Culture: Hidden Message in a Masterpiece to Be Seen in the North; It's Exciting to Be Captivated by Major New Art Events and Exhibitions, but Sometimes It's Rewarding to Revisit a Magnificent Old Friend, as Tamzin Lewis Discovers

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Byline: Tamzin Lewis

STORIES within stories and worlds within worlds are less common in art than literature. However, painters sometimes hint at further narrative with a reflection in a mirror, a painting in the background or a glimpse through an open door. In the case of Holbein's famous The Ambassadors, the extra dimension is the cleverly distorted skull, painted in weird anamorphic perspective.

The great Renaissance artists also used light to create pictures within pictures and a fascinating example by Jacopo Robusti, better known as Tintoretto, is held at the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead.

Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet is a massive oil on canvas depicting the biblical scene where Jesus washes the feet of his disciple Peter. Highlighted by Christ's halo against a dark colonnade is a tiny picture of the Last Supper. It's not hidden, but unlike a mirror or painting, the image isn't really there in the darkness, it's more like a premonition of a scene soon to be enacted.

The entire painting is very theatrical, dramatically lit and staged around the table which would later be used for the Last S Supper. The principal characters are placed to the far right of the canvas, Pete standing at the edge while Christ, with sleeves rolled up and pinny on, kneels before him. It is a symbolic act of purification before Peter becomes a priest.

On the extreme left, the figure bending over his sandal is probably Judas Iscariot while a dog lies in the centre of the painting, completing the foreground symmetry. Behind the dog, your eye is led down the table into remarkable chiaroscuro and complex architectural perspectives, popular among Venetian painters in the mid-sixteenth century.

It is rare to find such a large Tintoretto in the UK, but despite its size it can sometimes be easy to forget the enormity of the treasures held by the Tyne and Wear Museums collection. …