Priceless Painting in the Shipley Gallery, Bensham, Gateshead.
This is one artist I haven’t included in my book so I thought I’d post it here to give you an idea of how the book is structured. The idea is to have the poem on one page and the picture opposite followed by the criticism.
Not many people outside the region, realise that there is a priceless Renaissance masterpiece in the Shipley. It is Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet by Tintoretto. It is a huge oil on canvas measuring 533 x 210cm. When you walk into the main exhibition space it is facing you at the far end. Many people ignore it as an ‘old-fashioned’ narrative painting no longer relevant to today! However, as well as its overt Christian story it is also a painting about humility and spiritual fellowship. Perhaps these are among the qualities the world could do with at the moment!
Tintoretto painted it for San Marcuola church in Venice and a copy was done some time later. It is not clear which is the original now as as another copy hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid!
The Shipley version ( which may well be the original) turned up in Paris in 1814 where it was sold at an auction to a collector by the name of Baring. He sold it the next day to Sir Mathew Ridley of Blagdon Hall in Northumberland. In 1818 he gave the painting to St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle. It came to the Shipley in 1986.
The composition is typical of Tintoretto’s style: he used diagonal compositions and dramatic gestures a lot. The disciples are in conversation and removing their boots and socks ready for Christ to wash their feet. Washing feet in public was a common sight in Italy in Tintoretto’s time. The large table dominating the composition is a reminder of the ‘last supper’. Judas, the much maligned disciple leans on a pillar at the back, left of centre.
Vasari the famous art historian of the day, who wrote The Lives of the Artists, was critical of Tintoretto’s quick way of working – he implied it was slapdash. In my poem I have imagined the artist replying to Vasari.
Tintoretto Replies to Giorgio Vasari
Oh Giorgio, as I stand before Jesus now
it’s no jest – I’m humbled by his kneeling
presence, dwarfed by such magnificence, impelled
to join in at the table. How could you pass
over my loyal dog; how could you pass
over the momentous moment I’ve depicted?
I’m admittedly fast and like to let the brush strokes
show but there’s nothing dashed off or haphazard
in my design; it’s partly ordained if you’ll pardon
the expression. Remember I had to stand on my own
two feet. I’d gladly have them washed too if I could
only reach over the canvas there, where Peter is.
See how I’ve used distance and separation to depict
destiny; Judas far gone and John close by. I’m down
to earth; no angels here or anything transfigured
and the betrayal only hinted at in dim light.
There are ghoulish doctors, with bird beaks, patrolling
outside as I speak. A plague on Venice – it’s an omen
so they say but I’d rather paint what I see: tables, wash tub
and Christ’s white apron, echoed in the bright tablecloth.