The present unpublished painting represents an important addition to El Greco's oeuvre and can be dated to his artistic beginnings in Crete and in Venice, prior to his departure for Rome in 1570. There has been some controversy over the past thirty years surrounding the attribution of these early works by the artist. Harold Wethey, in his two volume monograph on the artist published in 1962, began the dispute when he rejected the attribution of El Greco's Modena polyptych and various other early works by the artist, some of which are signed 'Cheir Domeníkou', and which had up until this time been generally accepted (H.E. Wethey, El Greco, 1962, I, fig. 33; II, pp. 198-200, no. X-154). Wethey argued that these paintings must have been produced by another Greek painter whose name was coincidentally the same as El Greco's, and to whom he gave the pseudonym, 'Master Domenikos'.
However, Wethey later reversed his opinion regarding these paintings, accepting them as fully autograph works by El Greco (H. E. Wethey, El Greco in Rome and the Portrait of Vicenzo Anastagi, in Studies in the History of Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1984, pp. 171-2). Part of the reason for Wethey's change of opinion was the discovery of a hitherto unknown letter that showed that El Greco did not depart from Crete to Venice until 1567, seven years later than previously thought (M. Constantoudaki, Domenicos Theótocopoulos [El Greco] de Candie á Venise: Document inédit [1566-1568], 1991, pp. 8-9). The significance of this discovery is that it suggests that El Greco's earliest formative stages as an artist working within a western tradition began much earlier than previously thought, when he was still in his homeland, and therefore before he had moved to Venice.
Thus El Greco would already have been painting in a 'bilingual' style during his formation as an artist on the island of Crete - a supposition made even more likely by the fact that his family was Catholic, not Orthodox, and his father was a functionary in the local government of the duchy of Candia (see F. Mariás Franco, El Greco, 1991, pp. 8-9). From an early age, El Greco would have had contact with Italian prints and engravings and would very likely have seen Italian paintings imported for the local nobility, thus influencing his desire to paint in a western style.
El Greco himself recorded how he admired the colore of the Venetian Masters, and the disegno of the Romans, citing in particular the artists Titian, Bassano, and Tintoretto (see Vasari's Lives of the Artists and M. y Agustín Bustamante, Las Ideas Artisticas de El Greco, 1981). The present painting is strongly reminiscent, both in terms of composition and feeling of a Deposition by Jacopo Tintoretto, formerly in the Yarborough collection, and datable to 1557-8 (R. Pallucchini and P. Rossi, Tintoretto, 1982, I, p. 173, no. 198; II, p. 415, fig. 258), and the heads of the Three Maries are very closely modelled on those in Parmigianino's etching of The Entombment (Bartsch, 32, p. 11, fig. 5-1).
There are many stylistic comparisons to be made between the present Entombment and other works by the artist of the same period, especially the Modena polyptych. In both paintings the underdrawing is partially visible to the naked eye and has marked similarities. Since the Modena polyptych is inscribed in Greek it may have been painted while the artist was still in Crete and therefore earlier than the present lot. There are also strong similarities between the underdrawing of the architectural elements in El Greco's Adoration of the Magi in the Fundación Lázaro Galdeano, Madrid, and the treatment of the sarcophagus in the present work (H. E. Wethey, op. cit., 1962, I, fig. 40; II, pp. 165-6, no. X-2). Other similarities can be seen in the modelling of the drapery and the contrapposto of the figures of Balthazar and Nicodemus. Finally, the swooning and intensely emotional Virgin in the present lot can be compared with the Virgin in El Greco's Pietà in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and his larger version of the same subject in the Hispanic Society of America, New York (ibid., I, pp. 65-6, nos. 101-2; II, figs. 19-20) both of which Wethey had already accepted as fully autograph in 1962