Tintoretto's most remarkable work is the vast and complex series of fifty canvases painted between 1565 and 1587 for the meeting rooms of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (a confraternity devoted to combating the plague, a repeated scourge of the Venice.) They illustrate scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin in the upper and lower halls, respectively, and scenes from the Passion - dominated by this colossal Crucifixion - in the Sala dell' Albergo. The Crucifixion embodies several critical characteristics of Tintoretto's art. The teeming canvas, full of incident, also recalls several of Veronese's monumental works - indeed, the sheer scale of the canvases sometimes used by these artists required a wealth of detail to fill the large area. The canvas of the Crucifixion took up an entire wall, and to help him create his intricate series of poses and compositions, Tintoretto made use of numerous small wax models, which he moved around and illuminated from different angles.
In conception and execution, Tintoretto's Christ on the cross is one of the most unusual and compelling scenes of the crucifixion of the 16th century. Instead of focusing on the individuals directly involved in the event, the artist provides us with a panoramic scene of Golgotha, populated by an astonishingly varied throng - including soldiers, executioners, horsemen, tradesmen, onlookers, thieves, and apostles - engaged in all sorts of different activities and movements with almost insect-like urgency. In the process, he explores every aspect of the scene.
One infrequent feature for Renaissance art is the inclusion of the two thieves in the composition, one being nailed to a cross, the other being raised. All four Gospels relate that two thieves were crucified with Christ. According to Luke, the one on Christ's right rebuked the other, saying that their punishment was deserved whereas Christ was innocent. Christ said to him, "Today, you shall be with me in Paradise." The role of the thieves clearly gave Tintoretto a means of filling the vast canvas. But it is also true to say that all his paintings for the Scuola emphasized the humility and mercy of Christ, as well as his links with ordinary sinners, the poor, and the destitute, and the story of the thieves fits nicely into this theme.
In his thought-provoking article on Tintoretto's Crucifixion, published in "Painters on Painting" (1969), Brian Robb states that the man who is busily securing the second thief's cross is employing the same techniques and same type of tool (a gimlet) that he himself had observed being used by a Venetian carpenter constructing a jetty. This is not merely a curiosity - it underlines the extent to which Tintoretto's work drew on the life around him, not least the balance and lean and thrust of gondoliers, whose gestures undoubtedly inspired many of the figures' tenuous relation to gravity. In the foreground, on the right, is a man with his back to us, digging; perhaps he is preparing a hole for the stake of the cross, but more particularly, he serves as a striking example of the energy being expressed across the painting.
The raising of the crosses also afforded Tintoretto the opportunity of depicting numerous muscular individuals in vigorous motion, testifying to his interest in the figure drawing of Michelangelo, while it also enabled him to introduce two strong diagonals that bring dynamism to the scene and help to create a strong underlying structure. In particular, the diagonals focus attention on the figure of Christ, who is still and calm on his cross - a figure of calm amid the chaos and turmoil below. Under a clouded sky that somehow manages to be at the same time calm and apocalyptic, Christ's body is parallel to the picture-plane, reinforcing the impression of stillness, and he looks with special compassion upon the group at the foot of the cross, which includes the swooning Virgin and also his friends. The group is beautifully painted and brought together in a dignified and rhythmic movement.
Christ is placed very high on the cross, almost at the top of the scene before us. The nails piercing His hands and feet are visible, but little is made of his suffering. The light radiating from Christ's head has physical substance, like wings, and though the head leans forward, it is not drooping with exhaustion but first looking down on the scene around him. Another feature of the scene that is distinctly Venetian is the introduction of vast numbers of people, most of them richly dressed, who have come to witness the event. Men in armor or luxurious clothes and exotic headgear crowd around from all directions, turning the episode into a spectacle (see also Veronese's Wedding Feast at Cana (1563) and Feast in the House of Levi (1573) for later versions of this 'spectacle' effect.) It is a painting that involves the spectator in the highest degree, especially as details such as the ladder on the left are so close to the picture-plane and the viewer's space. Although the Renaissance color palette is limited, the dusky setting, out of which emerges a pattern of brilliant reds and whites, is reminiscent of some of Titian's early works and is almost certainly designed to take account of the lighting of the room. After Tintoretto's death, Venice had to wait for Giambattista Tiepolo before it had a master of such stature again.