The present painting is datable to the period of the artist's residence in Rome, 1570-7. There he was introduced by Giulio Clovio, the Croatian miniature painter, to the entourage of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, and in 1572 he became a member of the Academy of Saint Luke. Although he failed to gain the success that only a major public commission could generate, El Greco was able to sell small-scale paintings to private patrons. In fact it was as a miniaturist that he was admitted to the Academy. His years in Rome also allowed him to indulge his fascination for the drawings and sculpture (although not the paintings) of Michelangelo.
It is to this crucial moment in El Greco's development that the present picture belongs. Although nothing is known of its history before it entered the collection of the present owner in 1989, its style, as well as the diamond-weave canvas on which it is painted, place it firmly within the painter's Roman period. Remarkably, it is unlined and may never have been stretched. Although it is tacked to a modern stretcher, the unpainted edges (over which the artist's brush can still be seen to have occasionally worked) appear never to have been turned around the frame of a stretcher. The painting provides both a synthesis of El Greco's past and a foretaste of his future. His Cretan origins are evident in the Greek lettering of the signature (Fig. 1), which is painted thickly, using a broad brush (see H. Wethey, El Greco and his School, I, 1962, figs. 385-7, for illustrations of other examples of the artist's signature from this period); in the four (rather than three) nails used to fasten Christ to the Cross; and in the stark isolation of the image in front of the landscape. While the handling of paint recalls in different passages Bassano, Titian and Tintoretto, the figure is strongly reminiscent of drawings by Michelangelo in the Courtauld Institute, London and the British Museum, London (Fig. 2). Like the other small devotional images of Christ on the Cross executed by the artist in Italy, Christ is shown dead, while in those of his Spanish period He is generally shown alive. In other respects, however -- the sweeping curves of the atmospheric landscape, the unnaturalistically mauve clouds, and the dramatic diagonals of the sky -- it heralds the advent of a new and highly original artistic personality, and the passionate intensity of mood already evident here was shortly to become the dominant characteristic of El Greco's art.
Two variants of similar date but on different supports are known. One, formerly in the collection of Dr. Gregario Maraón, Madrid, is smaller (28 x 19cm.) and on panel (Wethey, op. cit., II, p. 180, no. X-66); the other, first published by Roberto Longhi (Una monografia sobre el Greco y dos inéditos suyos, Paragone, 159, 1963, p. 49) and now in an American private collection, is on copper.