The reappearance of this powerful and monumental picture, on the occasion of one of the major exhibitions organised in Toledo in 2014, to commemorate 400 years since the painter’s death, returns an important work of El Greco’s maturity to his extant oeuvre. Documented in the same Spanish noble collection since 1772, the canvas seems consequently to have remained unknown to the scholarly community.
Along with generations of Western painters, the crucifixion was a subject to which El Greco turned repeatedly throughout his career. His different explorations of the theme led him to devise an intensely personal and profoundly spiritual formula, of which this composition is perhaps the ultimate expression. Here, El Greco focuses exclusively on the lone figure of Christ. All other narrative elements and adjoining figures, which usually populate depictions of the Calvary, have been removed, an idea that perhaps derives from Titian’s Crucifixion of around 1554 in the Monasterio del Escorial. The focus is solely on Christ’s sinuous and muscular silhouette, his imminent suffering is the object of devotion. The position of Christ’s body seems to have been inspired by the renowned Christ of the Cross that Michelangelo drew for his friend and patron Vittoria Colonna (fig. 1; London, British Museum). Although El Greco may have seen the drawing during his years in Rome, where he had worked as a young artist in the 1570s, he is more likely to have encountered the work through a print, which would account for the reversal of the original composition in the present picture. El Greco’s interpretation of Michelangelo’s Christ on the Cross is quite radically different: Christ’s body is typically elongated, its tones and musculature defined through the use of sharp contrasts of light and shade.
This moment is one of the most poignant of the Passion narrative: nailed to the cross but still alive, Christ looks Heavenwards and pleas to his Father: ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Faithful to scripture, El Greco surrounds Christ in darkness, as daylight momentarily disappeared during the miraculous eclipse that took place during his martyrdom: ‘And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst’ (Luke 23:44-45). The threatening, dark clouds in the sky are tinged here with incandescent light, their abstract patterning providing a dramatic backdrop.
Although El Greco had painted similar crucifixion scenes on a small-scale early in his career, his first treatment of the subject on such a heroic scale took place around 1589-90 with the Christ on the Cross with Donors (Paris, Musée du Louvre). This compelling formula proved incredibly successful, and as a result El Greco received numerous commissions from both private individuals as well as religious institutions to produce variations on this theme. On this monumental scale, however, only three other versions are recorded: one in the Museum of Cleveland (fig. 2), another in the collection of the Marqués de la Motilla, Seville, and a third formerly in the collection of the painter Ignacio Zuolaga (sold Sotheby’s, London, 3 July 2013, lot 34). In addition, there are three reduced autograph versions of Christ on the Cross: one signed (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum); another formerly in the Gutzwiller Collection, Paris (sold Sotheby’s, New York, 19 May 1995, lot 64; and a third now in the Museum of Western Art in Tokyo.
Painted late in the artist’s career, at a time when he operated a large and well-organised studio, the three other large-scale stagings all involve a degree of workshop assistance, and the same applies for the present picture, which has been dated to 1600-10. The 2014 show at Toledo, where the picture was exhibited and seen in public for the first time, was part of a landmark occasion. The exhibition, Arte y Oficio, curated by Leticia Ruiz, which considered El Greco’s working practices, was one of several to be held in Toledo to mark 400 years since El Greco’s death: remarkably, it was the first time the city, so closely associated with the artist, had ever held exhibitions of his work.
El Greco’s intensely idiosyncratic style has meant he has long been heralded as protomodern artist. Yet during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, his originality was dismissed as an extravagance or even a sign of madness and the artist’s oeuvre only began to be gradually reassessed in the nineteenth century. Through scholarly endeavours such as the 1902 exhibition devoted to the artist held at the Prado, El Greco finally entered the canon of Spanish painting as the great precursor to Velázquez, the major exponent of Counter-Reformation art in Spain.
Paralleling but in many ways anticipating this academic recognition, it is in the work of modern artists that El Greco’s influence was most strongly felt. His vivid colours, stark contrasts, dramatic lighting effects, bold impressionistic brushstrokes produced a lasting impact on the avant-garde at the turn of the century and found clear resonance in the pictures of Manet and Cézanne, and later on Modigliani, Chagall, but also in Germany and Austria with Franz Marc, Max Beckman and Egon Schiele. El Greco also found a fervent admirer in the greatest of all twentieth-century European painters and a Spaniard himself: Pablo Picasso. From his early notebooks filled with El Greco-styled heads to his blue and pink period frail figures with gracefully elongated limbs, to his late musketeers, El Greco exerted on Picasso a powerful and pervading influence. In the last two years, no less than two exhibitions have thoroughly explored El Greco’s impact on modernism (2012, Düsseldorf, Museum Kunstpalast and 2014, Madrid, Museo del Prado).