The dramatic effects of light and dark are more evident in Tintoretto’s version of the Last Supper, than in Leonardo’s painting of the same event. Chiaroscuro is enhanced through bright highlights coming from an overhead lamp and the disciples’ halos. They clearly delineate figures in an otherwise dark setting. By the time of the Late Renaissance, some artists, such as Tintoretto, had broken with the tenets of the High Renaissance. Beyond the use of deep chiaroscuro to create drama, Tintoretto seems to disregard most of the artistic conventions embodied in Leonardo’s painting. The table is plunged diagonally into the picture and many more figures (including mortals and angels) now inhabit a smaller canvas of 12 feet high by 19 feet wide. Jesus, no longer an obvious central focus, can be identified in the group only because of the much larger halo on his head. He is portrayed offering the Eucharist, the bread and wine that signifies communion with God. Tintoretto does not stop here, however.
He imbues his tableau with complexity and even mystery. For one, he creates a sense of ordinary daily life by including a few mortals preparing and serving food, along with a dog at an apostle’s feet, and a cat sniffing the contents of a basket. Then, with angels floating near the coffered ceiling, he reminds us once again that this is a religious scene.
Tintoretto also paints elongated figures. In effect, that idealizes them even more. The individuality of the figures apparent in Castagno’s and Leonardo’s versions is not played up here, either, and the impact of the painting emanates more from strong light contrasts and the movement traced by the community of figures. Tintoretto’s figures—including the swirl of angels—form a serpentine pattern exuding energy and urgent movement, heightening the drama.
Not only has Tintoretto not adhered to rules of symmetry and stability, he appears to have confounded his presentation of a clear and instructional “istoria.” Or, has he? Marilyn Stokstad, in Art History (vol. 2, rev. ed., 1999) writes that the painting expresses intense spirituality using Mannerist style devices: deep colors, bright highlights, elongated figures. To me, they merely give an otherworldly aspect to the painting. However, intense spirituality is easier to believe when this painting is seen in the context of religious events of the period. Leaders of the counter-reformation (the revival of Catholicism after its erosion in the Protestant reformation) had become interested in using art to renew the faith of wavering believers. Viewed in this context, the inclusion of genre themes—the mortals and animals—does appear to contribute to the central and spiritual theme of man’s communion with God. Even the presence of angels begins to make more sense as exulting in this communion. In other words, this Last Supper does tell an “istoria” in a single-minded (and effective) way but with different devices calculated to elicit stronger emotional reactions in the beholder.
In conclusion, Castagno’s, Leonardo’s, and Tintoretto’s paintings of the Last Supper (see Related articles below) demonstrate the evolution of Italian Renaissance. It started out as a revival of Classical art forms that resonated with the new philosophy of humanism (the intrinsic worthiness and ennobling of human beings). It is obvious from these three examples, however, that the style was never stagnant. It absorbed the influences of Northern innovations in art, the events of two centuries, and the originality of individual artists. By the Late Renaissance, it had begun to assume the flowing lines and dramatic tonalities that characterize the exuberance of Baroque art.