Everyone wanted the commission to paint this building dedicated to the patron saint of the plague-stricken, so Tintoretto cheated: instead of producing sketches like rival Veronese, he gifted a splendid ceiling panel of patron St Roch, knowing it couldn't be refused, or matched by other artists. The artist documents Mary's life story in the assembly hall, and both Old and New Testament scenes in the Sala Grande Superiore upstairs.
In the assembly hall, Mary's life story starts on the left wall with the Annunciation and ends on the opposite wall with Tintoretto's dark, cataclysmic Ascension. From spring to late autumn, the artworks provide a bewitching backdrop to top-notch concerts of baroque music; ask at the counter or check the website for details.
Upstairs in the Sala Grande Superiore, Old Testament scenes painted by Tintoretto between 1575 and 1587 read like a modern graphic novel: you can almost hear the swoop overhead as an angel dives to feed the ailing prophet in Elijah Fed by an Angel. Mercy from above is a recurring theme, with Daniel’s salvation by angels, the miraculous fall of manna in the desert, and Elisha distributing bread to the hungry. Scenes from Christ’s life aren’t in chronological order: birth and baptism are followed by resurrection. The drama builds as background characters disappear into increasingly dark canvases, until an X-shaped black void looms at the centre of Agony in the Garden.
When Tintoretto painted these works, Venice's outlook was grim indeed: the plague had taken 50,000 Venetians, including the great colourist Titian.