Tintoretto’s dramatic interpretation of Christ washing the feet of the disciples invites us into a grand hall, with sumptuous architecture and splendid vistas. Tintoretto takes us out of the historical context of first-century Jerusalem to show the timelessness of the event. Playing further with time, his grand scene places side by side the past, present, and future. Careful attention to these juxtaposed scenes calls us to navigate the visual narrative in a U-shape, from right to left.
In the top right, obscured in semi-darkness is the recent past: the scene of the Last Supper meal. In the foreground is the present—the moment of foot washing. Tintoretto replicates the dinner table to underscore a connection with the meal, traces of which still linger as seen in the bread and the carafe. The artist also collapses the time between the foot-washing of Peter, bottom right, with the effect this must have produced in the rest of the disciples. They are invited to participate in the ritual as well, and in this scene, this is occurring all at once.
The disciples and their varied responses to the foot washing are the visual focus of the scene. The two helping to undress one another’s feet show urgency. The figure on the bottom left steadily undoing the straps of his sandals shows steady obedience, as does the disciple behind Jesus removing his stocking. The figure prayerfully seated against a column in the back is an example of discernment. Those still seated at the table signify observation and dialogue, and finally, the figure furthest away and most concealed in shadows shows suspicion and resistance. He is likely Judas.
At the top left of the scene, we see a vista over a courtyard pool flanked by classical architecture, which leads the perspective far beyond through an arch. Moving from foreground to background into the vista, the imagery gives us a shorthand of the events to come after the Last Supper. The urgency of the disciples foreshadows their hastiness in the garden as Jesus is arrested. Judas, lingering in the shadows, invites us into the darkest hours of Jesus’ Passion that will follow. The pool with the boat is death, reminiscent of the ancient mythology of afterlife, specifically of crossing over the river Styx from death to eternity. The stillness is more evocative of Holy Saturday than of Good Friday. The arch and the obelisk are both signs of conquest and triumph in classical architecture, and here these give us a promise of eternal hope and the victory that will come on Easter Sunday. This painting, therefore, is an excellent invitation to the whole Easter Triduum.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.