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El Greco

Doménicos Theotokópoulos

Greek Mannerist Painter

1541 - 1614

Self Portrait of El Greco

El Greco ("The Greek") was a painter, sculptor, and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. He usually signed his paintings in Greek letters with his full name, Doménicos Theotokópoulos underscoring his Greek origin.

El Greco was born in Crete, which was at that time part of the Republic of Venice, and the center of Post-Byzantine art. He trained and became a master within that tradition before travelling at age 26 to Venice, as other Greek artists had done. In 1570 he moved to Rome, where he opened a workshop and executed a series of works. During his stay in Italy, El Greco enriched his style with elements of Mannerism and of the Venetian Renaissance. In 1577 he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. In Toledo, El Greco received several major commissions and produced his best known paintings.

El Greco's dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries but found appreciation in the 20th century. El Greco is regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism, while his personality and works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis. El Greco has been characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school. He is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often fantastic or phantasmagorical pigmentation, marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.

He was born in 1541 in either the village of Fodele or Candia (the Venetian name of Chandax, present day Heraklion) in Crete. El Greco was descended from a prosperous urban family, which had probably been driven out of Chania to Candia after an uprising against the Venetians between 1526 and 1528. El Greco's father, Geórgios Theotokópoulos (d. 1556), was a merchant and tax collector. Nothing is known about his mother or his first wife, a Greek woman. El Greco's older brother, Manoússos Theotokópoulos (1531 - December 13, 1604), was a wealthy merchant and spent the last years of his life (1603-1604) in El Greco's Toledo home.

El Greco received his initial training as an icon painter of the Cretan school, the leading center of post-Byzantine art. In addition to painting, he probably studied the classics of ancient Greece, and perhaps the Latin classics also; he left a "working library" of 130 books at his death, including the Bible in Greek and an annotated Vasari. Candia was a center for artistic activity where Eastern and Western cultures co-existed harmoniously, where around two hundred painters were active during the 16th century, and had organized a painters' guild, based on the Italian model. In 1563, at the age of twenty-two, El Greco was described in a document as a "master" ("maestro Domenigo"), meaning he was already a master of the guild and presumably operating his own workshop. Three years later, in June 1566, as a witness to a contract, he signed his name as Master Menégos Theotokópoulos, painter.


I want to make it clear that I am no artist and if you have looked at my other pages I frequently make that point clear. However, I do make observations about my reaction and feelings about certain pieces of art. There are three pieces that are dated before El Greco's departure to Italy. I see a blending of both Byzantine and Western influence in these very early expressions of his art.

Senex Magister

The Dormition of the Virgin: Before 1567

El Greco' signature on the base of the central candelabrum was discovered in 1983. This discovery constituted a significant advance in the understanding of El Greco's early career and formation. In both its iconography and technique the painting demonstrates the artist's origins and training in the traditions of post-Byzantine painting.

The icon, which retains its function as a cult object in the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin on the island of Syros in the Aegean Sea south-east of Athens, was probably brought to Syros during the Greek Revolution in 1824 from the Monastery of the Holy Mountain of the Dormition of the Virgin on the island of Psará in the Aegean. The icon conforms closely to the established pattern for this subject, which was very common in the Orthodox Church in which El Greco may have been raised.

Saint Luke Painting the Virgin and Child: Before 1567

Together with the icon of The Dormition at Syros, this is one of El Greco's earliest works, painted while he was a master in Crete. It suffered serious losses but much of the paint surface remains intact and legible. It is signed in the area of the stool under the easel. It shows St Luke, traditionally both a physician and a painter, in the act of painting the icon of The Virgin Hodigitria, patron and protector of Constantinople.

El Greco kept strictly to the Byzantine canon in the representation of the icon on the easel, but he allowed himself greater freedom in the rest of the depiction. This icon is a transitional work that demonstrates how the artist was seeking to graft Renaissance elements (taken from Italian prints) on to Byzantine compositions.

The Entombment of Christ: Late 1560's

This painting is one of the most attractive pictures of El Greco's Venetian period. The artist's barely disguised borrowings from Italian prints (e.g. the three Marys from a print of the Entombment by Parmigianino) are a notable feature of his Cretan- and Italian period pictures and reflect his formation as a painter in the post-Byzantine tradition accustomed to working from established compositional patterns.


Most scholars believe that the Theotocópoulos "family was almost certainly Greek Orthodox", although some Catholic sources still claim him from birth. Like many Orthodox emigrants to Europe, he apparently transferred to Catholicism after his arrival, and certainly practiced as a Catholic in Spain, where he described himself as a "devout Catholic" in his will.

Crete having been a possession of the Republic of Venice since 1211, it was natural for the young El Greco to pursue his career in Venice. Though the exact year is not clear, most scholars agree that El Greco went to Venice around 1567. Knowledge of El Greco's years in Italy is limited. He lived in Venice until 1570 and, according to a letter written by his much older friend, the greatest miniaturist of the age, the Croatian Giulio Clovio, was a "disciple" of Titian, who was by then in his eighties but still vigorous. This may mean he worked in Titian's large studio, or not. Clovio characterized El Greco as "a rare talent in painting".

Giulio Clovio: 1571-72

In 1570 El Greco moved to Rome, where he executed a series of works strongly marked by his Venetian apprenticeship. It is unknown how long he remained in Rome, though he may have returned to Venice before he left for Spain. In Rome, on the recommendation of Giulio Clovio, El Greco was received as a guest at the Palazzo Farnese, which Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had made a center of the artistic and intellectual life of the city. There he came into contact with the intellectual elite of the city, including the Roman scholar Fulvio Orsini, whose collection would later include seven paintings by the artist (View of Mt. Sinai and a portrait of Clovio are among them).

Unlike other Cretan artists who had moved to Venice, El Greco substantially altered his style and sought to distinguish himself by inventing new and unusual interpretations of traditional religious subject matter. His works painted in Italy were influenced by the Venetian Renaissance style of the period, with agile, elongated figures reminiscent of Tintoretto and a chromatic framework that connects him to Titian. The Venetian painters also taught him to organize his multi-figured compositions in landscapes vibrant with atmospheric light. Clovio reports visiting El Greco on a summer's day while the artist was still in Rome. El Greco was sitting in a darkened room, because he found the darkness more conducive to thought than the light of the day, which disturbed his "inner light". As a result of his stay in Rome, his works were enriched with elements such as violent perspective vanishing points or strange attitudes struck by the figures with their repeated twisting and turning and tempestuous gestures; all elements of Mannerism.

By the time El Greco arrived in Rome, Michelangelo and Raphael were dead, but their example continued to be paramount and left little room for different approaches. Although the artistic heritage of these great masters was overwhelming for young painters, El Greco was determined to make his own mark in Rome defending his personal artistic views, ideas and style. He singled out Correggio and Parmigianino for particular praise, but he did not hesitate to dismiss Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel; he extended an offer to Pope Pius V to paint over the whole work in accord with the new and stricter Catholic thinking. When he was later asked what he thought about Michelangelo, El Greco replied that "he was a good man, but he did not know how to paint". And thus we are confronted by a paradox: El Greco is said to have reacted most strongly or even condemned Michelangelo, but he had found it impossible to withstand his influence. Michelangelo's influence can be seen in later El Greco works such as the Allegory of the Holy League. By painting portraits of Michelangelo, Titian, Clovio and, presumably, Raphael in one of his works (The Purification of the Temple), El Greco not only expressed his gratitude but advanced the claim to rival these masters. As his own commentaries indicate, El Greco viewed Titian, Michelangelo and Raphael as models to emulate. In his 17th century Chronicles, Giulio Mancini included El Greco among the painters who had initiated, in various ways, a re-evaluation of Michelangelo's teachings.

Because of his unconventional artistic beliefs (such as his dismissal of Michelangelo's technique) and personality, El Greco soon acquired enemies in Rome. Architect and writer Pirro Ligorio called him a "foolish foreigner", and newly discovered archival material reveals a skirmish with Farnese, who obliged the young artist to leave his palace. On July 6, 1572, El Greco officially complained about this event. A few months later, on September 18, 1572, El Greco paid his dues to the Guild of Saint Luke in Rome as a miniature painter. At the end of that year, El Greco opened his own workshop and hired as assistants the painters Lattanzio Bonastri de Lucignano and Francisco Preboste.


Paintings in Venice (1567-70)

By EL GRECO

In 1567 El Greco decided to abandon a flourishing career on Crete for Venice and to become an Italian painter. It required a now mature master of Byzantine painting to acquire fluency in a naturalist style. In Venice, where he spent about three years before moving to Rome, he studied the works of the aged Titian and his successor, Tintoretto. After some small-scale compositions, such as the Modena Triptych and The Annunciation, he attempted the more complex Purification of the Temple, the first full-blown work in the Venetian manner.

Christ Healing the Blind: ca 1567

Three versions of this subject are known, all basically the same in composition, but differing in treatment. The earliest, an unsigned panel in Dresden, is looser in composition, smaller in conception, and introduces genre motifs of a dog, sack and pitcher in the foreground, eliminated in subsequent versions. This painting was executed under the influence of Venetian painting, in the 17th century it was attributed to Paolo Veronese, later to Jacopo Bassano.

The Modena Triptych (Front Panels): 1568

Small portable altarpiece with hinged wings, painted on both sides, of a type similar in form to others produced in Crete in the sixteenth century, but with an Italian Renaissance frame. The subjects on the front, from left to right, are the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Allegory of a Christian Knight, and the Baptism; and on the back, the Annunciation, Mount Sinai, and Adam and Eve.

The central panel on the front, showing the Christian Knight received into Heaven, with Purgatory and Inferno below, and the three Theological virtues, is of medieval inspiration, and precisely follows a known representation of the subject. The Jaws of Hell are a specifically medieval motif. Saint Catherine, with the Wheel of her Martyrdom, appears below the figures of Christ and the Knight. The theme of Mount Sinai, on the back of the central panel, was of Cretan origin, and faithfully repeats a traditional Byzantine model. The reference to Saint Catherine in both the central panels has been suggested as a possible indication of the artist's connection in Crete with the monastery of Saint Catherine, a dependency of that of Mount Sinai, and the most important school of painting in the island. The other compositions are similarly not original, but here the artist has used engravings after Italian (mainly Venetian) compositions as his models. The repetition of traditional images was usual in Byzantine art.

The Triptych is interesting as one of the earliest known work by El Greco. It clearly belongs to the time soon after his arrival in Italy. We see the artist acquainting himself with the new Italian subject matter and its treatment, and making his first essays in the new technique of Venice. The flat, linear, geometrical designs of Byzantine art give way to compositions employing rounder, more solid forms, and a looser handling. The somewhat nervous quality may be regarded as El Greco's own, and the Triptych does contain motifs and compositions that he later develops. The subjects of the Annunciation, Adoration of the Shepherds and Baptism inspire some of El Greco's grandest works. The Allegory of the Christian Knight is appropriately recollected in the Allegory of the Holy League. The Byzantine image of Mount Sinai is not unreasonably brought to mind in front of the late Toledo.

Baptism of Christ: 1568

The Baptism of Christ is the right panel on the front of the Modena Triptych.

The Modena Triptych strikingly illustrates El Greco's transition from post-Byzantine icon painter to European artist of the Latin variety. The portable altarpiece, whose unknown patron perhaps stemmed from a Creto-Venetian family, in its open state shows a total of six scenes: on the front, the central panel bears a rare depiction of the Coronation of the Christian Knight, and on the wings we find the Adoration of the Shepherds on the left and the Baptism of Christ on the right. On the reverse, a View of Mount Sinai with its famous convent of St Catherine is flanked by an Annunciation and an Admonition of Adam and Eve by God the Father. This type of object with its gilded frame elements was common in Cretan workshops of the 16th century, as is its use of wood as a painting support.

The Modena Triptych (Back Panels): 1568

Small portable altarpiece with hinged wings, painted on both sides, of a type similar in form to others produced in Crete in the sixteenth century, but with an Italian Renaissance frame. The subjects on the front, from left to right, are the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Allegory of a Christian Knight, and the Baptism; and on the back, the Annunciation, Mount Sinai, and Adam and Eve.

The theme of Mount Sinai, on the back of the central panel, was of Cretan origin, and faithfully repeats a traditional Byzantine model. The picture shows pilgrims on the way to the Monastery, and the Mountain as the Road to Heaven. The reference to Saint Catherine in both the central panels has been suggested as a possible indication of the artist's connection' in Crete with the monastery of Saint Catherine, a dependency of that of Mount Sinai, and the most important school of painting in the island. The other compositions are similarly not original, but here the artist has used engravings after Italian (mainly Venetian) compositions as his models. The repetition of traditional images was usual in Byzantine art.

Annunciation: 1568

Probably soon after his arrival in Venice El Greco painted the Modena Triptych. Here he adapts Renaissance principles of representation to a small-scale triptych of a post-Byzantine design common in the Venetian empire. As the wings of the triptych are opened in succession, the sequence of images reveals the state of Man before the Fall to his restoration to a state of Grace through Christ. The scene of The Annunciation is the left panel on the back of the triptych.

The Modena Triptych strikingly illustrates El Greco's transition from post-Byzantine icon painter to European artist of the Latin variety. The portable altarpiece, whose unknown patron perhaps stemmed from a Creto-Venetian family, in its open state shows a total of six scenes: on the front, the central panel bears a rare depiction of the Coronation of the Christian Knight, and on the wings we find the Adoration of the Shepherds on the left and the Baptism of Christ on the right. On the reverse, a View of Mount Sinai with its famous convent of St Catherine is flanked by an Annunciation and an Admonition of Adam and Eve by God the Father. This type of object with its gilded frame elements was common in Cretan workshops of the 16th century, as is its use of wood as a painting support.

Mount Sinai: 1568

The picture shows the back of the central panel of the Modena Triptych. The theme of Mount Sinai was of Cretan origin, and faithfully repeats a traditional Byzantine model. The reference to Saint Catherine in both the central panels has been suggested as a possible indication of the artist's connection in Crete with the monastery of Saint Catherine, a dependency of that of Mount Sinai, and the most important school of painting in the island.

The Modena Triptych does contain motifs and compositions that he later develops. The subjects of the Annunciation, Adoration of the Shepherds and Baptism inspire some of El Greco's grandest works. The Allegory of the Christian Knight is appropriately recollected in the Allegory of the Holy League. The Byzantine image of Mount Sinai is not unreasonably brought to mind in front of the late Toledo.

The Last Supper: ca 1568

This unsigned painting clearly shows a similar technique as the signed ("by the hand of Domenikos") Modena Triptych, which is a key reference work for the early paintings of El Greco. In the Last Supper the perspective space is still quite simply structured. The figures have little corporeal volume and seem more to hover than actually to sit at the long table.

The Adoration of the Shepherds: 1570-72

In the eighteenth century this painting was attributed to Giovanni Lanfranco, and later to a member of the Bassano family. Since 1951 the authorship of El Greco is universally accepted. However, this picture owes a great deal to the nocturnal paintings of the Bassano.

According to the X-radiograph the upper part of the canvas was completely repainted, and the canvas has been cropped at the top.

The Purification of the Temple: ca 1570

El Greco painted several pictures of The Purification of the Temple. The subject, which evidently held a deep fascination for El Greco, accompanied the artist throughout his career: he painted some versions in Italy (possibly even in Venice) and several more dating from the 1590s onwards - in Spain. Many more were painted in his studio. The catalogue raisonné of El Greco's works lists four as autograph and eight as studio pictures or copies.

This is the earliest known version of this subject by El Greco. It has usually been dated to El Greco's Venetian years, although some scholars have placed it to his time in Rome. The artist borrowed extensively from High Renaissance visual models (among others from Michelangelo, Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto) and did very little to disguise them. Uncertainties in the handling of anatomy and space can be observed which confirm the early date of the painting.

Christ Healing the Blind: ca 1567

Possibly the sequel to the Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (Matthew, XXI, 14: 'And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them'). Both subjects were treated by El Greco more than once in Italy. This is the smallest known painting on canvas by El Greco. The painting has been cut and the group on the right is incomplete. No large-scale works are known from his Italian period, and most are quite small. He does not appear to have received any important commissions before he moved to Spain.

Three versions of this subject are known, all basically the same in composition, but differing in treatment. The earliest, an unsigned panel in Dresden, is looser in composition, smaller in conception, and introduces genre motifs of a dog, sack and pitcher in the foreground, eliminated in subsequent versions. The present painting, probably also painted in Venice, is more easily composed. The third and largest painting, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York (possibly identical with the one in a Madrid collection at the time of Cossio's pioneer work on El Greco), with its comparative largeness of conception, belongs to his Roman period, after 1570. El Greco did not again take up the subject in Spain.

The inspiration is from Venice. The dramatic use of recession behind the figures in the foreground is Tintoretto's invention. El Greco is still borrowing certain motifs, but the composition would seem to be original. The painting was among the Farnese possessions in the seventeenth century, and was probably brought to Rome by the artist, unless it was painted soon after his arrival in 1570. The figure on the extreme left, looking out towards the spectator, is certainly the young El Greco. He appears, however, nearer twenty than thirty years old.


Paintings in Rome (1570-75)

By EL GRECO

In Rome, El Greco studied the works of Michelangelo and Raphael. Despite the lack of support (no patrons or public commissions), he improved his art, and the result can be seen in a second version of the Purification of the Temple. The influence of Michelangelo is reflected in the first and second version of the Pietà composition. During his Roman stay El Greco portrayed Giulio Clovio, the miniaturist, for friendship.

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata: 1570-72

Like his other devotional paintings executed on panel, El Greco almost certainly painted this picture as an image for private and intimate contemplation. Its technique is similar to that of icon painting, displaying a highly finished, enamel-like surface. The painting, signed on the lower left, was probably executed in the early 1570s soon after his arrival in Rome.

Giulio Clovio: 1571-72

Giulio Clovio (1498-1578), a 'Greek' from Croatia, friend of El Greco's, worked as a miniaturist in the Farnese Library. He is portrayed holding an open book, his most famous work, an illuminated manuscript the Libro della Vergine, known as the Farnese Hours (at the time in the Farnese Library, and now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York). The book is shown open at folios 59v, showing God the Father creating the Sun and Moon, and 60r, showing the Holy Family.

The portrait was painted probably soon after El Greco arrived in Rome (November 1570), and almost certainly for his friend. In the seventeenth century, it was in the possession of Fulvio Orsini, librarian to Cardinal Farnese. This is perhaps the earliest independent portrait by the artist who was to become one of the greatest portrait painters of all time. Three splendid portraits belong to his Italian years: the present portrait, possibly the earliest, and the signed portrait of a man in Copenhagen, both Titianesque; and the more personal Vincentio Anastagi, a signed portrait in the Frick Collection, New York. It is unfortunate that the self-portrait mentioned by Giulio Clovio is lost.

Mount Sinai: 1570-72

The painting was probably made for the antiquarian Fulvio Orsini, librarian to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, in whose palace the artist lived from 1570 to 1572. It shows the peaks of Mount Sinai, a place sacred to Judaism and Christianity, of special significance for Eastern Orthodoxy, and revered by Muslims. At the center is Mount Horeb, where Moses received the tablets of the Ten Commandments from God. On the left is Mount Epistene. The peak on the right is St Catherine's Mount, where the early Christian Martyr Catherine had been buried. The small citadel at the foot of Mount Horeb is the monastery that to this day bears her name.

The St Catherine's Monastery is venerated as the spiritual home of Byzantine Orthodoxy and it was a great center of pilgrimage. In the painting, on the left are three Western pilgrims, while on the right is a group of Eastern pilgrims with camels.

The view of the holy site is based on engravings of Mount Sinai which could be found in travel books. El Greco painted a similar view on the reverse of the Modena Triptych.

Christ Healing the Blind: 1570's

Three versions of this subject are known, all basically the same in composition, but differing in treatment. The earliest, an unsigned panel in Dresden, is looser in composition, smaller in conception, and introduces genre motifs of a dog, sack and pitcher in the foreground, eliminated in subsequent versions. The second painting, now in Parma, probably also painted in Venice, is more easily composed. The third and largest painting, now in New York (possibly identical with the one in a Madrid collection at the time of Cossio's pioneer work on El Greco), with its comparative largeness of conception, belongs to his Roman period, after 1570. This version was earlier attributed to Tintoretto, then Veronese. In Madrid, there is also a 17th century copy of the painting.

The version in New York is the most sketchy in execution and is, in fact, unfinished. The two seated figures in the middle ground were so thinly painted that the pavement is visible through them.

Until recently there was a consensus of opinion that the New York version was the latest of the three treatments of the subject and possibly dated from El Greco's first years in Spain. However, in 1991 a number of scholars dated it between the Dresden and Parma pictures. The question of date is still open.

Vincenzo Anastagi: 1571-76

El Greco arrived in Rome in 1570 and he was recommended by Giulio Clovio to his patron Cardinal Alessandro Farnese as a portrait painter. His portraiture developed dramatically during his Roman sojourn, reaching a peak in his portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi. The sitter was a distinguished Knight of Malta, who had been appointed 'sergente maggiore' of Castel Sant'Angelo in 1575. The portrait was probably painted to commemorate the appointment. For El Greco it was an important challenge, for he seems never previously to have painted a full-length or military or official portrait.

The armour, sword, helmet, the green baldric and velvet breeches ornamented with gold thread, are the attributes of his station. Yet El Greco has not confined himself to replicating these particulars. He has sought to make manifest Anastagi's body politic as well - in particular the cardinal virtue of fortitude, comprising courage, endurance and physical strength.

In spite of the qualities of the portrait, the paucity of the extant and recorded portraits which El Greco painted in Rome suggests that commissions were not forthcoming, probably because his Titianesque technique was not appreciated.

A Boy Blowing on an Ember to Light a Candle (Soplón): 1570-72

The instigator of this painting, representing a boy pursing his fleshy lips to blow on the ember in order to light the black wick of a candle, of which the wax is already melting on account of the heat, may have been Fulvio Orsini, the librarian of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in whose palace El Greco resided between 1570 and 1572. The title 'Soplón' (Blower) was given in Jorge Manuel's inventory.

The subject of a boy blowing on an ember appears frequently as a subsidiary element in subject pictures in mid-sixteenth-century Venetian painting.

The Purification of the Temple: 1571-76

El Greco first painted the subject in Venice, some years earlier, in the small signed panel in Washington, and he was to take it up again, much later, in Spain, and adhere closely to his original design. As with the Christ Healing the Blind, inspiration for the composition as a whole is from Tintoretto. The main central group, however, is very close to a Michelangelo design, known in drawings, and also in Venusti's painting after Michelangelo's design (National Gallery, London). The figure of the woman walking with a child could be a reminiscence of a similar motif in Raphael's tapestry cartoon, the Distributing of Alms at the Golden Gate. The two men in conversation, who also appear in the middle distance of Christ healing the Blind, have become a grand subsidiary motif, and again hint at acquaintance with Raphael. The larger forms of the architecture also derive from Raphael and Rome, and are consonant with the grander conception of the one integrated action of the main group of figures.

The four portraits at the bottom right represent, from left to right, Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio and possibly El Greco himself. The introduction of Titian and Michelangelo is clearly an acknowledgment of his debt to these two artists. To his friend, Giulio Clovio, he owed his introduction to the Farnese household. The young man looking out, pointing to himself, has similar features to the self-portrait in the Christ healing the Blind at Parma, but the long hair is strange. It has also been suggested that he could represent the young Raphael. The portraits of Titian and Michelangelo (died 1564) were taken from existing portraits, and that of Giulio Clovio follows closely El Greco's portrait of his friend in the Naples Museum, painted c. 1571. El Greco does continue to include portraits in his paintings of religious subjects, but here there is no proper connection with the subject matter.

Pieta (The Lamentation of Christ): 1571-76

A translation in paint of Michelangelo's late sculptured group of the Pietà in Florence Cathedral, at the time in Rome. The pattern and the feeling are the same. The figures of the Dead Christ, His Mother, Saint Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea make one compact group. Michelangelo achieved this by his new treatment of form; El Greco by paint, by employing broader, more continuous passages of color. The more vivid colors of Rome combine with the richer palette of Venice to convey the intensity of expression demanded by the subject. The horizontal composition of Venice, more suited to a narrative type of subject than to the single image, is given up and is only very rarely found appropriate in Spain.

Michelangelo's Pietà group was not the only source on which El Greco drew: the arrangement of Christ's legs and his outspread arms, no less than the idea of viewing one of the two bearers of his body from the side and the other from behind, derive from Michelangelo's drawing for Vittoria Colonna, in which, as in El Greco's painting, the Virgin is placed behind and above Christ.

In the collection of the Hispanic Society of America is a larger version of the subject, unsigned, in oil on canvas, for which this may be a study. The subject is not repeated in Spain.

Pieta: ca 1575

This painting is a version of the Pietà in Philadelphia, varying the scale, colors and landscape. These Pietàs represent an important step towards El Greco's mature style, in which he was enabled by his experience of Venetian and Roman renaissance art to leave behind forever the artistic values of his provincial post-Byzantine heritage.

The Annunciation: ca 1576

This painting is the finest of El Greco's Italian Annunciations, and in the clarity of its design, the elegance of its poses and proportions and the harmonious relationship of its figures and setting is perhaps his most fully resolved picture in the Italian manner.

Portrait of a Man: ca 1575

In the absence of documentary evidence there is no basis for making definite identification of the sitter, although many proposals can be found in the literature. The portrait demonstrates that El Greco successfully assimilated the Venetian style of portrait-painting while working in the city between 1567 and 1570. Indeed, until his signature was rediscovered in 1898, the picture was thought to be a self-portrait by Tintoretto.

El Greco probably painted the portrait in Rome several years after moving there in November 1570. It reflects El Greco's association with intellectuals. The only clues to the identity of the sitter are the book and the drawing instrument beside it. He makes an eloquent gesture characteristic for an orator.


In 1577, El Greco emigrated first to Madrid, then to Toledo, where he produced his mature works. At the time, Toledo was the religious capital of Spain and a populous city with "an illustrious past, a prosperous present and an uncertain future". In Rome, El Greco had earned the respect of some intellectuals, but was also facing the hostility of certain art critics. During the 1570s the huge monastery-palace of El Escorial was still under construction and Philip II of Spain was experiencing difficulties in finding good artists for the many large paintings required to decorate it. Titian was dead, and Tintoretto, Veronese and Anthonis Mor all refused to come to Spain. Philip had had to rely on the lesser talent of Juan Fernándes de Navarrete, whose gravedad y decoro ("seriousness and decorum") the king approved. However, he had just died in 1579; the moment should have been ideal for El Greco. Through Clovio and Orsini, El Greco met Benito Arias Montano, a Spanish humanist and agent of Philip; Pedro Chacón, a clergyman; and Luis de Castilla, son of Diego de Castilla, the dean of the Cathedral of Toledo. El Greco's friendship with Castilla would secure his first large commissions in Toledo. He arrived in Toledo by July 1577, and signed contracts for a group of paintings that was to adorn the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo and for the renowned El Espolio. By September 1579 he had completed nine paintings for Santo Domingo, including The Trinity and The Assumption of the Virgin. These works would establish the painter's reputation in Toledo.


First commissions in Spain (1576-80)

By EL GRECO

El Greco left Rome to find in Spain the patronage that had eluded him in Rome. He had hopes of working for Philip II who was then actively recruiting painters to work at the Escorial. The Adoration of the Name of Jesus must certainly have been made for Philip II, but no documents refer to a commission. The first commission came from the Cathedral of Toledo, for the Disrobing of Christ, the first masterpiece of the artist. The large Martyrdom of St Maurice was commissioned by Philip II, late 1570 or early 1580, for the chapel of the Saint in the church of the Escorial.

The Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio): 1577-79

The painting was commissioned by the dean of the Toledo Cathedral, Diego de Castilla, to hang in the vestry there. Completed in 1579, it is one of the finest and most important paintings of El Greco's career. It was moved about 1612 from the vestry into the re-modelled sacristy, and in the 1790s was inserted into a new frame, in which it can be seen today.

The Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio)-Detail: 1577-79

Commenced in the summer of 1577, and completed in the spring of 1579, for the High Altar of the Sacristy of the Cathedral, where it still hangs. A document of 2nd July 1577 referring to this painting is the earliest record of El Greco in Spain. El Greco has produced one of the most dignified and moving portrayals of Christ in art. The powerful effect of the painting especially depends upon his original and forceful use of color. Something of the effect of the grand images of the Saviour in Byzantine art is recalled. The motif of the crowding round Christ suggests an acquaintance with the works of the Northern artist, Bosch; the figure preparing the Cross could be derived from the similar figure bending forward in Raphael's tapestry cartoon of the Miraculous Draught of Fishes. This is, however, the last time that there are any hints of specific borrowings.

The painting shows Christ clad in a bright red robe and looking up to Heaven with an expression of serenity as he is being tormented by his captors. A figure in the background bearing a red hat points at Christ accusingly, while two others argue over his garments. A man in green to Christ's left holds him firmly with a rope and is about to rip off his robe in preparation for his crucifixion. At the lower right, a man in yellow bends over the cross and drills a hole to facilitate the insertion of a nail to be driven through Christ's feet. The clouds above Christ, painted in strong diagonals, provide a 'path' of uplifting communication between Christ and God the Father. On the left side of the composition, the three Marys contemplate the event with distress. Above them a soldier wearing a suit of armor reminiscent of those fabricated in sixteenth-century Toledo stares out directly at the viewer. El Greco may have intended this figure to be a contemporary portrait.

A small, signed version of the Espolio, at Upton Park, Warwickshire, the original preliminary model is probably for the large painting. Many other versions exist, but few can be by El Greco. The only occasion that he treated the subject was for the Cathedral, but the type of Christ created in the Espolio is taken up in the related subject of Christ carrying the Cross, and in other representations of Christ.

The initial reception of the painting, when seen by the artists brought to value it, was that it was beyond appraisal. After the artist's death, the first real recognition of the painting was some two centuries later when Goya painted his Taking of Christ for the same sacristy.

The Adoration of the Name of Jesus: 1578 79

The earliest reference to the painting appears in Francisco de los Santos, Descripción . . . del Escorial, published in 1657, when it was in the sacristy of the Pantheon: ' . . . commonly called the "Glory of El Greco" on account of the Glory above, but there is also represented, below, Purgatory and Hell, and on the other side, the Church Militant, with an immense number of the Faithful in adoration, raising their hands and eyes to Heaven, and among them Philip II; in the middle of the Glory is the Name of Jesus adored by Angels . . . signifying the words of Saint Paul In Nomine Jesu omne genu, flectatur Caelestium, Terrestrium, & Infernorum' (Saint Paul, Epistle to the Philippians, II, 10).

The subject, then, is the Adoration of the Name of Jesus, a Jesuit counterpart of the Adoration of the Lamb, and incorporates the 'Church Militant', represented by the Holy League. The Name of Jesus is represented by the trigram IHS with a cross above that appears in a burst of glory at the top of the composition. The painting has also been called An Allegory of the Holy League because of the presence of the main participants of the Holy League. The popular title, the 'Dream of Philip II', is more recent.

The painting must certainly have been made for Philip II, but no documents refer to it and it is strangely not mentioned by Sigüenza in his description of the Escorial, published in 1608. The occasion of the commission may well have been the death of Juan of Austria in 1577, and the translation of his body to the Pantheon in 1578. The painting was in the Pantheon when los Santos described it. Juan of Austria was the general in charge of the forces of the Holy League at the victory of Lepanto in 1571.

The three members of the Holy League, Spain, Venice and the Papal States are represented by the three kneeling figures of Philip II, Doge Mocenigo and Pope Pius V, and the one prominent figure of the foreground group, kneeling in heroic pose, and holding a sword, can represent no other than the general in charge at Lepanto. It is an ideal representation, while the King, Pope and Doge are actual portraits. Sir Anthony Blunt first suggested that this Adoration of the Name of Jesus was an allegory of the Holy League (the 'Church Militant'), and was possibly commissioned for the tomb of the Spanish General in the Pantheon. That is, it was more in the nature of a private commission for the King, and not part of the scheme of decoration of the Escorial. This could explain the absence of documents.

The spirit of universal adoration is brilliantly conveyed. For the general arrangement of the painting, El Greco seems, appropriately, to have referred to his Allegory of a Christian Knight, of the Modena Triptych. The figures of the King, Pope, Doge and Juan of Austria take the place of the three Theological Virtues. The Jaws of Hell and the representation of Purgatory are very similar. The figure of Don Juan of Austria is inspired by Michelangelo. So special a commission could hardly have been the subject of a test-piece for the Escorial as has generally been suggested. The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice and His Legions was a specific commission (and the only commission) for the Escorial.

The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice: 1580-81

The signature appears on the paper held in the mouth of a serpent (the spirit of evil, or of the Earth). The large painting was commissioned by Philip II, late 1570 or early 1580, for the chapel of the Saint in the church of the Escorial. The earliest reference is the King's order to the Prior, dated 25th April 1580 to provide the artist with materials, 'especially ultramarine', to enable him to carry out the commission given some time ago. El Greco had clearly already decided upon the dominant color for the painting. The painting was completed by 16th November 1582, when it was delivered to the Escorial. The commission was probably prompted by the death of Navarrete in 1579, who left unfulfilled the greater part of his commission to provide paintings for the thirty-six altars of the church. The painting did not satisfy the King, Cincinato was commissioned to paint a substitute for the chapel and El Greco received no further commissions from the King.

The story of St Maurice (a legendary warrior saint, the commander of the 'Theban Legion', Roman troops from Thebes in Egypt, who served at Agaunum in Gaul (St-Maurice en Valais) in the 3rd century) relates that the soldiers, at the instigation of Maurice, refused to participate in certain pagan rites. They were punished by the Emperor Maximian Herculeus first by decimation and finally by the wholesale massacre of the legion. Maurice and his fellow officers were executed in A.D. 287. The authenticity ot the story is debated.

The subject of the martyrdom of the soldier Saint with his legions, for his refusal to worship the pagan gods was appropriate for the Escorial, the real center of the crusade for the Faith. This subject expresses the conviction of faith that inspired the crusade; the Allegory of the Holy League, the militant spirit of the crusade itself. The ecstatic character of this 'invitation to death' (Ortega y Gasset) is expressed. The physical side of the martyrdom is not emphasized, is no more than symbolized by the small group on the left comprising the one martyred figure, the figure, in the pose of his Christ of the Baptism, awaiting martyrdom and the grand figure in back-view of the executioner. The impression of the ranks of the Saint's army awaiting martyrdom is similar to that of the multitude in adoration in the Adoration of the Name of Jesus. The two paintings are related in composition, and in their expression of devotional fervor.

Portrait of a Sculptor: 1576-78

The problem of identification surrounds this portrait, usually identified as the famous sculptor Pompeo Leoni, the major sculptor at the court of Philip II, the son of Leone Leoni, who had been employed in a similar capacity by Philip's father, Charles V. A serious objection to this identification is the fact that the marble bust of Philip II included in the painting is significantly different from those attributable to Leoni.

The sitter is depicted as a practitioner of a liberal art. He is elegantly and modestly dressed in black. His dark, penetrating eyes and high brow imply his intellectual capacity. The hammer is poised to suggest his mental deliberation. El Greco has ingeniously applied the conventional formula of the self-portrait, in which the artist turns to face the viewer while working at the easel. Wittily, the viewer can imagine the sculptor looking at the sitter (Philip II) posing for his bust portrait.

The portrait was surely known by Velázquez, whose 1635 portrait of the great Seville sculptor Juan Martínez Montañés seems to reflect it.

A Lady in a Fur Wrap: 1577-80

This is probably the earliest extant portrait which El Greco painted in Toledo. The treatment, with the greater continuity of brushstroke, is related to that of his portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi of his last years in Italy, and to his first paintings in Spain. In the manner of Titian, the lynx fur is freely and vigorously painted. The dark tafts have been cleverly arranged so that they seem to splay out from the sitter, thereby enhancing and vivifying her. The identity of the sitter is not known, but clearly the portrait is too informal and intimate for a sitter of royal or aristocratic blood. The fact that El Greco painted very few female portraits, the intimate quality of the portrait, the apparent age of the sitter, and the correspondence in time with the setting up of the household, lead some critics to the conclusion that this is a portrait of Jerónima de las Cuevas, his life-long companion in Spain, and the mother of his son, Jorge Manuel. Since evidence for Jerónima's appearance is completely lacking there have been more reasoned proposals on the basis of comparison with other portraits. However, these identifications present problems of their own.

Mary Magdalen in Penitence: 1567-78

The penitent Magdalen must have been painted at the beginning of his years in Toledo because the strong influence of paintings on the same theme by Titian can be observed. The ideal of beauty is still Titian's half-figure pictures of women, but the inner tension of the whole composition and the relation between man and nature already indicate the beginning of Mannerism. The arrangement of the fingers of the right hand is a characteristic feature of El Greco's painting. It is assumed by some critics that the sitter of the painting was Jerónima de las Cuevas, the mistress of the artist.

Saint Sebastian: 1577-78

The Saint Sebastian is El Greco's first life-size male nude, and it is one of the key works of the artist's first years in Spain.

The Saint abandoned after his martyrdom and presumed death. The style is that of around 1580. The frontal placing of the nude figure and treatment of the forms avoids a three-dimensional emphasis. The greater prominence of the setting - and of actual depth, in the vista on the right - compared with the paintings for Santo Domingo, the Cathedral and the Escorial, depends on the subject. In comparable representations of Saints, as of the Magdalene or Saint Jerome in the wilderness, he continues to indicate a setting. Where the image alone is demanded, as in his series of Apostles, a setting is omitted. In this painting the forms of tree and rock and the silhouette of the foliage are made to continue the plane of the figure. It is perhaps the natural sequence in the process of dematerialization that the more flexible elements, the draperies, preceded the nude figure and natural forms.

El Greco did not use the pose again for a Saint Sebastian. A related figure is the Christ in the Prado Baptism of some fifteen to twenty years later; the Saint Jerome of his last year shows the culmination of this development. The compositional motif of the pose, with the outstretched leg taking the movement upwards appears in the Adoration of the Shepherds of similar date, and indeed in El Greco's work is first met in the Adoration of the Modena Triptych.

Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Lawrence: 1578-80

This is the only version of this subject painted by El Greco.

Portrait of a Gentleman from the Casa de Leiva: 1580

The sitter was identified with Alonso Martínez de Leiva, knight of the Order of Santiago. The original inscription became partly illegible due to restoration and drastic cleaning.

An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool (Fabula): 1577-79

The central figure is closely based on El Greco's earlier painting of a Boy Blowing on an Ember in Naples but the scene has been enlarged to include another male figure, wearing a yellow jacket and red cap, and a chained monkey, who emerges from the darkness on the left to look over the boy's shoulder. The composition, known in two other autograph versions (one of similar size in Edinburgh from around 1590, and another smaller and later in the Prado from around 1600), has usually been interpreted as an allegory with some sort of moralizing intent; it is unlikely that it was conceived simply as a genre scene. It bears the traditional title 'Fábula', meaning fable or story.

Saint Veronica Holding the Veil: ca 1580

El Greco treated the theme of the veil of Veronica several times. This version is one of El Greco's important paintings of the period. The artist used the same model as for one of the Marys in the Disrobing (El Espolio), but the degree of naturalism varies considerably in these two contemporary renderings.

The Ecstasy of Saint Francis: ca 1580

There are more than a hundred representations of Saint Francis executed by the workshop of El Greco mainly for the commissons of the three Franciscan monasteries and seven cloisters in Toledo. This formerly unknown signed painting was found during an inventory of the artworks in 1966 in Poland.

Christ on the Cross Adored by Two Donors: ca 1580

A priest and a nobleman, probably the patrons who commissioned the painting, are shown praying before Christ on the cross. (It is assumed by some scholars that they are the brothers Diego and Antonio Covarrubias.) El Greco has included realistic details such as the drops of blood trickling from Christ's forehead, hands and feet, while leaving his torso and legs unstained. Light and shadow model Christ's musculature, the elongation of his contorted body enhancing a sense of his suffering. Above his head a sheet of paper stuck to the cross informs us in Hebrew, Greek and Latin that he is Jesus of Nazareth, with the additional ironic words in Greek hailing him as the King of Jews.

The influence of Michelangelo - whose works El Greco would have known in Rome - is recognized in the depiction of the naked Christ. In fact, the posture and anatomy of El Greco's Christ echo in reverse Michelangelo's drawing for Vittoria Colonna.


El Greco did not plan to settle permanently in Toledo, since his final aim was to win the favor of Philip and make his mark in his court. Indeed, he did manage to secure two important commissions from the monarch: Allegory of the Holy League and Martyrdom of St. Maurice. However, the king did not like these works and placed the St Maurice altarpiece in the chapter-house rather than the intended chapel. He gave no further commissions to El Greco. The exact reasons for the king's dissatisfaction remain unclear. Some scholars have suggested that Philip did not like the inclusion of living persons in a religious scene; some others that El Greco's works violated a basic rule of the Counter-Reformation, namely that in the image the content was paramount rather than the style. Philip took a close interest in his artistic commissions, and had very decided tastes; a long sought-after sculpted Crucifixion by Benvenuto Cellini also failed to please when it arrived, and was likewise exiled to a less prominent place. Philip's next experiment, with Federigo Zuccaro was even less successful. In any case, Philip's dissatisfaction ended any hopes of royal patronage El Greco may have had.


Paintings between 1581 and 1585

By EL GRECO

In addition to major altarpieces, El Greco did a booming trade in devotional pictures. Although rarely documented, these work supplied the artist's daily bread and were produced by him and his workshop in impressive quantities. It appears that he had a sort of sample case which could be shown to prospective customers, who would choose from reduced versions stored in a small room. The reason for the popularity of El Greco's devotional paintings is obvious: they are brilliantly rendered, and they also capture the piety and emotion of Counter-Reformation spirituality. Examples are St Peter in Penitence, and Mary Magdalen in Penitence.

Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest: 1583-85

In formal portraiture of the period, it is characteristic that the individuality of the sitter is subservient to the manifestation of virtue. El Greco's portrait of an unknown knight with his hand on his breast is an example. He is shown solemnly committing his whole being to a higher principle, for the gesture of placing the right hand on the heart signaled not only pious respect but also a declaration of intent that would be upheld as a matter of honor. Since the knight directly faces and presents himself to the viewer, exactly as if he were making a vow, the viewer becomes a witness to his solemn act.

Portrait of a Gentleman: 1580-85

The painting is in a bad state of conservation.

The Disrobing of Christ: 1583-84

This canvas with its larger than life-size figures is one of three versions which El Greco painted of the subject. The impression of the artist's Venetian years, and particularly the works of Titian, can still be felt in the strictly centralized composition, in the relatively plastic modeling of the figures, and above all in the sophistication of the palette. The way in which the figures below left are sliced by the frame, and the slight foreshortening employed in the figure of Christ, who appears to be leaning backwards into the picture, suggest that the canvas was destined to be hung at some height. If we consider in this regard the luminous red of Christ's robe, by which he is made to stand out from the crowd, and the multiple verticals of the figures and lances, the painting seems to point beyond its immediate subject to the coming ascension.

The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception and Saint John: ca 1585

The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception is related to Saint John's Vision of the Apocalypse: 'And there appeared a great wonder in Heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: and she being with child cried, . . . And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God and to his throne . . .' (Revelation, xii).

The roses, iris, olive, palm, portal and throne all belong to the iconography of the Immaculate Conception. The twelve stars have been omitted. This subject, related in composition to that of the Assumption of the Virgin, with which it is sometimes confused, was more suited to El Greco's genius, more in sympathy with the expression of the purely supernatural image. In Spain, he avoids anything that can be related to mundane actions or events, which would detract from the expression of the supernatural. The rather angular and schematic quality of the design is appropriate to the image, and captures something of the grand effect of Byzantine designs. The mandorla shape, belonging to this image - the clothing with the sun - is again introduced effectively in the Burial of the Count of Orgaz. The general pattern is retained in the splendid late painting in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. The subject inspired the great masterpiece of his last years.

The Holy Family: ca 1585

It was only after El Greco moved to Spain that he treated the theme of the Madonna and Child in both half-length and full-length format, however, he invariably included St Joseph, in keeping with the new prominence the saint was given in Counter-Reformation theology. The painting of the Hispanic Society of America is one of El Greco's finest paintings and his earliest treatment of the theme. It served as the point of departure for a larger canvas in the Hospital of St John the Baptist in Toledo (Tavera Hospital), in which the composition was enriched by the inclusion of St Anne to the left of the Virgin.

Saint Peter in Penitence: 1580's

This is the earliest version of a subject El Greco painted in at least six different autograph variants (several of which gave rise to studio copies) over the course of his career in Spain. He made the subject, which was new in the Counter-Reformation period, one of his specialties. In this painting St Peter raises his tear-filled eyes to Heaven, his hands joined in prayer. The background scene of visional qualities on the left represents the Magdalen returning from the empty tomb after receiving the announcement of Christ's resurrection from an angel.

St Peter appears a great number of times in El Greco's oeuvre and he is depicted with remarkable consistency. The saint is always shown with white hair and beard, and he often wears his yellow cloak over a blue tunic.

Saint Francis Praying: 1580's


Paintings between 1586 and 1590

By EL GRECO

In addition to major altarpieces, El Greco did a booming trade in devotional pictures. Examples from this period are St Francis Receiving the Stigmata,, Mary Magdalen in Penitence, St Dominic in Prayer, and Christ Carrying the Cross.

Christ on the Cross with the Two Maries and Saint John: ca 1588

Despite the signature it is doubtful whether the picture is by Greco's own hand. Copies of the St John and the Virgin, perhaps by Jorge Manuel, are in the possession of the Hispanic Society of America, New York.

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata: 1585-90

El Greco painted many representations of Saint Francis, all showing him in meditation, receiving the stigmata or experiencing a vision. Devotion to St Francis was highly developed in Spain, and in El Greco's time there were in Toledo alone ten Franciscan religious institutions. Many ordinary Toledans were members of the Third Order of Saint Francis, established so that lay people could participate in the spiritual life of the Franciscans. (El Greco himself was a lay Franciscan.) This serves to explain the success of El Greco's images of the saint.

Julián Romero de las Azanas and his Patron Saint: 1585-90

The patron saint was identified as St Louis of France. The collaboration of the workshop is assumed.

Mary Magdalen in Penitence: 1585-90

During the course of his career El Greco developed five different compositions representing the Magdalen in penitence. Compared with the earlier Magdalen in Budapest, here El Greco conveys a vision of complete penitence. Sensual beauty has given way to a meditative attitude.

Portrait of Doctor Rodrigo de la Fuente (El Médico): 1588-89

The identity of the sitter is confirmed by a portrait in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid with an inscription of his name.

Portrait of Rodrigo Vázquez: 1585-90

The inscription at the top of the painting: Rodrigo Vázquez Presidente de Castilla.

Christ Carrying the Cross: 1580's

This painting is among the most beautiful devotional paintings of El Greco. It was very successful: there are seven closely related versions of this image for private meditation.

The Holy Family: 1586-88

This painting from the Santa Leocadia in Toledo (presently on loan to the Museo de Santa Cruz) is El Greco's earliest version of the full-length depictions of the Holy Family. Two inferior paintings derive from it, a smaller version in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and another in the Prado, Madrid. The primary difference between the Santa Leocadia version and the others is the substitution in those works of a conventional image of St Joseph for the balding figure that appears in this one. This figure is probably a portrait of the donor. It was painted out at one point and was only revealed by cleaning in 1981. Noteworthy is the figure of St John the Baptist: he turns towards the viewer and makes a gesture urging silence so that the child will not be awakened.

Saint Dominic in Prayer: 1586-90

The painting represents the thirteenth-century founder of the Dominican order kneeling in isolation on a rocky plateau in prayerful devotion before a crucifix. Behind him is a landscape with one of El Greco's haunting skies filled with swirling, back-lit clouds. Considering the individual features El Greco has given the saint, it is assumed that the picture was based upon the features of a particular person, someone the artist knew personally.

The crucifix, propped against the rocks, is repeated by El Greco in a number of paintings showing saints in devotion: he must have created a drawn or painted model that he could refer to for replication.

The Agony in the Garden: ca 1590

There are many versions of The Agony in the Garden painted by El Greco and his workshop; it was one of his most successful inventions. He painted the subject both as a horizontal and as a vertical composition. The version in the Ohio museum is probably the prototype, or at least the best autograph version of the horizontal type.

The Agony in the Garden testifies to an astonishing development of the artist. The Italian influences recede to the same degree as El Greco frees himself from his obligation to nature. The figures lose their sense of substance, while their expressiveness is amplified by the unreal shapes assumed by the landscape. Thus Christ is literally heightened by the rock behind him, while the disciples are seen in a sheltering cave as a symbol of sleep. The figures are absolved from logical relationships of scale. The falling diagonal which leads from an angel, through Christ, to the soldiers on the right-hand edge of the painting is a visual statement of the inevitability of Christ's fate. Such departures from the natural model, also evident in the visionary apparition of the moon, were one of the major reasons for the revival of interest in El Greco's work around 1900.


Paintings between 1596 and 1600

By EL GRECO

El Greco created his extraordinary landscape, the View of Toledo, in the second half of the 1590s. This is one of the earliest independent landscapes in Western art and one of the most dramatic and individual landscapes ever painted.

The Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalen: 1595-1600

This composition of the Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalen was repeated many times by El Greco's workshop and imitators. In the painting, pervaded by a warm domesticity, we can find an anecdotal approach to a religious theme: St Joseph offers the Virgin a bowl of fruit from which she has selected two pieces to give to the Christ Child. This still-life detail of the clear glass bowl with fruit is the most striking feature of the picture.

It is supposed that the head of Mary is a portrait of Doña Jerónima de las Cuevas while that of St Joseph is a self-portrait of the artist.

A View of Toledo: 1597-99

There are two surviving landscapes by El Greco: The View of Toledo (Metropolitan Museum, New York) and the View and Plan of Toledo (Museo de El Greco, Toledo). They respond to very different objectives: one setting out to document the city in cartographic terms, the other evoking it through a selective arrangement of its most characteristic features. The Metropolitan painting belongs to a tradition of emblematic city views; its approach is interpretative rather than documentary: it seeks to portray the essence of the city rather than to record its actual appearance.

Both in here and in the View and Plan the city is shown from the north, except that El Greco has included only the easternmost portion, above the Tagus river. This partial view would have excluded the cathedral, which he therefore imaginatively moved to the left of the dominant Alcázar or royal palace. The fact that an identical view appears in the Saint Joseph and the Christ Child in the Capilla de San José suggests that the painting was conceived in connection with the San José commission (1597-99). From that time, the town features in many of his paintings: in the Laocoön (National Gallery of Art, Washington), the Christ in Agony on the Cross (Cincinnati Art Museum), the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (Museo de Santa Cruz), in all of which it takes on an apocalyptical character appropriate to the themes. In his late Saint John the Baptist (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) the landscape of the Escorial is appropriately introduced.

This is one of the earliest independent landscapes in Western art and one of the most dramatic and individual landscapes ever painted. It is not just a 'View of Toledo', although the topographical details are correct; neither is it 'Toledo at night' or 'Toledo in a storm', other titles which have been attached to the painting: it is simply 'Toledo', but Toledo given a universal meaning - a spiritual portrait of the town. In introducing the view into his paintings he acknowledges how much his art owed to the inspiration of the town, until a few years before the great Imperial Capital and still the great ecclesiastical and cultural centre of Spain - the town isolated on the plain of Castile which he had made his new home, so far from the island of his birth.

Allegory of the Camaldolese Order: 1599-1600

Standing on a plinth to either side of a tabernacle containing two tablets with inscriptions are Saint Benedict (left) and Saint Romuald (right). In the sixth century St Benedict drew up the rule that became the basis of Western monasticism: it is presumably the Benedictine rule in the book he holds. Saint Romuald (c. 950-1027) was the founder of the austere Camaldolese order - and offshoot of the Benedictines - so called from the monastery he established at Camaldoli, a mountainous place near Arezzo in Italy, of which he holds a model in his hand.

In the painting the ideal monastic settlement is depicted: we see individual hermitages or cells, each with their own garden, built around a central chapel with a common building and fountain near the entrance gate. The community, sited on a mountainous plateau, is enclosed by a dense forest.


Lacking the favor of the king, El Greco was obliged to remain in Toledo, where he had been received in 1577 as a great painter. According to Hortensio Félix Paravicino, a 17th-century Spanish preacher and poet, "Crete gave him life and the painter's craft, Toledo a better homeland, where through Death he began to achieve eternal life." In 1585, he appears to have hired an assistant, Italian painter Francisco Preboste, and to have established a workshop capable of producing altar frames and statues as well as paintings. On March 12, 1586 he obtained the commission for The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, now his best-known work. The decade 1597 to 1607 was a period of intense activity for El Greco. During these years he received several major commissions, and his workshop created pictorial and sculptural ensembles for a variety of religious institutions. Among his major commissions of this period were three altars for the Chapel of San José in Toledo (1597-1599); three paintings (1596-1600) for the Colegio de Doña María de Aragon, an Augustinian monastery in Madrid, and the high altar, four lateral altars, and the painting St. Ildefonso for the Capilla Mayor of the Hospital de la Caridad (Hospital of Charity) at Illescas (1603-1605). The minutes of the commission of The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (1607-1613), which were composed by the personnel of the municipality, describe El Greco as "one of the greatest men in both this kingdom and outside it".


The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-88)

By EL GRECO

No picture better demonstrates the essence of El Greco's art than his most famous, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, which was painted for his own parish church, Santo Tomé. Gonzalo Ruiz de Toledo, Count of Orgaz, was a Toledan nobleman who had lived in the fourteenth century and acquired a renown as a donor to religious institutions. Before he died, he had willed certain rents from the village of Orgaz to the church of Santo Tomé, where he had elected to be buried. In 1586 the parish priest initiated a project to refurbish the count's burial chapel, and commissioned El Greco to paint what has to be considered as his masterpiece.

The most striking aspect of the composition is the juxtaposition of the imaginative vision of heaven with the burial scene, in which all the figures are garbed in contemporary costumes and presumably represent distinguished citizens of Al Greco's Toledo. The dichotomy in style between the upper and lower parts is one of the most remarkable feature of the painting. In the lower zone, El Greco meticulously reproduces the appearances of persons and objects. The heavenly scene, by contrast is far more abstracted. This peculiar synthesis of real and super-real is essential to El Greco's art.

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz: 1586-88

The contract for the painting is dated 18th March 1586. El Greco agreed to finish the painting by Christmas of the same year. This commission again resulted in litigation over the valuation, the final outcome of which was that the artist accepted the amount of the original valuation, 1200 ducados.

The painting illustrates a popular local legend. In 1312, a certain Don Gonzalo Ruíz, native of Toledo, and Señor of the town of Orgaz, died (the family received the title of Count, by which he is generally known, only later). He was a pious man who, among other charitable acts, left moneys for the enlargement and adornment of the church of Santo Tomé (El Greco's parish church). At his burial, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine intervened to lay him to rest. The occasion for the commission of the painting for the chapel in which the Señor was buried, was the resumption of the tribute payable to the church by the town of Orgaz, which had been withheld for over two centuries.

The painting remains in the chapel - the actual scene of the event - for which it was ordered. Already in 1588, people flocked to see the painting. This immediate popular reception depended, however, on the 'life-like portrayal of the notable men of Toledo of the time'. Indeed, this painting is sufficient to rank El Greco among the few great portrait painters. Nowadays the painting can communicate to us a whole society and age, as perhaps no other single work of art can, and at the same time offer us one of the great marvels of painting.

It was the custom for the eminent and noble men of the town to assist at the burial of the high-born, and it was stipulated in the contract that the scene should be represented in this way. Without the contemporary confirmation, it would be clear that all are portraits. Unfortunately, there is no record of the identity of the sitters. Andrés Núñez, the parish priest, and a friend of El Greco's, who was responsible for the commission, is certainly the figure on the extreme right. The artist himself can be recognized in the caballero third from the left, immediately above the head of Saint Stephen. The artist's son acts as the young page. The signature of the artist appears on the handkerchief in the pocket of the young boy, and by a strange conceit it is followed by the date '1578' - the year of Jorge Manuel's birth, and certainly not the date of the painting. The boy points to the body of the deceased, thus bringing together birth and death.

The painting is very clearly divided into two zones, the heavenly above and the terrestrial below, but there is little feeling of duality. The upper and lower zones are brought together compositionally (e.g., by the standing figures, by their varied participation in the earthly and heavenly event, by the torches, cross . . .). The grand circular mandorla-like pattern of the two Saints descended from Heaven echoes the pattern formed by the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist, and the action is given explicit expression. The point of equilibrium is the outstretched hand poised in the void between the two Saints, whence the mortal body descends, and the Soul, in the medieval form of a transparent and naked child, is taken up by the angel to be received in Heaven. The supernatural appearance of the Saints is enhanced by the splendor of color and light of their gold vestments. The powerful cumulative emotion expressed by the group of participants is suffused and sustained through the composition by the splendor, variety and vitality of the color and of light.

This is the first completely personal work by the artist. There are no longer any references to Roman or Venetian formulas or motifs. He has succeeded in eliminating any description of space. There is no ground, no horizon, no sky and no perspective. Accordingly, there is no conflict, and a convincing expression of a supernatural space is achieved. This is the beginning of his real development, and the process of dematerialization and spiritualization continues.


Doña María de Aragón Altarpiece (1596-1600)

By EL GRECO

The Colegio de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnacion (College of Our Lady of the Incarnation), also known as the Colegio de Doña María de Aragón, was an Augustinian seminary in Madrid for the training of priests. Construction of the church began in 1581 and El Greco - who was resident in Toledo and had relatively few contacts in Madrid - was fortunate to obtain the contract for the main altarpiece. The agreement between the painter and the Council of Castile was signed in December 1596 and required El Greco to deliver the altarpiece (including carpentry, sculptures and gilding) by Christmas 1599. The altarpiece was eventually completed in July 1600.

The Doña María de Aragón altarpiece was the most important commission El Greco received and he was paid just under 6000 ducats for it, a vast sum, and more than he earned for any other work. It was here that he first fully realised the traits of his late, 'mystical' style - elongated forms, flickering effects of light, colour combinations that verge on dissonance (copper-resinate green, rose-to-magenta, golden yellow and blue), and an emphasis on ecstatic gestures and expressions.

The altarpiece was dismantled in 1810, following the suppression by Joseph Bonaparte of the religious orders in Spain. No detailed description of it survives, but according to a document of 1814 it comprised seven paintings and six sculptures. There has been much debate in recent years over the altarpiece's original appearance, but there is considerable agreement that it comprised five paintings today in the Prado, The Resurrection, The Crucifixion, The Pentecost, The Baptism of Christ and The Annunciation, and a sixth, The Adoration of the Shepherds, in Bucharest. The seventh painting is presumed lost and it has been suggested that it may have been a Coronation of the Virgin.

The Annunciation: 1596-1600

The "expressionist" stylistic traits, characteristic of El Greco's paintings at the end of the 1590s, are also found in the paintings of a retable El Greco created for the Augustinian college of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnacion in Madrid between 1596 and 1600. The patroness of the college, the lady-in-waiting Doña María de Cordoba y Aragón, had died back in 1593, implying that the commission likely came from her executor. The retable, like many other works in possession of the Church, was disassembled into its component parts during the French occupation of Spain. All we know from the surviving written sources is that El Greco supplied a total of seven paintings. This Annunciation in the Prado is one of these paintings, and it is an especially good example of the daring palette that characterizes the entire series.

At the bottom of the canvas, the terrestrial world is barely indicated by the steps, sewing basket and rose-bush in flame. The flames are rendered so naturalistically that they probably have appeared to mirror the real candle flames burning on the altar during the celebration of the Mass. But above and beyond El Greco has distorted light, color and form. Indeed, all the forms are in a state of flux. The grand rhythm of the wings of Gabriel and the Holy Spirit quicken the drama. Garments of crystalline blue, crimson and yellow-green vibrate against the blue-grey void. Incandescent light is reflected off the figures with such intensity that each seems to be its own source of light.

Adoration of the Shepherds: 1596-1600

Probably originally on the left of the retable of the Colegio de Doña Maria, and painted following the Annunciation. A small version, possibly the model for the large painting, is in the Galleria Corsini, Rome. The scrolls borne by the angels bear the inscription in Latin: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men (Luke II, I4); another popular subject in El Greco's repertoire, painted throughout his life. It was one of the subjects of the Modena Triptych, and of his first commission in Spain, that for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, and was the subject chosen for his own burial chapel in Santo Domingo.

A comparison with the earlier painting of the same subject in Santo Domingo shows the advance made in the process of developing a style appropriate to the expression of the supernatural. There is no reference to the ordinary conception of space of this world, there are no allusions to the corporal quality of the figures, whose gestures also belong to the realm of imagination and not to that of ordinary experience. Light is the important dematerializing and expressive element in this painting. The Santo Domingo painting can still be related to a human event.

The Baptism: 1596-1600

Painted for the high altar of the Colegio de Doña Maria, Madrid

The retable no longer exists, and the paintings are dispersed. The subjects of the paintings of the retable are not recorded, but it is assumed that they illustrated the Life of Christ. For reasons of size, style, and subject matter, the following paintings probably came from the retable: the Annunciation, the widest painting, in the centre (the church was dedicated to the Virgin of the Annunciation); the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Baptism of Christ, two paintings of the same size, on the left and right of the Annunciation; the Crucifixion above the Annunciation; and the Resurrection and Pentecost, another pair of identical size, flanking the Crucifixion (the whole forming a retable of a type known in the Escorial). Such an arrangement gives a chronological sequence to the events of the Life of Christ. The payment of 6000 ducados (for the paintings and retable) indicates a large commission. Small versions, probably models, exist for the three paintings more generally accepted as belonging to the retable, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Baptism of Christ.

Probably originally on the right of the retable of the Colegio de Doña María, balancing the Adoration of the Shepherds, and painted at the same time. A small version, possibly the model for the large painting, is in the Galleria Corsini, Rome. A later development of this subject, only treated once before, in the Modena Triptych, is the painting for the Hospital de San Juan Bautista, Toledo, probably completed after his death by Jorge Manuel. The pose of the Christ is related to that of the Saint Sebastian of c. 1580. The bipartite composition can be related to the Burial of the Count of Orgaz, the portraits giving place to the range of angels. The splendid ecstatic figure of the angel, between the Baptist and Christ, is one of a number of such symbols that he began to introduce into his painting. If his figures - the actual participants in the action - become increasingly dematerialized, these new symbols appear as emotions materialized in gesture and color.

The Crucifixion: 1596-1600

Christ on the Cross, at the moment of expiration, with the Virgin and Saint John, and at the foot of the Cross, the Magdalene. It was probably originally above the Annunciation, in the retable of the Colegio of Doña María. This painting and the Annunciation are the two widest of the series.

Already, in Santo Domingo el Antiguo, the artist had sensibly related together in composition the two central paintings of the high altar, the Assumption and Trinity. Again, there is this compositional relationship of the two paintings, but there is also something more in this bringing together of the two so diverse yet intimately related themes of the Virgin's reception of the Holy Ghost, and Christ's giving up of the Holy Ghost. One subject represents one of the Joys of the Virgin, and the other incorporates one of Her Grief's. Each painting is divided horizontally in three. The figure of Christ of the Expiration is a continuation upwards of the central zone of the Annunciation with the Flames and the Dove; the figure of the Archangel Gabriel has its counterpart in the figure of Saint John; and the Virgin of Joy appears above as the Virgin of Grief.

This painting of the Crucifixion is one of the great interpretations of the subject in painting and almost inevitably brings to mind two other great Crucifixions, Grünewald's of the Isenheim Altar and Giotto's of the Arena Chapel. El Greco has introduced more of those symbols embodying spiritual emotions: the clamoring angels with outstretched arms encircling the Body of Christ - strangely recalling Giotto's painting - and the remarkable figure of the angel at the foot of the Cross.

The Resurrection: 1596-1600

Probably painted for the Colegio de Doña Maria, Madrid

It is of the same size and shape as the Pentecost, to which it was almost certainly a pair. The place of these two paintings in the chapel is more difficult to decide. The Resurrection was almost certainly on the left and the Pentecost on the right, because of their relationship in meaning with the Nativity and the Baptism, respectively. If they were placed above these two paintings, the narrower format would correspond with the upper range of paintings. This and the Pentecost would have been the last of the paintings executed for the Colegio.

Only one other painting of the subject by El Greco is known, that for Santo Domingo el Antiguo. This painting and the Adoration of the Shepherds are higher in proportion to their width than the corresponding paintings in Santo Domingo el Antiguo.

Christ is shown in a blaze of glory, striding through the air and holding the white banner of victory over death. The soldiers who had been placed at the tomb to guard it scatter convulsively. Two of them cover their eyes, shielding themselves from the radiance, and two others raise one hand in a gesture of acknowledgement of the supernatural importance of the event. Another wearing a helmet decorated with brilliantly coloured plumes, rests his cheek on his hand - the traditional pose of melancholy - still unaware of Christ's resurrection. El Greco's skill in creating dramatically foreshortened figures is clamorously apparent in the soldier wearing a yellow cuirass sprawled in the foreground and in the adjacent soldier in green. By excluding any visual reference to the tomb or to landscape, El Greco removed the scene from the realm of history, he articulated its universal significance through the dynamism of nine figures that make up the composition and the intensity of the light and colors

. Again El Greco has created one of the greatest interpretations of the subject in art. It can, perhaps, only be compared with the great masterpiece by Piero della Francesca. Light is the important element in this image of the Risen Christ, as it was in the Adoration of the Shepherds, but of a different quality. The movement has an incomparably greater force than in the Santo Domingo painting and has nothing of the sharp explosive quality of the earlier work. The movement is not dissipated, but is contained and concentrated. The figures now are vehicles of movement and light. It is interesting to compare the treatment of the classical 'draperies' of the soldier at the base of the composition with those of the saintly warriors of the Martyrdom of Saint Maurice and his Legions.

The Pentecost: 1596-1600

Certainly a pair to the Resurrection and almost certainly painted for the Colegio de Doña María. The two paintings appear to be of the same date and same dimension, that is, the last to be painted for the Colegio. They were probably positioned on the second storey of the altarpiece, possibly either side of the Crucifixion now in the Prado.

There are, however, certain passages in this painting that suggest over painting or finishing by another hand (Jorge Manuel's?), which could point to a separate contract for this pair of paintings for the college. He was late in finishing the commission and there were difficulties in collecting moneys from the College - was the last of the series left unfinished, and completed later by his son? The Apostle second from the right is certainly a portrait of the artist, and the same portrait appears in the Marriage of the Virgin, one of his last works.


Decoration of the Chapel of the Hospital de la Caridad at Illescas (1603-05)

By EL GRECO

In 1603 El Greco received the commission for a new altarpiece for the Hospital de la Caridad, Illescas. The commission included the decoration of the whole chapel, including the design for the retable and the provision of sculptures as well as paintings of the Madonna of Charity, Coronation of the Virgin, Annunciation and Nativity. The contract stipulated that the altarpiece should be in place by 31 August 1604. However, the work was completed only by 4 August 1605, and a bitter and lengthy litigation started over the price which ended with compromise in March 1607.

The Annunciation: 1603-05

On 18 June 1603 El Greco signed a contract to make and decorate an altarpiece for a miraculous image of the Virgin of Charity belonging to the Hospital de la Caridad in the small town of Illescas halfway between Toledo and Madrid. According to the contract the main altarpiece and the decoration of the vault were to contain four canvases: The Madonna of Charity, The Coronation of the Virgin, The Annunciation and The Nativity. This project was executed in collaboration with the artist's son, Jorge Manual Theotokopoulos. Under a separate contract a further painting, St Ildefonso was made.

The Coronation of the Virgin: 1603-05

The pattern of The Coronation of the Virgin follows closely that of El Greco's first treatment of the subject at Talavera in 1591. The design is effectively adapted to the oval field and to a viewpoint from below, as are also the flanking circular paintings.

The Nativity: 1603-05

Although El Greco treated the subject of the nativity several times, this is his only version depicting the Holy Family without other human participants. In the shadows to the left, an ass contemplates the scene. In the foreground the foreshortened head of an ox, his horn echoing the curve of the circular format, looks up from below.

The Madonna of Charity: 1603-05

All the portraits The Madonna of Charity are of men of Toledo of El Greco's time. The ruffs had grown to rather exaggerated proportions in the twenty years from the time of the Burial of the Count of Orgaz, and their introduction into the painting was censured by the Hospital authorities. At some time they were painted over, but have been recently restored. El Greco's son appears on the extreme right, at about the same age as in the portrait in Seville.

Saint Ildefonso: 1603-05

The painting is in the side altar on the left of the main chapel of the church, balancing the Virgin of Charity. Its original place in the church is not known. The painting is not mentioned in the incomplete documentation for the decoration of the chapel, and if, as is probable, it was not painted at the same time, it cannot date much before June 1603, the date of the contract, and was more likely painted soon after the conclusion of litigation in August 1607. In its present position, it makes a grand pair to the Virgin of Charity, and is one of the most splendid of his 'portraits' of Saints.

It is difficult, and perhaps not proper, to separate his portraits of Saints from his actual portraits. In both he employs all his means of spiritual or psychological expression. The legend is that Saint Ildefonso, the first Bishop of Toledo, presented an image of the Virgin of the Mantle to a foundation of his in Illescas. The Saint is portrayed before the same image, as he wrote his dissertation on the Purity of the Virgin. The state of inspiration is brilliantly expressed. There is an infinite distinction in expression between the hand poised with the pen in this 'portrait' and the similar motif in the portrait of his son. In his depiction of St Ildefonso, El Greco anticipated a Baroque motif, that of the learned churchman. As if receiving inspiration, the saint is seated at a desk covered with an array of utensils that is unusually detailed for the artist.

There is a smaller replica of the picture in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It belonged once to the painter Jean François Millet, and later to Edgar Degas.


Between 1607 and 1608 El Greco was involved in a protracted legal dispute with the authorities of the Hospital of Charity at Illescas concerning payment for his work, which included painting, sculpture and architecture; this and other legal disputes contributed to the economic difficulties he experienced towards the end of his life. In 1608, he received his last major commission: for the Hospital of Saint John the Baptist in Toledo.

El Greco made Toledo his home. Surviving contracts mention him as the tenant from 1585 onwards of a complex consisting of three apartments and twenty-four rooms which belonged to the Marquis de Villena. It was in these apartments, which also served as his workshop, that he passed the rest of his life, painting and studying. He lived in considerable style, sometimes employing musicians to play while he dined. It is not confirmed whether he lived with his Spanish female companion, Jerónima de Las Cuevas, whom he probably never married. She was the mother of his only son, Jorge Manuel, born in 1578, who also became a painter, assisted his father, and continued to repeat his compositions for many years after he inherited the studio. In 1604, Jorge Manuel and Alfonsa de los Morales gave birth to El Greco's grandson, Gabriel, who was baptized by Gregorio Angulo, governor of Toledo and a personal friend of the artist.

During the course of the execution of a commission for the Hospital Tavera, El Greco fell seriously ill, and a month later, on April 7, 1614, he died. A few days earlier, on March 31, he had directed that his son should have the power to make his will. Two Greeks, friends of the painter, witnessed this last will and testament (El Greco never lost touch with his Greek origins). He was buried in the Church of Santo Domingo el Antigua.


The Santo Domingo el Antiguo Altarpieces (1577-79)

By EL GRECO

Having the previous month signed the contract for The Disrobing of Christ for the vestry of Toledo Cathedral, in August 1577 El Greco was formally engaged by Diego de Castilla, dean of Toledo Cathedral, to paint three altarpieces for the Cistercian convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The two side altars were to be decorated with The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Resurrection (still in situ), while the main altar received an enormous, multi-tiered altarpiece with six canvases that had as its focus The Assumption of the Virgin (signed and dated 1577, now in the Art Institute, Chicago) and The Trinity (Prado, Madrid). The complex was among the most ambitious of El Greco's career and constituted one of his finest achievements. The missing canvases - The Assumption of the Virgin, The Trinity, and the half-length figures of Saint Benedict and Saint Bernard - have been replaced by copies, so that the character of the altarpiece can still be appreciated.

El Greco was supplied with plans of the church as well as designs for the frames of the lateral altarpieces drawn up by Juan de Herrera, Philip II's architect at the Escorial. El Greco had furnished drawings for the project. Additionally, he was to superintend the design of the frames as well as of a tabernacle and five statues to adorn the main altarpiece - two of Prophets and three of Virtues (Faith, Charity and Hope). Like the frames, these statues were carved - with significant modifications - by Juan Bautista Monegro (c. 1545-1621), who was also responsible for the cherubs holding an escutcheon with the sudarium.

This involvement with the frames of his altarpieces as well as with their sculptural adornment was to become typical of El Greco, who in Venice had learned to model figures in clay and wax to study elaborate poses.

The Santo Domingo altarpieces were a fitting debut for Toledo's greatest artistic genius, newly arrived from Italy, his mind filled with the most advanced ideas about the possibilities of art as a communicator of ideas and as a vehicle for the expression of spiritual values.

Retable and Side Altars: 1577-99

Having the previous month signed the contract for The Disrobing of Christ for the vestry of Toledo Cathedral; in August 1577 El Greco was formally engaged by Diego de Castilla (1510/15-1584), dean of Toledo Cathedral, to paint three altarpieces for the Cistercian convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The two side altars were to be decorated with The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Resurrection (still in situ), while the main altar received an enormous, multi-tiered altarpiece with six canvases that had as its focus The Assumption of the Virgin (signed and dated 1577, now in the Art Institute, Chicago) and The Trinity (Prado, Madrid). The complex was among the most ambitious of El Greco's career and constituted one of his finest achievements. The missing canvases - The Assumption of the Virgin, The Trinity, and the half-length figures of Saint Benedict and Saint Bernard - have been replaced by copies, so that the character of the altarpiece can still be appreciated.

El Greco was supplied with plans of the church as well as designs for the frames of the lateral altarpieces drawn up by Juan de Herrera, Philip II's architect at the Escorial. El Greco had furnished drawings for the project and he promised to paint the specified scenes to the complete satisfaction of Don Diego and to remain in Toledo until the work was finished. Additionally, he was to superintend the design of the frames as well as of a tabernacle and five statues to adorn the main altarpiece - two of Prophets and three of Virtues (Faith, Charity and Hope). Like the frames, these statues were carved - with significant modifications - by Juan Bautista Monegro (c. 1545-1621), who was also responsible for the cherubs holding an escutcheon with the sudarium.

This involvement with the frames of his altarpieces as well as with their sculptural adornment was to become typical of El Greco, who owned the architectural treatises of Vitruvius and Serlio and in Venice had learned to model figures in clay and wax to study elaborate poses. It was by means of his carefully articulated, almost rigorously classical frames that El Greco created a neutral foil for the agitated, spiritual world his paintings conjure up. In the great Assumption of the Virgin, the Apostle closest to the picture frame turns his back to the viewer, thus closing off the steep, notional space of the painting: the viewer is a distanced spectator. By contrast, in the smaller, lateral altarpiece of The Adoration of the Shepherds, a half-length figure of Saint Jerome seems to pose a book on the edge of the frame and turns to address the viewer, serving as a link between two worlds: he is painted in a distinctly more realistic style than the figures of The Adoration, positioned deeper in space, and he thus serves as a mediator between the real and the fictive.

The Santo Domingo altarpieces were a fitting debut for Toledo's greatest artistic genius, newly arrived from Italy, his mind filled with the most advanced ideas about the possibilities of art as a communicator of ideas and as a vehicle for the expression of spiritual values.

High Altar: 1577

The Assumption of the Virgin: 1577

Painted for the central panel of the High Altarpiece of the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, Toledo, was the commission which brought El Greco to Spain. This, the first work executed in Spain, is the only painting by El Greco bearing the date of its execution. It is the first large-scale painting by his hand.

There is a clear reminiscence of Venetian paintings of the subject, and specifically of Titian's early masterpiece in the church of the Frari in Venice, but the treatment is his own. The Virgin rises as from a chalice formed by the two unified groups on either side of the open tomb, which introduce and extend motifs developed in his Cleansing of the Temple and Healing of the Blind. A complete unity is achieved in this bipartite composition, in which the circle of Apostles, with its contained and concentrated internal movement, or emotion, is continued in the circle of angels with their easy and sympathetic movement around the rising figure of the Virgin. There is a sustained rhythm of the expressions, gestures and surface treatment within each group, and an easy and inevitable connection of one group with another. This is achieved essentially by paint, the measured relationship of the passages of color over the surface. This also explains his treatment of the draperies, which has its own logic, has no suggestion of conflict, but is also not concerned with disclosing the anatomy beneath

. When we compare the The Assumption of the Virgin with the famous painting on the same subject by Titian in the Frari Church in Venice, it becomes clear how new were the paths El Greco took in Spain. Under the influence of Michelangelo he not only found an unusually naturalistic style with monumental figures, but adopted a palette tending towards that of the Roman school. The great luminosity of the painting is striking, an illumination that, probably not coincidentally, conforms with the real light falling on it from above. No other version of the subject is known, but the painting may be regarded as the forerunner of the related composition of the Immaculate Conception, a subject more compatible with El Greco's mystical approach to the Universe.

The Trinity: 1577

Painted for the attic of the High Altarpiece of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, Toledo, to go above the Assumption. Probably painted 1577-78, following the Assumption. It was El Greco's first commission upon his arrival in Toleedo in 1577. It gained great fame in Toledo, which was artistically rather archaic and provincial, and established a successful career for El Greco in the town.

Here the reference is to Rome, rather than to Venice, and specifically to Michelangelo, developing the motif of the Pietà. The general scheme of the composition of the Trinity, however, refers to Dürer's engraving of the same subject. The composition continues that of the Assumption below, slowing down the upward movement which finally comes to rest in the supported shoulders of Christ. Form is more in evidence here than in the Assumption, especially in the Michelangelesque motif of the naked Christ (for which the artist probably drew inspiration from Michelangelo's Pietà for Vittoria Colonna), and it is only later that he treats his figures with the same freedom as draperies. Here the suggestion of weight in the supported Dead Christ is appropriate. The stress on the dead body of Christ, together with the clamorous mannerist colors and the rather loose composition of the figures, produces a feverish pathos.

El Greco was not to repeat this subject.

Saint John the Baptist: 1577-79

The figures of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist flank the central large painting of The Assumption on the High Altar in the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo. In contrast with the Assumption, which is substituted by a copy, these paintings remained in situ.

Saint John the Evangelist: 1577-79

Escutcheon with St Veronica's Veil: 1579

The sudarium (the cloth with which Veronica wiped Christ's face on the way to Calvary) is shown like a precious object, surrounded by a carved frame that is held by two cherubs or putti. (The cherubs were carved by Juan Bautista Monegro (c. 1545-1621). The ensemble formed part of the elaborate frame of the main altarpiece for the Cistercian convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo. Probably this was the last part of the altarpiece El Greco painted.

In the painting, El Greco created a hauntingly disembodied likeness, with Christ staring at the viewer in the fashion of a Byzantine icon.

The Resurrection: 1579

Painted for the side altar on the Epistle Side (right) of the church, and still in place. Probably painted 1578-79, following the completion of the High Altarpiece

The presence of Saint Ildefonso, the patron Saint of Toledo, was stipulated in the documents. Diego de Castilla, the Dean of Toledo Cathedral, is probably represented in this figure, which certainly is a portrait. The figure assists in setting an ideal plane for the enacting of the mystic event. El Greco has eliminated the intrusion of an incongruous space. The ground running parallel with the plane of the action produces no conflict. The rhythm of the passages of colour and light over the surface helps to hold together the composition, with its dramatic split revealing the figure of the Risen Christ. What suggestions remain of an ordinary conception of space, of corporeality and of a schematic quality of composition, disappear in his final version of the subject (painted in 1596-1600, now in the Prado, Madrid).


Apostolados: the Series of Christ and the Apostles (1610-14)

By EL GRECO

El Greco painted several series in which Christ and the Apostles appear as separate images (Apostolados). The artist accepted the assistance of collaborators in some of these he painted in the final years of his life, but it is no less certain that he preserved until the very end that absolute mastery over his art so conspicuous in the superb series in the Museo de El Greco in Toledo. Other (incomplete) series are in the Toledo Cathedral, in Oviedo and in the Prado.

The group of thirteen pictures in the Museo de El Greco was conceived as a whole, with Christ looking directly at the viewer, six of the Apostles turning to the right and six to the left. The expressive, fragmentary brushwork has led some to suppose that the series was left unfinished at El Greco's death.

Literally, the apostles (from the Greek apostolos, envoy, messenger) are the twelve disciples of Christ whom he sent out to evangelise the nations. The name was also given at a later date to the small number of saints who continued the task of evangelisation begun by the first "apostles", and who are also considered as emissaries of Christ. Following St Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, come, among many others, St Martin, the apostle of the Gauls; St Boniface, apostle of Frisia and Germany; and SS. Cyril and Methodius, apostles of the Slavs. The original twelve formed a group which served to witness that the Jesus they knew was indeed the Messiah.

In the lists given in the New Testament, the earliest disciples - Peter (Simon Peter), Andrew, James the Greater (or Great) and John - are always named first. A second group of four follows: Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas. Finally appear James the Less, Jude (or Thaddaeus), Simon the Canaanite and Judas Iscariot. Peter always occupies the first place and Judas the last; the latter was replaced by Matthias after the betrayal. However, in all of El Greco's Apostolados, Apostle Paul is chosen to replace Judas. Although not one of the original twelve whom Christ chose to be his closest followers, Paul became the 'Apostle of the Gentiles' following his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus.

Popular piety had all the apostles die for the true faith and their legends include a number of different methods of martyrdom. Like Christ, five were crucified: Peter and Philip upside down and Andrew on a cross saltire.

Apostle Saint Peter: 1610-14

Peter, 'the Prince of the Apostles', was brother of Andrew and a fisherman of Galilee. He and his brother were called to be 'fishers of men'. Peter was leader of the Twelve and one of the closest to Christ. His life divides into three parts: he accompanied Christ during his ministry; after the crucifixion he led the apostles in their teaching of the gospel (the Acts); according to several early accounts, he went to Rome where he established the first Christian community and was crucified by Nero in A.D. 64.

Apostle Saint Andrew: 1610-14

Apostle, was brother of Peter, a Galilean fisherman, and the first to follow Christ (John 1:40-41). The gospels contribute little to his iconography; the chief source is the apocryphal book of the 'Acts of Andrew' (3rd century), retold in the Golden Legend. According to this he made missionary journeys to Scythian Russia, Asia Minor and Greece, preaching and performing many acts of healing. At Nicaea he delivered the inhabitants from seven demons who plagued them in the shape of dogs. At Thessalonica the parents of a young man whom he had converted to Christianity set fire to his house, with Andrew and their son in it. When the young man miraculously extinguished the fire by sprinkling a small bottle of water over the flames, his parents, still seeking vengeance, tried to enter the house by climbing ladders, but were immediately struck blind. The Golden Legend tells of a bishop dining with the devil, disguised as a courtesan. Just as he was about to yield to Satan, Andrew entered in the garb of a pilgrim, and drove the devil away. Andrew was executed by Egeas, the Roman governor of Patras in the Peloponnese. The governor's wife, Maximilla, being cured of a fatal sickness by the apostle, adopted Christianity and was persuaded by him to deny her husband his marital rights ever again. This, and not his preaching, seems to have been the cause of Andrew's imprisonment and subsequent crucifixion.

Andrew is the patron saint of Greece and Scotland. Among differing accounts of his relics, one tells of their being carried to the town of St Andrews in Scotland in the 4th century.

Apostle Saint James the Greater: 1610-14

Apostle St James the Greater was son of Zebedee, a fisherman of Galilee, and brother of John the Evangelist. He was among the circle of men closest to Christ, being present with Peter and John at the Transfiguration, and again at the Agony in the Garden, where the same three are seen sleeping while Christ prays. He was tried in Jerusalem in the year 44 by Herod Agrippa and executed.

Apostle St John the Evangelist: 1610-14

Apostle St John the Evangelist was the son of Zebedee, and brother of James and the presumed author of the fourth gospel and, by tradition, of the Apocalypse. He was one of the first to be called to follow Christ. He appears with Peter and James in the scene of the Transfiguration. At the Last Supper he is shown leaning his head on the breast of Christ, from the tradition that identified him with 'the disciple whom Jesus loved'. The Agony in the Garden shows him asleep with Peter and James, while Christ prays. In one version of the Crucifixion John and the Virgin are seen standing alone at the foot of the cross. He is shown among the figures at the Descent from the Cross, the lamentation (Pietà) that followed and at the Entombment. John appears at the Death of the Virgin and her Assumption because the apocryphal writings on which the scenes are based were ascribed to him. During the apostolic ministry John often accompanied the apostle Peter. He was traditionally identified with John who was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation. He was believed to have died at Ephesus at a great age.

Apostle Saint Philip: 1610-14

St Philip was from Bethsaida and was one of the first to be called to follow Christ. He was said to have journeyed to Scythia preaching the gospel. In the city of Hierapolis he succeeded, with the aid of the cross, in banishing a serpent or dragon which was the object of worship in the temple of Mars. As the monster emerged it gave off such a stink that many people died. The enraged priests of the temple captured Philip and crucified him. According to a tradition in the eastern Church Philip was crucified upside down like Peter.

Apostle Saint Bartholomew: 1610-14

The New Testament mentions the apostle by name only, but says nothing of his acts. The Golden Legend tells of a missionary journey he made to India, and of his death in Armenia by being flayed alive.

He is usually portrayed as dark-haired, bearded and of middle age. His invariable attribute is the knife with which he was flayed. Not uncommonly the flayed skin hangs over his arm, or is held in his hand, as in the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel (said to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo). His inscription, from the Apostles' Creed, is 'Credo in Spiritum Sanctum'. Typical narrative themes from Renaissance art show him preaching, exorcizing demons, baptizing, and being hauled before the authorities for refusing to worship idols. The most usual scene is the rather gruesome flaying. Artists sometimes follow the Hellenistic sculpture from Pergamum of the flaying of Marsyas.

Apostle Saint Matthew: 1610-14

Apostle and traditionally the author of the first gospel. He was a taxgatherer of Capernaum who, as he sat at the custom-house, was called by Christ to follow him. As one of the evangelists his attribute is a winged person resembling an angel, one of the 'apocalyptic beasts'. It may be seen dictating as Matthew writes. He has book, pen and inkhorn, the attributes of the writer. As an apostle he holds a purse, a reminder of his previous occupation. According to legend he was martyred by beheading and may therefore have an axe or halberd. Among Matthew's several inscriptions are 'Sanctam ecclesiam catholicam; sanctorum communionem' - 'The Holy Catholic Church; the communion of saints', from the Apostles' Creed; 'Primum querite regnum dei' - 'Set your mind on God's kingdom before everything else' (Matt. 6:33); 'Liber generationis Jesu Christi' - 'A table of the descent of Jesus Christ' (Matt. 1:1).

Apostle Saint Thomas: 1610-14

Apostle Saint Thomas, called 'Didymus' (twin), popularly known as 'doubting Thomas.' He is generally young and beardless, especially in earlier Renaissance painting. His attributes are a builder's ser-square or ruler, a girdle and a spear or dagger, the instrument of his martyrdom. His inscription, from the Apostles' Creed, is 'Descendit ad inferos tertia die resurrexit a mortuis', a fitting text since it was Christ's resurrection that Thomas doubted.

Apostle Saint James the Less: 1610-14

Apostle St James the Less is generally regarded as the same person as James 'the Lord's brother', mentioned by St Paul (Gal. 1:19), who became the first bishop of Jerusalem. Though 'brother' could here apply to any male relation, it came to be taken in the strict sense and was the source of the tradition that represents Christ and the saint somewhat alike in appearance. This similarity is helpful in identifying St James in scenes such as the Last Supper. It was sometimes given as the reason for the kiss of Judas, because the soldiers then knew which man to arrest. According to early sources James was martyred by being thrown from the roof of the Temple and then stoned and beaten to death. The Golden Legend relates that 'a man in that company took a fuller's staff and smote him on the head, that his brains fell all abroad'.

Apostle St James the Less in Art

James holds a fuller's staff, which may be short- or long-handled, having a clubbed head; or it is shaped like a flat bat. It was once used by the fuller in the process of finishing cloth, to compact the material by beating it. From the early 14th century, especially in German art, he may instead hold a hatter's bow, which was used in the manufacture of felt for hats and by wool-workers to clean wool. It may be shown without a bow-string.

James was the patron saint of hat-makers, mercers and other similar medieval guilds. As bishop of Jerusalem he may wear episcopal robes, with mitre and crozier.

El Greco's painting does not follow thetraditional representations of the Apostle.

Apostle Saint Thaddeus (Jude): 1610-14

Apostle St Thaddeus (Jude), 'the other Judas, not Iscariot' (John 14:22), apostle and martyr, said to have preached the gospel in the countries neighbouring Palestine with Simon Zelotes, after Christ's crucifixion. He was martyred in Persia.

Apostle Saint Simon: 1610-14

Apostle Saint Simon is called the Zealot in both the Gospel according to St Luke (6:15) and in Acts (1:13). This name, transcribed from the Greek, is a translation of the Aramaic gan'anai, signifying the apostle's membership of an extremely orthodox Jewish sect. Because he came from Cana, he is also known as the Canaanite or Cananaean. Like the other apostles, after Pentecost Simon vanished from view. Most or less trustworthy legends place his missionary work in Egypt. According to a sixth-century apocryphal tradition, he preached the Gospel in Persia with Jude (Judas Thaddaeus), where they were both martyred. Found guilty of overturning statues of the idols at the end of an argument with pagan priests and magicians, their throats were cut. According to another version, Simon was sawn in two, like the prophet Isaiah.

Apostle Saint Paul: 1610-14

Although not one of the original twelve whom Christ chose to be his closest followers, Paul became the 'Apostles of the Gentiles' following his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, founding Christian communities in many places, including Crete. He appears in all of El Greco's Apostolados, in place of St Matthias, the Apostle chosen after Christ's ascension to replace Judas.

In this painting El Greco shows St Paul with a sword, the instrument of his martyrdom, and a letter inscribed in cursive Greek "To Titus, ordained first bishop of the church of the Cretans'.

St Paul appears a great number of times in El Greco's oeuvre and he is depicted with remarkable consistency. The saint is always shown slightly balding, with dark hair and beard, wearing a red mantle thrown over a blue or green tunic.

Christ as Saviour: 1610-14

The Christ as Saviour in this series of Apostles is one of El Greco's most impressive treatments of the subject, taller in format than the earlier version in Edinburgh. Christ is shown here both as Saviour of the World (Salvator Mundi) and the Light of the World. Radiant with divine light, he rests his hand on a globe enveloped in the folds of his cloak. His symmetrical frontal pose and physiognomy recall Byzantine images of Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All).

Paintings around 1600

By EL GRECO

In his later portraits El Greco increasingly reduces the role of the body of his sitters, omitting all the props and attributes of their rank, and he attempts to reveal the whole being of them. He painted around 1600 the Portrait of a Man (an assumed self-portrait), a fine and particularly compelling portrait, the moving portrait of his friend Antonio de Covarrubias, and the awesome portrait of the Grand Inquisitor, a celebrated picture which has become synonymous not only with El Greco but with Spain and the Spanish Inquisition.

Saint Jerome as Cardinal: ca 1600

The open book bears an inscription from a later hand (L. Cornaro. Aet. suae 100. 1566). For this reason it has been supposed that this is a portrait of Luigi Cornaro, author of several treatises on the art of growing old. Others have believed it to be a portrait of the Cardinal-Inquisitor Don Gaspar Quiroga.

Two signed and four unsigned versions are known, the best being that in the Frick Collection, New York.

Saint John the Baptist: ca 1600

This is the finest of the various representations in which this figure of Saint John the Baptist appears. The attenuated figure, the agitated movement of the sky and the scintillating light on the landscape is characteristic of El Greco's work around 1600. This painting is distinguished from related pictures by the placement of the lamb on the rock - a reference to Christ's sacrifice. The building in the landscape background was identifies as the Escorial.

Portrait of a Cardinal: ca 1600

The sitter is usually identified as Cardinal Don Fernando Niño de Guevera (1541-1609), Grand Inquisitor and, from 1601, Archbishop of Seville. The painting was executed ca. 1600, when Inquisitor-General, and certainly before he became Archbishop of Seville. He is one of a number of eminent ecclesiastics of Toledo portrayed by El Greco, and it is one of his finest portraits. The splendor and richness of color is appropriate to the character and rank of the sitter. The frontal turn of the pose concentrates attention on the figure. El Greco suggests the cardinal's personality through the emphasis on his prominent glasses, the compulsive gesture of his left hand, the animated, nervous brushwork, and the singular colour range. The painting is signed on the creased paper on the floor.

This celebrated picture - a landmark in the history of European portraiture - has become synonymous not only with El Greco but with Spain and the Spanish Inquisition.

Diego de Covarrubias: ca 1600

Diego de Covarrubias y Leiva (1512-1577) was the elder brother of Antonio de Covarrubias, a close friend of El Greco and reputedly one of the most learned men of his time. Diego was a distinguished churchman, canon lawyer and administrator. El Greco never met him, and despite its lively character the painting was based on a portrait by Alonso Sánchez Coello showing Covarrubias when sixty-two years old.

The painting has a pendant, also in the Museo de El Greco, showing Diego's younger brother Antonio - an autograph copy of El Greco's painting in the Louvre.

Source: Web Gallery of Art

Source: Art Renewal Center


This page is the work of Senex Magister

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