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Studio of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco (Crete 1451-1614 Toledo)
Studio of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco (Crete 1451-1614 Toledo)

The Agony in the Garden

Studio of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco (Crete 1451-1614 Toledo)
The Agony in the Garden
with signature 'doménikos theotokópoli' (lower right)
oil on canvas
29 1/8 x 17 3/8 in. (74 x 44 cm.)
Contini Bonacossi, Florence.
A.L. Mayer, Dominico Theotocopuli El Greco, Munich, 1926 and 1931.
J. Camón Aznar, Domenico Greco, Madrid, 1950, pp. 810 and 1362, fig. 625.
H.E. Wethey, El Greco and his School, Princeton, II, 1962, pp. 168 and 169, no. x-15, as 'School of El Greco'.
R. Longhi, 'A Monograph of El Greco', in Paragone, March 1963, v. 14, no. 159, pp. 49-56.
Gianna Manzini, L'opera completa del Greco, Milan, 1969, p. 120, no. 153e, as 'El Greco'.

Lot Essay

Born in Crete circa 1541, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco was one of the most original and interesting painters of sixteenth-century Europe, transforming the Byzantine style of his early paintings into another, wholly Western manner. He was active in his native Crete, in Venice and Rome and, during the second half of his life, in Toledo where he was renowned for his originality and extravagance.

The present work depicts The Agony in the Garden and is a copy made by El Greco's studio of a prime autograph version in Andújar (there are three other autograph versions in Cuenca, Budapest and Buenos Aires). El Greco was extremely productive in Toledo where he had an active workshop. Toledo was then the ecclesiastical capital of Spain, the see of the primate of Spain and embodied to a certain extent the spirit of theological renewal and reform that characterized the Counter-Reformation. Accordingly El Greco received many local commissions of religious paintings.

This composition depicts the episode after the Last Supper and immediately before his arrest when Christ retired to the Mount of Olives to pray. 'Agony' (from the Greek agon, a contest) here signifies the spiritual struggle between the two sides of his nature, the human that feared the imminent suffering and would have avoided it, in conflict with the divine that gave him strength. El Greco deftly conveys this concept by using a fence of recently cut wood to separate the fallibly human, sleeping Apostles - and by extension the human viewer, from the divine person of Jesus. It was this gap between the human and the divine that the Counter-Reformation Church sought to bridge. El Greco used an extremely similar vertical format to his Venetian contemporary Francesco Bassano (now in a private collection, Florence) that may suggest a common prototype or a source in print not yet identified.

The nature of Christ's vision takes on the form of an angel appearing on a cloud and bringing the chalice and wafer. Shrouded in divine light a kneeling Jesus watches in awe. Below him are the three disciples: Peter, grey-haired with a curly beard; James who has dark hair and a beard and John, the youngest, with long hair. The treatment of their bodies with the elongated forms is characteristic of the artist and exhibits a powerful sense of human anatomy - for example in the way James' wrist supports his head or in the way John's yellow mantle curves around the form of his legs. In the distance, illuminated by the moon, are the city of Jerusalem and a group of approaching figures - the soldiers led by Judas. The colors here are pure and brilliant and juxtaposed with one another create vibrant effects.

Huxley wrote about how El Greco used natural objects as the raw material out of which, by a process of calculated distortion, he might create his own world of pictorial forms, and how within this private universe the artist situated his religious subject matter using it as a vehicle for expressing what he wanted to say about life. This can be applied to the current work that reveals complexities in terms of composition, subject matter, and a larger meaning that transcends time and space.

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