Tintoretto’s Ecce Homo


By Bertrand Prevost
  • Bertrand Prevost

    Bertrand Prévost, art historian and philosopher, is Maître de conférences at the University of Bordeaux. He has worked mainly on Renaissance Italian art and theory (La peinture en actes. Gestes et manières dans l’Italie de la Renaissance, Actes Sud, 2007; Botticelli. Le manège allégorique, Ed. 1:1,2011; Peindre sous la lumière. Leon Battista Alberti et le moment humaniste de l'évidencePresses Universitaires de Rennes, 2013). His research focuses on an aesthetic theory of expression, based on an expanded notion of cosmetics.

Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto (1518 - 1594), Ecce Homo (1567) in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice.

Color is never pure. All colorists, from Matisse to Tintoretto, from Rubens to Delacroix, have always known that the use of local colors, especially bright, unmixed ones, was never ‘pure’. The impurity, heterogeneity – in color – has more to do with impossible crossings, hybridizations, and becomings; colorful events, which affect or precipitate a-chromatic contents. Color is no more a sensitive quality, but rather a becoming in a transitive dimension: not color but a deeper colouring.

In this regard, what Tintoretto operates in the Ecce Homo he painted for the decoration of the Scuola of San Rocco in Venice in 1566-1567 is most masterful. We could determine at least three moments, or three levels of becoming, where the color loses its qualitative nature to become a process. First, we could speak of a becoming-blood of the mantle, or a becoming-purple of the kingship of Christ. Look at the mantle of Christ: iconographycally speaking, an Ecce Homo presents the Christ as the king of the Jews, as humiliated king or rather as a king of humiliation, with his crown of thorns, his scepter, his red mantle, etc. But here the coat has not its traditional purple color: what we see first is a large white coat, stretched behind the figure of Christ much more like a curtain or a curtain of honor. By its whiteness and its dynamic wrapping, this coat prefigures (in the most biblical sense of praefiguratio) the shroud that soon will drape the body of the dead god. However, the white coat is turning red, stained with the blood of the Passion. By dyeing it red, this wrap is becoming a royal mantle. This means not only that the kingship of Christ is not acquired but produced, ‘acted’, but also that it is the humility of Christ which consecrates his kingship through anointing by his own blood. Christ – Christos, ie. “the Anointed one” – puts on his kingship, not as glory but as humility. And what is very important is that it becomes a question of colour. Since the Man conquers his regalia through his blood, the red colour is no more an abstract quality, but a kind of symbolic colour whose meaning could be read in a dictionnary (‘purple’ = ‘king’). This red is not a mere iconographic color. It indicates rather a becoming-red, making indistinct blood and kingship. This becoming-red turns Passion into a colorful event. The Passion of Christ becomes a story of color – and not a story in colors.

But this act of blood is at the same time a remarkable act of painting, so that we should speak of a becoming-painting of the blood. Because what happens in the white coat of Christ merges with what happens in front of Tintoretto while he is painting: a white canvas is colouring, is being stained – so that Christ’s coat colors as much by the action of the blood as by the action of the painter’s brush, which literally acts the Passion. Devotional aspects of Tintoretto’s painting are well known, but we must understand this devotion less as a matter of iconography or function as a problem of painting. In this case, it may be less a matter of meta-painting, to speak like Victor Stoichita 1V. Stoichita, L’instauration du tableau. Métapeinture à l’aube des temps modernes, Geneva : Droz, 1999. – I mean the way the painting can reflect itself all by itself, with all the analogy it implies. Rather, I prefer here to see the blood as something which makes the painting happen, plugging it to christlike becoming. Painting becomes authentically christian in its process and not only in its iconographical content, when it opens to the power of the stain – macula – if indeed painting with splashes always implies the humiliation of the form as well as the media. Moreover, the drape stained with blood becomes a prefiguration of the veil of Veronica, whose face appears only in a field of spots. Just look at the executioner’s stance behind Christ as he sets the mantle; it recalls the way St. Veronica or the angels hold a Holy Face.

But if the color of the Passion is done as an act of painting, if it enters into a becoming-painting, it is only as the painting itself becomes, and becomes something else. We never must forget the ‘canonical formula’ of the becoming such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have asserted: what we become becomes as much as he who becomes 2G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, Capitalisme et schizophrénie 2. Mille plateaux, Paris : Ed. de Minuit, 1980, p. 374.. That is to say, becoming is not a mere transformation between two states, or between a subject and an object. Indeed, Passion is not only an act of painting; it becomes an act of dyeing. Painting is never an absolute but becomes for itself, here as a becoming-dyeing. For example, look at the way the coat colors less by pictorial projection as by staining impregnation. What is common here to blood, painting and dyeing is their way of flowing. Or, look at the flow of the red drapery on the stairs, under Christ’s feet, whose folds fall like waterfalls of blood on the stairs. This coat is not so much painted, as dyed with blood. There is so much to say about the fluidity of Tintoretto’s painting: the omni-presence of the water, the way the bodies are lying, falling. But what is more important is to think of this fluidy as a colorful event, and better, as a dyeing event. Once again, the color is not quality but process: flowing color, color-bath or dripping color – a dyeing dramaturgy.

Tintoretto himself was manifestly aware of this. His own name – Tintoretto – signified: ‘the little dyer’. And when he signs, in the big Crucifixion in San Rocco, ‘Tinctorectus’, he plays with the potential of his own name, as a becoming-dyeing of the painting 3Elsewhere, in the Miracle of the Slave, the signature is more explicit: “Jacomo Tentor F.” . First, because the word ‘tinctor’ does not exist in Latin: it is a mixture of tintor (the dyer) and pictor (the painter), so the imperceptibility of the diffenrence between painting and dyeing becomes in the langage itself. But also, the adjective ‘rectus’ (honest) implies a deep understanding of the ambivalence of the status of dyeing. In the Middle Ages and still in the Renaissance, Venice was the capital of dyeing in Europe. The dyers used to enjoy a social and cultural privilege they did not enjoy elsewhere. Indeed, dyeing was thought a very strange craft, almost satanic, absolutely ‘dishonest’: it evoked the pollution of rivers, as much as the use of animal excrements to get amoniac in order to fix the colors could pollute the environment; but also the knowledge of mixtures of colors made dyers strange, and the colouring process itself interpreted as something hermetic, almost demonic 4On dyeing in Middle Age and Renaissance, see M. Pastoureau, Jésus chez le Teinturier. Couleurs et teintures dans l’Occident médiéval, Paris : Le Léopard d’Or, 1997..

All this implies another indiscernibility, between artistic and craft production. Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Greatest Painters, Sculptors and Architects, blames Tintoretto for donating his works, as if they had no economic value, as if they were artisan-crafted works and not works of art. But even Tintoretto’s manner of painting can be interpreted in this direction: the speed of execution (prestezza), the practice of big washes, the fact he used to produce so many paintings… 5On Tintoretto’s manner and the importance of the macchia, see mainly G. Cassegrain, Tintoret, Paris:,Hazan, 2010, chap. 2.

That is to say that Tintoretto’s colors are no more pictural; the craft color has nothing to do with the famous debate between disegno (drawing) and colorito (color), between Michelangelo (Florence) and Titian (Venice). Rather, it brings a heterogenous element to the painting itself. But at the same time, it is out of question to say that dyeing is here like a reference in or of Tintoretto’s painting, for the dyeing in Tintoretto will never be the actual, historically attested dyeing. This dyeing has nothing evident, and it is rather an impossible dyeing.

All this stuff about dyeing may be the most powerful becoming of Tintoretto’s painting. A becoming, I insist, for his painting is not dyeing, but painting! More precisely, this painting-dyeing avoids us celebrating the abstractions of ‘pure color’,’surface effets’, ‘chromatic qualities’ and other such things… Of course, Tintoretto was a great colorist. But it doesn’t mean anything if one cannot see that color in painting is interesting when it becomes something other than pictural color – when it makes the painting a becoming.


Note from the editors: This text is inspired by a paper presented by Bertrand Prevost during the Speculative Art Histories Symposium held at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art on May 2-4, 2013.