Tancred Baptizing Clorinda, c. 1586–1600
Domenico Tintoretto, Italian (Venetian), 1560–1635
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 66 5/16 × 45 3/16 in. (168.4 × 114.8 cm) Frame: 81 3/4 × 61 × 4 1/4 in. (207.6 × 154.9 × 10.8 cm)
The Samuel H. Kress Collection

Habits of Mind

  • UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy

Tancred Baptizing Clorinda

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

GRADE LEVEL

9

SUBJECT AREA

Social Studies

HABITS OF MIND

Understand Bias

Connecting to the Work of Art

Trained by his father, the famous Venetian painter Jacopo Tintoretto, Domenico painted numerous portraits, altarpieces, and devotional pictures for the Venetian church. Domenico eventually became the foreman of the workshop and had a major hand in numerous “studio productions,” large, complex paintings.

This painting is based off of a popular 16th-century epic poem, Jerusalem Delivered (Gerusalemme Liberata), written by Italian poet Torquato Tasso. Jerusalem Delivered is an idealized account of the Christian crusades, a series of military invasions in which European Christians tried to seize the holy city of Jerusalem from Muslim rule. He based his poem on Greek and Roman epic poems like the Iliad and the Aeneid. It depicted both military and romantic encounters between European Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims.

Tintoretto’s scene depicts the aftermath of a battle between two characters: Tancred, a Christian knight, and Clorinda, a Muslim female warrior. When the two first met, Tancred immediately became infatuated with Clorinda, but Clorinda rebuffed his advances: she wanted only to defend her homeland against invasion, and fought fiercely and effectively against the Christians. After Clorinda secretly sets fire to a Christian siege tower, Tancred—unable to recognize her through her armor—challenges her to battle. He mortally wounds her, and with her last breaths, she asks for a Christian baptism so that she can go to heaven. Unlacing her helmet, Tancred finally realizes her identity, and she ascends to heaven.

Jerusalem Delivered was extremely popular in 16th-century Europe, and its readers had very little contact with the Islamic world it described. It combined the popular format of the epic poem with fantasy, action, and romance. However, it also struck a chord with religious leaders in the Catholic Church. In the 16th century, Protestant Christianity was becoming a larger and larger threat to Catholic power and unity. As more and more people left the Catholic Church, Catholics promoted media that encouraged piety and spiritual strength, like the story of Tancred and Clorinda. They saw Tancred not only as a hero and warrior, but also as a kind and compassionate Christian for baptizing his unknown opponent. They also admired Clorinda for her eventual conversion to Christianity.

Tintoretto’s painting captures this heroic spirit. The light calls attention to Clorinda’s twisted form and lifeless face; individual strands of hair are delicately wrought in gold. Tancred’s face and body are tilted down and over Clorinda’s, and his tenderness for her is clear in the care with which he baptizes her. Water spills out of his helmet, just illuminated enough to be visible. The ornate green and gold vegetation evokes fine European tapestry and provides a rich background for the heavy scene.

Observations

  • What is happening in this scene? What are the characters thinking and feeling? How can you tell?
  • How did Tintoretto decorate this scene? Look closely at the background. What words would you use to describe it? How do they fit into the narrative of the image?
  • What do you think is the most important part of this painting? How can you tell? What did Tintoretto dedicate the most time to?
  • Note the dimensions of the painting (underneath the image). Is it smaller or larger than you initially suspected? Why do you think Tintoretto chose to paint such a large work? Why did he choose such a tall, vertical format? 
  • How would you describe this painting to someone who had never seen it?

Interpretations

  • This image has a lot of violence in it, but also a lot of care and love. Can you guess what the painter felt about it? How can you tell?
  • Tell or read the story of Tancred and Clorinda from Jerusalem Delivered. How does knowing this narrative change your understanding of the painting?
  • The poem that this painting was based on was a “bestseller” in the 16th century, and its European readers and listeners would have found it an admirable tale. What do you think they found admirable about it? Do you agree with them?
  • Consider that the viewers of this painting in Europe would likely never travel to Jerusalem, where the story takes place, nor meet a person from there. Yet, many European Christians considered the Crusades their religious right. How does this change your interpretation of the painting?
  • Art and literature were two important tools of the Counter-Reformation. How might this painting fit into that history? How would it have functioned in a tumultuous Christian world? (In other words, if you were a recently-converted Protestant, what about this painting might convince you to change your mind?)

Assessment

• Using a butcher paper sheet, illustrate a scene that you studied in History class. Imagine that you are working in that time period, and consider the message you want to convey through your illustration. Who is your audience? How can you communicate to them most effectively? Consider the composition and the details you would like the viewer to understand from simply looking at your image. 

Subject Matter Connection

The study of history requires a thorough understanding of the human consequences of historical actions, as well as an ability to distinguish bias and point of view in historical sources. By analyzing a sixteenth-century painting with a strong bias and complex story, students can hone their skills of bias identification and evaluation. 


The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.