This remarkable panel executed on a small scale packs eighteen figures into a tightly compressed space with all the expressive grandeur and brilliant colorism for which El Greco is renowned, but on the reduced scale of a cabinet picture. In a tempestuous landscape with the three crosses on Golgotha visible at upper left, a vivid blue sky with swirling clouds and distant mountains are outlined in flaming reds and pinks. The crowd of protagonists (including St Joseph of Arimethea, immediately recognizable as a portrait of the aging Titian – El Greco's great influence during his seminal visit to Venice in 1568-1570) cluster around the body of Christ which is solicitously lowered into his tomb, while the Magdalene and Virgin Mary together with a group of female attendants grieve. The instruments of the passion – the nails and crown of thorns – are placed in the immediate foreground. A thick veil of discolored varnish mutes what is undoubtedly a rich, iridescent palette.
El Greco is unusual in the breadth of the hugely varied cultures to which he was exposed. Trained as an icon painter in the Venetian colony of Crete, he never entirely abandons the Byzantine origins to which his simplified forms, flattened picture plane, brilliant colorism and emotional intensity bear witness. In Venice he responds to the rapidly painted expressive drama of Tintoretto and the high palette of Titian as well as to the nocturnes of Jacopo Bassano. When he moves to Rome in 1570 his artistic language is profoundly affected by the unavoidable presence of Michelangelo. Thereafter he moves to Spain, looking for the patronage of Philip II and although that proved to be a dead end, he remains there, working largely from Toledo, where his style resonates perfectly with the Counter-Reformation mystic fervor of Catholic late 16th-century Spain. He is claimed by art historians as the greatest genius of late Byzantine Crete, an artist steeped in the cultural and philosophic discoveries being made in Italy and as the father and soul of Spanish art. He is also hailed as a precursor of modernism, the forebear of Cezanne, Picasso and even Jackson Pollock.
This panel has rarely been studied in person since it was first published by Aznar in 1950. This was rectified when it was examined and then published by Lopera and subsequently exhibited in Toledo in 2014. It belongs to a series of works depicting the Passion painted on a similar scale by El Greco notably a Pietà in the Hispanic Society, New York (fig. 1); another in the Johnson Collection, Philadelphia; and two other Entombments, one (now lost) formerly in the Palazzo Reale, Madrid and the second formerly with Giancarlo Baroni (fig. 2, sold Sotheby's, New York, 20 January 2013, lot 7). Another treatment of the same subject with additions giving it an arched format was in the Anstruther Collection (sold Christie's, 1965) and then the Marshall Collection (sold Bonham's, 28 March 1974). Based on 'an imprecise black and white photograph' Soener and Wethey rejected our panel which upon firsthand inspection has now been rehabilitated by Alvarez Lopera (see literature), Leo Steinberg and Fernando Marias among others. The general consensus is that it was painted in Rome, though Aznar, Hadjinacolau and Soehner (see literature above) all believe it to be painted shortly after his arrival in Spain.
Our understanding of El Greco's Italian period has deepened, especially thanks to Lopera's recent work. Wethey had dismissed this entire group of early small-scale paintings as pastiches by another hand, perhaps an Italian workshop assistant, which ignored El Greco's evident references to what he was seeing in Italy. The debt to Michelangelo points to a Roman dating; Steinberg discusses this connection in a Burlington Shorter Notice (op. cit.) where he compares it to the dead Christ in Michelangelo's celebrated Bandini Madonna (fig. 3, now Museo dell' Opera del Duomo, Florence), then in Rome and also known through engravings by Cornelis Cort. Steinberg points to the rarity of such a direct quotation, writing: 'Such close replication is not normally found in El Greco…But in the Entombment, the whole of an alien figure, celebrated for unprecedented complexity and unmistakable, has been lifted, tilted and inserted intact. And so accurate is the transposition that one suspects the artist is not merely representing a Christ, but a Christ in quotation marks - 'Michelangelo's Christ.' El Greco is famous for his bold declaration that he could successfully repaint the Sistine Chapel, and it is entirely plausible to suggest that El Greco is, as Titian had done before, not just copying Michelangelo but competing with him. His figure of Christ is not merely a repetition of an instantly recognizable figure but an incorporation of it into a far more complex composition replete with all the expressive power of color and dramatic landscape which sculpture could not provide. Steinberg suggests that the prototype was painted in Rome, probably after El Greco saw the Pietà at Francesco Bandini's villa in Monte Cavallo, and that the other repetitions may have been painted in Spain. Of all the versions (and this differs in small details from the ex-Madrid and ex-Baroni versions), some known only from photographs, the present is of a superior quality and intensity of execution and should be regarded as the prototype. Marias writes of it, 'the London Entombment of Christ with the three crosses of Golgotha on the small hill on the left, and with the crown of thorns and basket on the left further away from the tomb, just under the arm of the Magdalene dressed in green rather than blue and yellow, is differentiated also by other stylistic features, from the finer drawing to the subtler light and color, and the different tones of tunics and cloaks, from the Ruiz Vernacci photo [ex-Madrid picture] and the other one or two panels'.
Scholars now believe this panel to have been painted shortly after El Greco's arrival in Rome, c. 1571-2. The inclusion of a portrait of Titian combined with its subject matter has led others to suggest that it was conceived as an homage to Titian, who died of the plague in August 1576, which would make it a later Roman work. It is recorded that there were a number of small paintings by El Greco left in his studio at his death which were intended to be used as modelli for larger works. If this is one of them, and it does have a Spanish provenance, El Greco would have taken it with him when he left for Spain in 1577. Indeed, this painting has a distinguished 19th-century Spanish provenance, being said to come from the collection at the villa of Carmona of the 12th Marques de las Torres de la Pressa, Miguel Lasso de la Vega y Quintamilla (1830-1900). The 10th marquess (1783-1863) had in his collection 'a small picture of the Entombment of the Saviour, gilded frame, Flemish School, 200 reales' cited among the goods inherited by his second son, Miguel, which may, given the state of El Greco scholarship in 1863, well have been this picture.
El Greco as Modernist
Like a number of Old Master painters we most admire today, notably Caravaggio, Vermeer and Frans Hals, El Greco's current popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon. Among the earliest 'modern' artists to appreciate El Greco was Eugene Delacroix, who painted a version of a small Pietà (fig. 5) which relates to El Greco's Pietà in the Hispanic Society, New York. Not knowing anything about El Greco, Van Gogh painted an homage to Delacroix's homage to El Greco (fig. 6). El Greco's true 'rediscovery', however, perhaps begins in 1902 with the monographic exhibition devoted to him at the Prado. This was preceded by the recognition of his genius by Spanish artists Ignacio Zuloaga and Santiago Rusinol, who championed his work and arranged for the section of a monument in his honor on the promenade in Sitges in 1894. More importantly for the role of El Greco in the development of Modernism was Zulouga's purchase of The Opening of the Fifth Seal (fig. 7, Metropolitan Museum, New York) which the young Pablo Picasso saw in Zuloaga's studio in Paris in 1905 and which profoundly influenced the conception of Picasso's landmark painting the Desmoiselles d'Avignon (fig. 8, Museum of Modern Art, New York). In fact, Picasso had clearly taken note of his Spanish forebear's significance much earlier, as is evident from a 1899 drawing by Picasso entitled Yo El Greco. Of this artistic dependence, in 1912, Paul Fredinand Schmidt commented 'He [Picasso] was a portraitist of tragic significance and it is no accident that a Greco hangs in the same gallery as they share that Spanish sense of isolation, the gloom, the brooding feeling, and a sense of metaphysical with the perfect beauty of their paintings. Even if their means and goals are infinitely diverse: the Greek Spaniard and the Spanish Frenchman 'shake hands across the centuries''.
But the intrusion of El Greco onto the consciousness of the European avant-garde was far more complex and begins albeit more randomly in the middle of the 19th century. The first significant advocate for El Greco was the Romantic critic Théophile Gautier, who declared his admiration in Voyage en Espagne (1843), but also claimed that El Greco had gone mad through excessive artistic sensitivity. Although Gautier appreciated El Greco's late work, the idea that he went mad, and that this 'explains' the increasing eccentricity of his paintings, was widely held. In the 18th century, Palomino had written disapprovingly that El Greco ‘tried to change his style with such extravagance that he finally made his painting style worthless and ridiculous'. Even John Charles Robinson, upon giving the National Gallery in London Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (fig. 9), described it as 'above the average of this most eccentric master's work…at the same time, you know the man was as mad as a hatter'. Reactions to the 'mad' genius of El Greco have always been mixed. His early Byzantine style has only recently begun to be understood and even his Italian works did not always conform to critics' notion of El Greco's genius. Wethey, a significant authority on the artist, described this Entombment using similar language to that of his detractors in the 19th century, writing 'the picture is a caricature of motives drawn from the artist's work'. This parallels the words of Federico de Madrazo, director of the Prado, who in 1881 complained of having to store the 'quite absurd caricatures' by El Greco. El Greco's departure from aesthetic norms had the capacity to disturb his own biographer in 1962 as well as a director of the Prado eighty one years before.
It was in Germany as much as in France that El Greco's qualities began to be reappraised. In 1874, the same year as the celebrated exhibition of 'Impressionists' at the studio of the photographer Felix Nadar, a German art historian from Bonn named Carl Justi recognized the first paintings by El Greco in Germany, formerly attributed to Bassano. He would go on to publish Domenico Theodocopoli von Kreta in 1897. Justi, among El Greco's first admirers, was far from a supporter of Modernism and, like many of El Greco's earliest enthusiasts, appreciated that his early works were influenced by Titian and Tintoretto but dismissed his later works as the 'degenerate product of a pathological genius.' Nevertheless, Justi would describe El Greco as 'in fact a prophet of Modernism' and wrote about El Greco's Martyrdom of St Maurice (1580-1582, Escorial) as the 'outrageous music of the future' expressed in the 'crudest contrasts of color, watery blue and sulphuric yellow, in harsh splashes of sunshine and lightning'. However, it was his countryman Julius Meier-Graefe whose enormously influential Spanische Reise (Spanish Journey) carried the torch for El Greco as a proto-modernist. Comparing him to Cezanne, Meier-Graef wrote 'I do not know if even today, Greco would have enjoyed the public reputation in the same way as the recently deceased modernist. Before Cezanne he carried the honorable title of a madman, was as secretive as the other and little familiar with the blessings of public validation; altogether he was so remarkably like our contemporary that one is tempted to take back everything that has been said about the idiosyncrasies of our era, and count the most independent minds of our time as the immediate successors to El Greco…they have the same violence of expression and reduced physicality in the details'.
A critical moment for the appreciation of El Greco in this context was the exhibition of the collection of the Hungarian collector Marczell von Nemes at the Alte Pinakotek, Munich in 1911. It included a mixture of eight works by El Greco and contemporary art, and among the many visitors was the young Paul Klee who wrote, 'to point out what is most current, I will join the stream of Pinakotek visitors as they line up to view the works of El Greco…I particularly admire the Laocöon (now Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and see in it a puzzle of compositional and painterly perfection'. The following year in the Der Blaue Reiter almanac the Saint John by El Greco (now Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) was illustrated side-by-side with Robert Delaunay's Eiffel Tower, both from the Koehler collection. This conjunction of El Greco and the early 20th century contemporary art movement was eloquently described by Roger Fry, a modernist critic and former curator at the Metropolitan Museum, who described the reactions of the public to the London National Gallery's newly acquired Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane as 'an electric shock…people gather in crowds in front of it, they argue and discuss and lose their tempers…they talk about it as they might talk about some contemporary picture, a thing which they have a right to feel delighted or infuriated by as the case may be – it is not like the most of the old pictures, a thing classified or mummified, set altogether apart from life, an object of vague and listless reverence, but an actual, living thing, expressing something which one has got either to agree or disagree…that the artists are excited – never more so – is no wonder, for here is an old master who is not merely modern but actually appears a good many steps ahead of us, turning back to show us the way.' That way was taken not only by Picasso and Cézanne but also the Blaue Reiter group, German Expressionists such as Max Beckman, even Marcel Duchamp and, in series of drawings explicitly acknowledging his debt, by Jackson Pollock (fig. 11) and less directly by Willem de Kooning. Of the latter Diane Waldman writes, ‘It is however…appropriate to point out de Kooning’s relationship with El Greco and Chaim Soutine, two other artists who have been characterized as Expressionists…but who do not entirely fit into this tradition...[Their] emphasis upon tactility, motion and light as a dynamic force is evident. El Greco appealed to De Kooning not by virtue of his tortured and twisted figures, but because of his active painting handling and abstract forms’. De Kooning himself said '[El Greco] is someone else I’ve always liked. In his paintings material is broken into only a few enormous planes. It’s so much more interesting to look at than all those intricate creases painted so naturalistically by someone like Tintoretto'.
This emotionally charged Entombment, early as it is, exemplifies so many of the qualities which troubled El Greco's critics and enthralled his admirers. Imagined with little regard for the conventions of spatial perspective and Renaissance idealization in the drawing of face or body, the artist achieves, on a tiny scale, a vision of remarkable dramatic intensity: the complex knot of protagonists, rendered in vivid strokes of blues, green, carmines, pinks, greys and white. In this scene of restless movement enlivened with flickering accents of light, the action pushed forcefully to the very front of the picture plane, El Greco, though mindful of his sources, has already established himself as an independent master in every sense.