Tintoretto and the Reform of the Church

Grounds for hope are not found in institutional reform, psychological analysis, or new programs and protocols, but rather in a return to Jesus Christ.

"Christ at the Sea of Galilee" (1570s) by Jacopo Tintoretto. [Wikipedia]

I am in Washington, DC this week for meetings of the USCCB. Since formal proceedings didn’t begin until the evening, I found myself yesterday morning with a little free time. So I made my way to one of my favorite places in the city, the National Gallery of Art, which I frequented when I was a student at Catholic University many years ago.

At the close of a long session of walking and musing, I was drawn by an empty and comfortable-looking couch situated at the end of one of the galleries. Plopping down to rest, I looked up at the picture right in front of me. At first glance, given the color scheme and the peculiar modeling of the figures, I thought it was an El Greco, but closer examination revealed that it in fact was Tintoretto’s depiction of Christ at the Sea of Galilee. The drama at the center of the composition is the Apostles’ boat, buffeted by choppy waves, and St. Peter taking a gingerly, tentative step onto the bounding main at the invitation of the Lord who beckons to him. My seated posture conduced toward contemplation, and I spent a good deal of time with this painting, first admiring the obvious technical skill of the painter, especially in the rendering of the water, but eventually moving to a deeper perception of its spiritual theme, of particular resonance today.

Whenever the Gospels present the disciples of Jesus in a boat, they are, of course, symbolically representing the Church. So Tintoretto is showing the Church in its practically permanent condition across the ages: at sea, rocked by waves, in danger of going under. Indeed, with a handful of remarkable exceptions, every age has been, in some way, a perilous one for the Mystical Body of Christ. The boat is filled with the specially-chosen Apostles of the Lord, those who spent years with the Master, learning his mind, watching his moves, witnessing his miracles with their own eyes, taking in his spirit. One would think that even if everyone else failed to follow the Lord, these men would hold steady.

And yet we see them cowering, timorous, obviously at a loss as the storm rages around them. And the Gospels, in a manner that sets them apart from most other literature dealing with religious founders and their disciples, do consistently portray Jesus’ inner circle as deeply flawed. Peter denied the Lord at the moment of truth; James and John succumbed to petty ambition; Thomas refused to believe the report of the Resurrection; Judas betrayed his master; all of them, with the exception of John, abandoned him on the cross, protecting their own hides. And yet Tintoretto shows Peter tentatively placing his foot upon the sea, commencing to walk toward Jesus. The great spiritual lesson—shopworn perhaps to the point of being a cliché, but still worth repeating—is that as long as the Church keeps its eyes fixed on Christ, it can survive even the worst of storms. It can walk on the water.

The Catholic Church is once more enduring a moment of extreme trial in regard to sexual abuse. This time, the focus of attention is on the failure of some bishops to protect the vulnerable, and in at least one terrible case, the active abuse perpetrated by a cardinal archbishop. The whole world is rightly outraged by these sins, and the Church appropriately feels ashamed. Many wonder, understandably, how those specially devoted to Christ could fall into such depravity. But then we recall that every bishop today is a successor of the Apostles—which is to say, of that band that both sat in easy familiarity with Jesus and denied, betrayed, and ran from their Master. In stormy times, the first Apostles cowered, and their successors, we have to admit, often do the same.

But there are grounds for hope. They are found, however, not in institutional reform (as important as that is), not in psychological analysis (as indispensable as that might be), not in new programs and protocols (as helpful as they might prove), but rather in a return to Jesus Christ. Eyes fixed on him, hearts attuned to him, minds beguiled by him, action determined by him, the leaders of the Church can, even now, walk on the water.

Tintoretto sheds considerable light on this issue of Apostolic weakness and strength in the very manner in which he has arranged the figures in his composition. The painting is foreshortened in such a way that the disciples appear very small, almost doll-like, whereas Jesus, looming in the extreme foreground, looks gigantic. As John the Baptist put the principle: “He must increase and I must decrease.”

When our anxieties and egos are placed in the foreground, Christ necessarily recedes. Crucial to the reformation of the Church is the reversal of that perspective.

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About Bishop Robert Barron 203 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.


  1. Tintoretto actually goofed here and it resulted in Bishop Barron’s message of Christ must increase and we must decrease. The bishop is right but this is Providence intervening. When a non marine artist switches to marine painting with people present on the water, the foreshortening problems are tough. The size of the waves going from those near Christ then into the distance are decreasing slowly by the time you get to the boat but the size of humans and the boat have decreased too much and not in sync with how the waves changed but little. Tintoretto did not mean this picture for an exacting patron which one can see by comparing it to his far more finished and realistic work which involve difficult perspective problems but on land and done perfectly where he was far more careful about everything (google his name and press “images”). The drapery of Christ’s clothing is unfinished relative to his century and to his other works. I think he did this (sans checking) for a buyer he knew closely or for a Church for whom he was not charging. Moderns will like this piece because it looks modern but it was not typical of his other work.

  2. This is probably a time for bishops (including the one in Rome) to do far less talking and far more penance (and without telling us they’re doing penance).

  3. Yes, absolutely, the problem is resolved by a return to Christ. But there is also an important role here for reforming canon law to obviate situations like the current crisis. Not going to be a panacea, but it’s going to resolve at least some problems, if recrafting of relevant canon law ever happens. The no tolerance policies for priests have to be built into handling of bishops and cardinals and, ‘lo, Popes who cover up wrongdoing. No assumption being made here about the current pontiff’s culpability. But everyone, up and down the line, has to be held accountable. The super-clericalist presumption of immunity has to be challenged through good Church law.

  4. Bishop Baron’s boss, this week, participated in a nothing-burgher meeting with the pope. Nothing of any substance was revealed about the meeting. Imagin that! Lots of time for idiotic photos of everyone laughing, pope included.
    Things can’t be so bad, I guess. Vigano was answered…not. McCarrick addressed…not.
    This article is Baron’s version of telling us to calm down after his day at the museum. Nice try, no thanks.
    What penance have you done, Bishop? What penance has your boss done? What has changed?
    Not to worry, Bishop Baron. Visit all the art museums you want. Attend all the USCCB palace meetings you want.
    Meanwhile, forty nine states attorneys general have our holy Church in their crosshairs preparing to do the things YOU should be doing. The AGs are indifferent, at best, to what happens to faithful Catholics as a result of their investigations. They smell blood.
    You continue to dance around the elephant in the room, Bishop Baron. It will not go away. There is an out of control cadre of sexually aggressive of homosexual priests at all levels of the Church. They protect and promote each other.
    But you know that. You simply have not the courage to say it.

  5. “Indeed, with a handful of remarkable exceptions, every age has been, in some way, a perilous one for the Mystical Body of Christ.” True, but the situation we now find ourselves in has less to do with the invisible Mystical Body of Christ and more to do with the visible People of God. The comparison here between the Apostles and our overseers is weak; it is hard to imagine the Apostles moving abusive presbyters around and creating and perpetuating homosexual networks. A better visual image for the problem we are in is Jean-Georges Vibert “The Missionary’s Adventure”. To think that the slothful, progressive layer of the hierarchy is going to become Jesus Christ on its own is a hope not wasting any time on.

  6. Over the last 25 years I’ve encountered priests (many unfortunately) who were: afraid to teach and preach on chastity, thought that marital periodic abstaining (NFP) was impossible, thought that one did not need to follow what the Church Taught and were embarrassed by what the Church Taught.
    In brief: 1- did not believe in what the Church Taught, 2- thought Chasity was impossible, 3- were Terrified of preaching on Chasity.

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