The Abduction of Helen1578 - 1579. Oil on canvas, 186 x 307 cm.
Helen’s move from Sparta to Troy is described very differently in the two oldest narratives. In the Iliad, Homer describes Helen’s reticence to abandon Menelaeus, suggesting she was kidnapped by Paris. However, in his Ephemeris Belli Troiani (fourth century BC), Dictys Cretensis describes her departure as the willing flight of a woman in love. Both versions are represented in sixteenthcentury Italian painting. Helen’s voluntary flight was depicted by Giulio Romano at the Sala di Troia in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, in 1538-39, while her kidnapping appears in a fresco by Raphael at the Palazzo Capodiferro (now the Palazzo Spada) in Rome, which was engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi and reproduced in a drawing by Andrea Schiavone. Jacopo Tintoretto follows Schiavone and Raimondi in his depiction of Helen being taken to a ship while fierce combat occurs on the shore, but distances himself from them by characterising the scene as a battle between Turks and Christians, drawing on the prolific images of this sort that followed the battle of Lepanto in 1571. In that sense, he portrays Helen as an allegory of Venice itself.
The abduction of Helen, c.1578-79, is contemporaneous with Tintoretto’s Gonzaga cycle, 1579-80, and immediately prior to his Sala Terrena at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, painted between 1582-87. This explains why some of its figures reappear in those groups.
Here, Tintoretto sharply contrasts the marked chiaroscuro in the foreground with a brightly lit background in which the figures lose their solidity, to the point of becoming mere arabesques. This approach reappears in some of the Sala Terrena paintings in San Rocco, including the Adoration of the Magi.
Tintoretto creates an extraordinarily dynamic composition that depends on its colour and chiaroscuro, and on the postures of the figures. Especially striking is the contrast between the helpless, pleading expression of Helen, who is practically in tears, and the virile violence of her captors. The fact that Tintoretto added the masted ships at the very end, clearly painting them over the figures, indicates the degree to which his main concern was the relations between the different characters.
In this work, as in others he completed at the time, Tintoretto used a dark primer, on which he outlined some of the figures in white lead. Such is the case with Helen, who was originally depicted nude. There are also small pentimenti, significantly in her face, which once looked to the right.
The abduction of Helen is from the Gonzaga collection and was possibly commissioned by Vincenzo I Gonzaga (Duke of Mantua between 1587 and 1612), who paid Tintoretto a monthly retainer between 1590 and 1593. However, given his constant skirmishes with the Turks, the Duke may have purchased this work, which Tintoretto painted years earlier, for its theme.
From the Gonzaga collection it passed to King Charles I of England, whose inventory lists it as The rape of Helen by old Tintaret. Following the monarch’s death, the work was purchased in October 1652 by John Jackson, who soon sold it to Spanish ambassador Alonso de Cárdenas for Prime Minister Luis Méndez de Haro, who gave it to King Philip IV. It is listed in the 1666 inventory of the Alcázar Palace, Madrid, and entered the Museo del Prado in 1819 (Falomir, M.: Italian Masterpieces. From Spain´s Royal Court, Museo del Prado, 2014, p. 82).