritance without division according to male primogeniture. In the late 18th century, the palace was restored and decorated by Almorò Alvise Pisani (1754–1808) after his marriage to Giustiniana Pisani di Santa Maria del Giglio, who brought as her dowry the possessions of that line, which was extinguished with her. Almorò Alvise and his brother Almorò Francesco (1759–1836) fell into debt and in 1781 divided up all the family property not bound by the trust. They were forced to sell their villa on the terraferma to Napoleon in 1807. In 1809, after Almorò Alvise’s death, his son, also named Almorò Francesco, and Almorò Francesco (the brother of Almorò Alvise) divided up the remaining assets, the trust having been invalidated by Napoleonic law. The inventory was prepared at this time. The paintings were sold and dispersed, along with many of the other treasures of the palace, much of which was also sold off over the following decades. See Lino Moretti, “I Pisani di Santo Stefano,” 138–139, 166, 170. The fact that the Pisani gallery contained at least two early paintings by Tintoretto, along with one from the mid-1550s, raises the possibility that these three pictures were originally purchased by the same early patron of Tintoretto, either a member of the Pisani family or someone from whom the Pisani eventually acquired them.
March 21, 2019
Probably Palazzo Pisani a Santo Stefano until c. 1809. George William Fox, 9th baron Kinnaird [1807-1878], Rossie Priory, Perthshire, Scotland, by 1857. Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi [1878-1955], Florence, by 1939; sold June 1954 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York; gift 1961 to NGA.
- 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.
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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