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El Greco (Domenico and Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos)
Greek, 1541 - 1614
SN 333, oil on canvas 1603/05

From "The Pages"

El Greco, as his name connotes, was born in 1541 on the island of Crete; he was buried in 1641 in Toledo, Spain.

He started to paint in Crete, ruled then by the city-state of Venice, where his early training was as an icon painter in the Byzantine tradition. At 23 he moved to Venice, then later to Rome, and finally (around 1577) to Toledo.

His painting style was late Mannerism – “a term denoting the search for high style, often eccentric and dramatic. Centered in Italy, it filled the gap between the balance of high Renaissance and the Baroque.” [Dr Rudolph Wittkower, Art News]

He was, perhaps, the greatest of the so-called “Mannerists,” [Suida], influenced by Titian, Tintoretto, & the Bassanos. He was called, after 200 years of neglect, “mad with genius, having unhealthy power and depraved energy” [Wittkower]. This was meant as praise, and critics continued to view him that way. Today, rather than “mad with genius,” he is seen as not only sane, but controlled by intellect, a great artist.

In later years, El Greco collaborated with his son, Jorge Manuel, even going so far as to leave sketches for him and plans for future paintings after his own death. He always signed his paintings with his Greek birth name, Domenico Theotokopoulos, after a lifetime of being known as “El Greco.”

The painting shows Christ on the cross, crucifixion being a widely used form of capital punishment in Roman times. It was usual to state the nature of the condemned man’s offense at the top of the cross, so above his head in 3 different languages (Greek, Latin, and Hebrew) his crime is described: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Mary and St John grieve together, at the foot of the cross on the left.

The dark background was derived from the New Testament, “God made it as night when Christ was crucified.” [Luke 23:44] In the distance we see a city – actually Toledo, but which might be interpreted as Jerusalem. The towers are elongated, and the buildings are outlined in white.

The eerie, dissonant colors and unnatural illumination of the sky evoke mood, and it is through emotion, rather than naturalistic representation of a tortured body, that El Greco interprets physical anguish. The painting shows great grace and serenity, stressing the internal vision of the artist.

Notice the hands! The gesture, so meaningful for El Greco, could be Christ’s blessing from the cross. El Greco typically used hand gestures in his paintings, and each had a definite, unalterable meaning for the artist. The pathetic gestures of Mary and St John emphasize the horror of the scene.

In the Mannerist tradition, the fingers and limbs are elongated. Christ’s head, though, appears small. His style has been called “flamelike,” and earlier Renaissance work seems static when compared to El Greco.

At that time Toledo was in a state of decline, but was still considered the spiritual capitol of Spanish Catholicism, attracting artists and scholars. El Greco absorbed the Spanish mysticism and religious fervor
which pervaded even humanistic movements like the Renaissance. This painting is evidence that he was heavily influenced by both. He seemed to have found his natural habitat.

The Catholic church and the Hapsburgs were Spain’s most important art patrons. Much of Spanish art is religious, intended to inspire pious thoughts and behavior in the viewer. In fact, Spain’s religious wars were what ruined her financially.