Tintoretto: Stealing of St Mark’s Body

In a way quite different from the monarchical rape of the Church in early modern England, Church and State were intimately connected in Renaissance Venice. From Gentile Bellini to Tintoretto much of the art of the Republic celebrated the connection. When the body of St Mark was brought to the lagoon – or returned, as legend had it – it was located not in the cathedral of the island (San Pietro in Castello), but in the Doge’s great basilica, San Marco, the ducal chapel.

Not surprisingly the legend of St Mark (not of his life but of his body after death!) became a major pictorial theme. Here Tintoretto, in one of a sequence of pictures now spread around the galleries of Europe, depicts a crucial episode in the story; the removal by Alexandrian Christians of St Mark’s body from a pyre where it was to be burnt. They did so, the story goes, under cover of a great tempest which came suddenly upon the city.

Mark’s body, dramatically lit, is being carried to safety across a great public square. The pagan inhabitants of the city are running, terrified, into the surrounding buildings. The composition of the foreground figures is irresistibly reminiscent of a deposition; the others are sketchily painted, losing definition as they fade into the background. The whole composition is linked to the city and state of Venice by a visual trick. The architecture (scarcely more substantial than the drawing of the receding figures) has been identified as a version of Sansovino’s schemes for systematizing the Piazza San Marco, which Tintoretto would have known from their public display in the narthex of the basilica.Here all the varied techniques of mannerism – a lurid sky, intense colour contrasted with the eerie monochrome of the distant buildings and figures – is used to give dignity and credibility to a legend which has national and political importance. The nation’s palladium is beginning its journey home.

Mark Stevens