MARY – A MASTERPIECE: ‘The Presentation of the Virgin’ by Tintoretto (1552 – 1553)

Madonna dell’Orto (Venice) – Presentation at the temple of the Virgin (1552-1553) by Tintoretto

MARY – A MASTERPIECE: ‘The Presentation of the Virgin’ by Tintoretto (1552 – 1553)

His art is a poetry of colour, a theatre of design and a canvas of stories!

Born Jacopo Comin, Tintoretto (the little dyer) took his name from his father’s profession of dyeing also known as tintore in Italian. Noticing the paint daubs on the dyer’s wall, his father apprenticed him to the studio of the great Titian. However as fate would have it, Titian sent the young chap home in a week, apparently ‘jealous’ of his ground-breaking approach and his extra-ordinary skills.

These spectacular skills suffused most of his paintings. He imitated the bold muscular style of the Mannerist school of art while emulating the colour and light of the Venetian school. Enamoured by his own technique, he proudly placed before his studio a plaque that read, ‘Il disegno di Michelangelo et il colorito di Tiziano’ (The design of Michelangelo and the colour of Titian). However, his motto failed to please his contemporary critics. They were exasperated by his radical lack of finish and his blazing bravura brushstrokes. And yet it is this unique treatment that moved and influenced the best of Baroque painters, inaugurating a path to modern painting. His phenomenal energy earned him the title ‘Il Furioso’.

The secret to his genius was his vision. Tintoretto, a run-riot of the Renaissance, staged his narratives as a theatre director. He employed light and dark, foreshortening and perspective in order to transform religious scenes into enthralling performances. The spirit of Counter Reformation reverberated through his art works. One such beat is ‘The Presentation of the Virgin’. Executed in oil on canvas, the painting is housed at the Church of Madonna dell’Orto in Venice, Italy.

The narrative of the art-work is simple and yet significant. Taken from the early apocryphal gospels concerning the Blessed Virgin’s life, it chronicles the episode of her presentation at the Temple. As the story goes ‘When little Mary was weaned at the age of three, her parents (Joaquim and Anna) brought her to the Temple of the Lord with offerings. Set on a hill, the entrance of the temple consisted of fifteen steps. The Virgin Child was placed at the lowest step. She climbed up without any help, so swiftly that all who watched her were amazed. She lived in the community of virgins, praising and serving the Lord.’

The artist undulates and transforms the essentials of the scene. He swirls the heavy rectilinear stone stairway and decorates each of its risers with glittering acanthus twirls and dots. The dramatic dance of the golden twigs along the fifteen diagonal steps musically refers to the Gradual Psalms (120 to 134) sung by Jewish pilgrims to commemorate the return from the Babylonian exile. These canticles, also known as the Songs of Ascent or the Songs of Degrees, symbolically refer to a spiritual ascension from weakness to virtue on the journey to the Heavenly Jerusalem. Thus the presentation of the most Blessed Mary to the Temple indicates the return from exile and the day-break of salvation.

Along the edges of the stair, within the dark shadows of the monumental building, are seated ragged beggars and tricksters. Surrounding them are also the prophets, the teachers of the law and the priests. In wonder and awe, they gaze at the luminescent and determined image of the young Madonna. Her translucent veil is reminiscent of her effulgent purity; her golden, blue and pink robes are radiant of her joyful fiat to the divine. As the Morning star rises to the peak, she is welcomed and greeted by the High Priest and his two attendants, who bear witness to the Trinity.

Against the glittering, cloudy firmament, as the little Virgin marches forward towards the allegorical representation of God, one is heartened to question the beauty of her grace. Her profound pilgrimage of faith may seem easy, but the canvas indicates the throbbing reality. Notice the other virgins around the Blessed Mary. Neither of them appear to be pleased at the proposal of entering the Temple. While the first mother propels her daughter, the second, seated on the stairs, seems to explain to her young one the reason for the reverence. The third mother carries her little daughter to the High Priest while the fourth, in the background, points out to the entrance. 

In the midst of this paradox, the Blessed Virgin, suffused by a soft halo silently and confidently strides ahead. The walk upwards was lonely. Like Adam and Eve, Mary too was born without original sin but unlike them she never compromised with sin. In a broken world where mortals, consciously and unconsciously, bargain with evil, Mary (the New Eve) disdained from doing so. Thus Mary, quite contrary to popular belief, faced profound loneliness with profound strength.

In times of weakness and transgressions, she encourages us to find a friend in her!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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