A Vision of the Trinity by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

In September 2022 I was invited to speak at the National Gallery as part of the Association for Art History’s Festival of Art History. The theme of the evening’s presentations was Light, Art and Italy. The following text is adapted from my research and notes on the painting I spoke about that evening: A Vision of the Trinity, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. I will focus primarily on how Tiepolo uses light within the painting, and some of the theological and cultural ideas represented through this.

Speaking at the National Gallery.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was a Venetian painter, born in 1696 in Venice. While he spent much of his time in Venice, he also worked north of the alps, which was unusual for Italian artists at the time. Some of Tiepolo’s major commissions included colossal ceiling frescoes for the Residenz in Würzburg, Germany, and for the throne room of the Royal Palace in Madrid. 

One of Tiepolo’s ceiling frescoes from the Residenz in Würzburg. Photographed by Myriam Thyes - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51452371

When working on such a large architectural scale, it was common for painters like Tiepolo to produce what was known as a modello in advance of starting the final artwork. This was usually a preparatory study used to work out the composition and the lighting for the larger piece, and often presented to the patron who had commissioned the work, for approval. 

The altarpiece from the Palace of Nymphenburg. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, A Vision of the Trinity appearing to Pope Saint Clement, 1739. Image courtesy Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen - Alte Pinakothek München, URL: https://www.sammlung.pinakothek.de/en/artwork/o5xrDX1G7X

Tiepolo’s A Vision of the Trinity, displayed in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery at the time of writing, is itself a modello. It is a preparatory study, albeit a very highly finished one, for an altarpiece that Tiepolo later painted for the chapel at the Palace of Nymphenburg, in Munich. In the 18th century, when these were painted, Christianity was still very much the dominant religion across Europe, and churches and religious leaders across the continent were supporters and patrons of the arts. 

This altarpiece was probably commissioned by the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, a man called Clemens August. This would explain who the man is kneeling in the bottom left corner of the painting, the initial focal point that draws our gaze. He is St Clement, who Clemens August was probably named after. And St Clement is gazing upwards, at this light filled vision of the Trinity. 

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “A Vision of the Trinity”, c1735-9. Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of the National Gallery

For me the star of the show in the painting is Tiepolo’s really interesting treatment of light. Look closely at the image of the painting. There are at least two light sources, if not more. The rose window in the top left of the painting allows light in and shines onto the base of the white marble column. It casts shadows just behind the young angel in the bottom right of the painting. This natural, earthly light coming in from the top left is mirrored by Tiepolo’s treatment of this golden, heavenly, divine light in the top right of the painting. 

To fully understand the significance and importance of divine light in this painting of the Trinity, we have to understand a bit more of what this Christian imagery would have meant for people in Tiepolo’s time.

The idea of light, and divine light in particular, is a central motif throughout the Christian faith. In Tiepolo’s painting we see the three persons of the Trinity, God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit (represented here through the image of a dove), they each have their own halo, their own light source. The Trinity is often associated with light, and we see that divine light throughout the Bible.

The Biblical creation story focuses firstly and foremostly, on the creation of light. 

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.” (Genesis 1:1-3)

Jesus himself claims to be the illuminating light that will save mankind from the darkness of their suffering. 

“When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” (John 8:12)

And the Bible ends with a prophetic Revelation of The Trinity enthroned in the heavens, which Tiepolo’s painting draws directly from:

“Among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash round his chest… His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.” (Revelation 1:13,16)

“They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 22:4-5)

So Tiepolo’s use of lighting in this image has a very specific theological meaning; it is steeped in years of Christian thinking and image-making. But as I’ve already touched on briefly, Tiepolo also uses light to give the painting structure. Colour and light, especially this golden heavenly light in the top right corner of the painting, bisect the painting diagonally into two roughly triangular shapes. The bottom left triangle is lit by the earthly light through the rose window. The top right, the heavenly light that emanates from God himself. The contrast between heaven and earth is emphasised through this use of light. The heavenly cloud that Jesus and God the Father are seated on mirrors the curve of the earthly architecture behind them, this arched column. Heaven and earth are clearly connected, almost reflections of one another, but they are structurally separated from each other, divided into two triangles that pretty much cut this painting in half. The divine light of heaven doesn’t break into the earthly section of the painting. 

Heavenly and earthly light divide the painting into two sections, with the cross stretching across the divide. Image courtesy the National Gallery.

But one thing does cut across this division. The almost absurdly long cross that Jesus is holding is so long that it stretches down to earth from heaven, crossing the boundary between these two seemingly separate triangles within the structure of the painting. And through this simple structural choice Tiepolo illustrates the ‘crux’ of the Christian faith, that through the sacrifice of Jesus’ death on the cross of crucifixion, God and humanity can be reconciled, bridging the gap between earth and heaven. 

It is worth remembering that this painting was a modello, a design for a greater work: the altarpiece for the chapel at the Palace of Nymphenburg. Imagine the significance of this painting on an altar, the place that was probably the focal point of the chapel. This altar would have been seen by Christian worshippers of Tiepolo’s day to be a holy place, a point of meeting between heaven and earth. 

The modello and the finished altarpiece. Images courtesy the National Gallery and Alte Pinakothek München.

Just as in the imagery here earth and heaven mirror each other, so too this modello and the final altarpiece work as a pair, as reflections of one another. There are similarities and differences between the two, just as there are in Tiepolo’s imagery. In the modello and the altarpiece, in earth and heaven, there is something recognisable in each of them, yet they are different. And Tiepolo, through his treatment of light and internal structuring of the painting, manages to communicate something of this mirror-like nature between earth and heaven, and the Christian understanding of heaven and earth uniting through the person of Jesus Christ. 

In one of St Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth, he writes about this duality, this similar yet opposite thing that Tiepolo manages to communicate through this painting. It could almost be the prayer of St Clement as he kneels before his vision in the painting. 

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  (1 Corinthians 13:12)

It is my hope that as we study works of art, and come to know them more fully, we in turn come to understand something more of the world and our place in it, to know ourselves more fully and in greater depth.

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