Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet
Fr. Scott Haynes
Christ Washing the Disciples Feet (1548–1549)
About the Artist
Jacopo Tintoretto was originally known as Jacopo Comin. Later, he became known as Jacopo Robusti, because his father earned a reputation as a “robust” fighter in the Venetian Wars. Our artist was also known as El Furioso, as he painted with energy and speed. Yet the name that seems to have endured across centuries is Tintoretto (“little dyer”). Tintoretto’s father, Giovanni, was a dyer of fabric and so he was known as the “Dyer’s little boy,” or the “little dyer.”
Tintoretto had a lot of brothers and sisters. He was the eldest of 21 children. With an artistic bent, he would draw on the walls of his Father’s workshop. Recognizing his talent, his father took his son to the workshop of Titian to be trained. Titian took him on as an apprentice. Tintoretto only lasted 10 days. Titian was jealous.
When Titian came in his studio, he was admiring some drawings of his students. But when he found out they were done by Tintoretto, he was furious. The boy had no official training. So, Titian sent him home claiming he wasn’t trainable. Nonetheless, Tintoretto continued to admire Titian’s work. Sadly, Titian mocked the work of Tintoretto.
Some of the nasty comments were due to Tintoretto’s fast, loose, brush strokes and the emotional style that the young artist had adopted. Tintoretto’s style eventually gained popularity, but, at the time, it was considered lazy and sloppy. He ignored the many critics who were unimpressed with his brushwork.
Over time, Tintoretto got tired of the impeccable beauty of Titian and the other Italian masters. Yes, it was pleasing to the eye, but he found that this beauty didn’t move the viewer emotionally. Tintoretto felt that he needed to make the Biblical scenes truly come alive. Thus, he tried to introduce dramatic tension into his work. Giorgio Vasari, a Florentine art critic and biographer, said of Tintoretto:
Had he not abandoned the track but rather followed the beautiful style of his predecessors he would have become one of the greatest painters in Venice.
Vasari felt Tintoretto’s work was careless, eccentric, and his drawings were downright crude. He was not a fan.
Consider the famous depiction of the Last Supper of Leonardo DaVinci (above). Here, we find impeccable balance and lighting, a sense of serenity and beauty. This is a fine example of the quintessential High Renaissance. By contrast, in the painting of Tintoretto, we have diagonal compositions, uneven groupings and drama.
Tintoretto painted Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet in 1548 for the Church in San Marcuolo in Venice, Italy. The painting was to hang to the right of the altar, opposite another Tintoretto of the Last Supper. Christ washing the disciples’ feet was actually a very popular topic for Tintoretto and we know of at least six paintings that he did on that theme. It is presently housed in the Museo del Prado in Spain.
When we view the painting, one of the first things that we notice, as we do with many of the works in the series, is that we are in a beautiful Renaissance hall with grand architecture and a beautiful view out the back. The painting appears nearly theatrical. It’s as if we’ve walked in on a play and someone yelled freeze at this moment in the story. As we look around the room, we see that all of the other disciples are responding to the conversation between Christ and Peter.
Christ, our humble servant leader is providing the example we are all to follow. His disciples respond in a variety of ways. The disciples in the center, which are probably the first ones that you noticed, are almost comic. Pulling off each other’s boots, one of them appearing to be on the verge of toppling over.
Another disciple is a bit less urgent and is steadily unlacing his shoes (left foreground). The disciple at the very back leaning against a pillar is praying. Another, standing in front of the table, is pulling off his sock. Other disciples are seated at the table, observing everyone else. Because a servant would have taken care of the feet washing, so the fact that Christ is doing it would have generated conversation.
Examine the disciples again. Did you take notice that there is one lone figure, alone in the shadows, wearing a red hat all the way at the back of the room? Is he a bystander? He is separate from the others. This is Judas.
Note that the artist has left Judas with his halo. Most artists, by this point in the Passion story have removed Judas’s halo, or rendered it as a dark halo, since it seems clear he has already made the decision to betray Christ. But Tintoretto has left his halo just like others, perhaps holding out hope that Judas would not carry out his betrayal of Jesus.
Yet, Judas is there, lingering in the shadows. He is reminding us that soon we enter the darkest hours of Jesus’ Passion. This very night Judas will betray Christ. Then Our Lord will be betrayed with the treacherous kiss of Judas, arrested, as the moments of Christ’s Passion begin to unfold.
As we study Tintoretto’s painting, we see that Our Lord is in the bottom right corner. This is unusual. Certainly, one would expect to find Jesus in the center of the artwork when portrayed, especially in the 16th century. In this work, Tintoretto does not only place him just slightly off center, but in the right bottom corner, with the rest of the disciples scattered about in groups. This will be a clue for us, helping us to read the story of this painting accurately.
Certainly, Tintoretto’s decision to position the figures in this way leaves one wondering about the artist’s motive for this. The artist knew exactly where his painting was going to be hung, namely in the sanctuary, to the right of the Altar. As a result, unless you were a Priest standing at the Altar, you would not have a direct view of the painting.
Rather, the typical view would be from the pew on the left side of the church. One would see this painting at an angle. From that particular perspective, Christ would become the first thing seen, and the most prominent figure. The wide-open spaces in the painting seem to diminish when viewed from the side. Tintoretto’s brilliance is seen in his decision to paint the scene in this manner, keeping well in mind the way in which the painting would be seen day to day.
Before carefully analyzing all the elements of this painting, we do well to read the Sacred Scripture from the Gospel of John, chapter 13, wherein we see Christ washing the Disciples’ Feet. John 13:1-17 (Douay-Rheims Bible):
Before the festival day of the pasch, Jesus knowing that his hour was come, that he should pass out of this world to the Father: having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And when supper was done, (the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray him,) Knowing that the Father had given him all things into his hands, and that he came from God, and goeth to God; He riseth from supper, and layeth aside his garments, and having taken a towel, girded himself. After that, he putteth water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. He cometh therefore to Simon Peter. And Peter saith to him: Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered, and said to him: What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Peter saith to him: Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him: If I wash thee not, thou shalt have no part with me. Simon Peter saith to him: Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head. Jesus saith to him: He that is washed, needeth not but to wash his feet, but is clean wholly. And you are clean, but not all. For he knew who he was that would betray him; therefore he said: You are not all clean.
Then after he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, being set down again, he said to them: Know you what I have done to you? You call me Master, and Lord; and you say well, for so I am. If then I being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also. Amen, amen I say to you: The servant is not greater than his lord; neither is the apostle greater than he that sent him. If you know these things, you shall be blessed if you do them.
Timelessness of the Event
Tintoretto depicts in the most dramatic way the scene of Christ washing the feet of the disciples (John 13). Our artist removes the story from its historical context in 1st century Jerusalem in order to bid us consider the timelessness of this event. He places the event in a Renaissance Palace, a grand hall, where we behold sumptuous architecture and lush vistas. This emphasizes the message that this story is outside of time.
Certainly, the story itself, of Christ humbling himself and washing the disciple’s feet is also a timeless story. Whether one lived in the Renaissance, in Christ’s own day, or in the modern age, the message remains pertinent and timeless. More particularly, Tintoretto places Gospel scenes from the past, present, and the future side by side. As he plays with time, we ought to pay close attention to the scenes juxtaposed, as they invite us to navigate the visual narrative in a U-shape, from right to left.
The past is in that view into the room where the Last Supper has just occurred. The present is the main scene of the painting with Jesus and his disciples. The future is in the background.
For example, obscured in the semi-darkness of the painting (above), we behold a moment just past: the Last Supper meal. Through a doorway we can see into the “upper room.” were the disciples had the Last Supper with Christ. In this moment just past, Christ has instituted two Sacraments (Priesthood and Eucharist), teaching his twelve disciples to celebrate the Holy Mass:
And whilst they were eating, Jesus took bread; and blessing, broke, and gave to them, and said: Take ye. This is my body. And having taken the chalice, giving thanks, he gave it to them. And they all drank of it. And he said to them: This is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many (Mark 14:22-24).
The Gospel teaches us that Christ rose during the Last Supper to wash the disciple’s feet. So at least some portion of the Passover meal has already occurred when the main events in the painting begin to unfold. This is also a nod to the fact that this painting was going to be hung in the same Venetian church right across from Tintoretto’s painting of The Last Supper, so he’s included it in this painting, in order to tie them together.
In the vista, the artist invokes classical architecture in a highly symbolic way. This will be our first clue as to how we are to read the iconography of this portion of the painting. The pool and the boat are symbols from Greek mythology. This is meant to recall the ancient mythology of the afterlife, specifically of crossing over the River Styx from death to eternity.
In Greek mythology, one had to cross the River Styx in the boat steered by Charon. Charon’s job was to ferry the dead across the river so that you could enter either Paradise or Hell depending on how your soul was judged. The stillness of the boat on the pool of water is evocative of Holy Saturday, when Christ lays in the tomb.
The triumphal arch and the obelisk that we see in the vista are signs of conquest and triumph in classical architecture. The artist included these to signify the promise of eternal hope and the victory that will come on Easter Sunday, when Christ, who has conquered death and sin, is risen victorious from the grave. This painting, therefore, is an invitation to the whole Sacred Triduum.
As the artist uses these Greco-Roman images to foreshadow Christ’s death, we are looking into Christ future—His coming Passion and Death on the Cross. Although we see that Christ’s death is imminent, the background is quite hopeful because we see arc of triumph. Yes, Christ will die, but ultimately Christ will be victorious. The obelisk, a symbol of victory, is also part of the background is meant to give us hope. Even though we see that death is coming, and we know that Judas is about to betray Jesus, we also know that Christ will emerge from these dark days victorious. He is our Paschal King!
We see the present moment in the foreground, where Christ is washing the feet of Simon Peter. Tintoretto replicates the table of the Last Supper in order to underscore a connection with the Passover meal, the traces of which still linger as seen in the unleavened bread and the carafe of wine.
Tintoretto collapses the time between the foot-washing of Peter with the effect this must have produced in the rest of the disciples. He permits us (all at once) to consider the various reactions the Lord’s disciples must have felt in the moment in which Christ began to wash Simon Peter’s feet.
The differing reactions to the washing of Peter’s feet are observed. It becomes the visual focus of the scene. We see urgency in the two helping to undress one another’s feet. They are anxious to be next. Tintoretto suggest the virtue of obedience in the figure (bottom left) steadily undoing his sandal straps, as well as in the disciple to Jesus’ left removing his stocking.
The disciple prayerfully seated against a column (upper left) is an example of discernment, while the disciples remaining seated at table are meant to signify observation and dialogue. The disciple who is most remote, and who is somewhat concealed in shadows, indicates suspicion and resistance, namely Judas Iscariot, the betrayer.
The urgency that we behold in certain disciples foreshadows their hastiness in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus will soon be arrested. Judas, who is lingering in the shadows, invites us into the darkest hours of Jesus’ Passion that will soon follow.
The Last Word
Perhaps you are wondering why there is a dog prominently portrayed in this painting. Church authorities at the time had the same question. Tintoretto had some problems over this. Before this painting could be approved to hang in the church, Tintoretto was called before the Inquisition. They found the idea of including the dog to be irreverent. Tintoretto must have made a good argument, because he was allowed to keep it in the painting. The inclusion of the dog might have been included to denote faithfulness or protection, as was common in Renaissance art.
Notes  He also did five other versions of this Gospel scene, but this is the most famous version.  In mythology, the Greek underworld is an otherworld where souls go after death. The original Greek idea of afterlife is that, at the moment of death, the soul is separated from the corpse, taking on the shape of the former person, and is transported to the entrance of the underworld.  In Greek mythology, Styx is a deity and a river that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld.  The Garden at Gethsemane, a place whose name literally means “oil press,” is located on a slope of the Mount of Olives just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. A garden of ancient olive trees stands there to this day. Jesus frequently went to Gethsemane with His disciples to pray (John 18:2).