Saint James the Greater was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, and the first to be martyred. Born in Bathsaida, James was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and brother of the Apostle John. A fisherman on the Sea of Galilee with his father and brother, James was among the earliest disciples to join Jesus, and one of only three selected to bear witness to the Transfiguration. Following Christ’s Ascension, James spread the gospel across Israel and the Roman kingdom, before travelling to Spain and the Iberian Peninsula to continue his mission. James subsequently returned to Jerusalem and was martyred for his faith by King Herod Agrippa. The site of his beheading is believed to be located within the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of St. James in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. Denied burial in Jerusalem, his body was taken to Compostela, Spain, by his followers and interred. In the 9th century his remains were discovered and moved to a tomb in Santiago de Compostela, where they are venerated to this day. (‘Santiago’ is the Castilian evolution of the Vulgar Latin ‘Sanctu Iacobu’, or Saint James.) His Feast Day is 25 July and the traditional pilgrimage to the grave of the saint has been among the most famous pilgrimage sites in the Christian world from the early Middle Ages onward.
As the patron saint of Spain, Saint James the Greater was depicted by El Greco on a number of occasions, for various functions, and in several guises. In the famous series of paintings of the ‘Apostolados’ (‘Apostles’) that El Greco and his workshop undertook and popularized in the final decade of his life, the saint is depicted in three-quarter-length or half-length. El Greco also made several small-scale, full-length depictions of Saint James in pilgrim’s garb, holding his staff in one hand, a book in the other, and with a hat adorned with cockleshells – his emblem – slung over his left shoulder, as in the present version. The theme descends from the early Middle Ages, when small figures of Saint James the Pilgrim carved in jet were sold to the devout, who walked or rode on donkeys to visit the shrine of the saint at Santiago de Compostela. James was thus shown in the same guise as that of any humble pilgrim.
The Rockefeller Saint James the Greater – with its small-scale, brilliant coloration and dramatic, surreally illuminated landscape – would have been made for private, domestic veneration, and its bold handling suggests that it dates from the final years of El Greco’s life, probably around 1610-1614. Harold Wethey established three types of the standing, full-length Saint James the Greater as Pilgrim that were produced by El Greco and his workshop after 1580/90. The first type, a single figure of James in a frontal, somewhat Byzantine posture, is found in the Museo de Santa Cruz (fig. 1); in it, he is presented standing in a gold-colored architectural niche. The second type, of which the Rockefeller painting is a fine example, portrays the saint in similar fashion, but in a landscape setting rather than a niche. The terrain is dramatically – but only summarily – indicated, but in two later versions produced in El Greco’s workshop after his death, the city of Toledo is clearly depicted, presumably in order to appeal to a local clientele (see Wethey, op. cit., nos. X-364 and X-365). A third type of composition portrays Saint James in three-quarter length with his staff in his left hand, his right hand upon his chest, and against a plain background. The finest version of this type includes subsequent additions by a later hand and is in the Hispanic Society, New York (fig. 2).
The prototype of the second group of paintings and, according to Wethey, the finest among them, is a picture by El Greco and his workshop also in the Hispanic Society, New York, which Wethey dated to circa 1580-1585. He cited two copies of it (ibid., nos. X-364 and X-365), one of which was formerly in the collection of Baron A. Herzog and later in the von Nemes collection, Budapest, and the present painting, which he described as from the ‘workshop of El Greco (?), ca. 1610-1614'. Although he regarded passages of the drawing to be weak – notably in the saint’s right foot – and the landscape 'pleasing, if exaggerated', he believed it most probable that El Greco began the painting himself and sketched it in and that it was finished after the artist’s death by a pupil. Subsequent authorities have largely concurred with this assessment, with both Jonathan Brown (private correspondence, 28 January and 25 February 1977) and William B. Jordan (private correspondence, 3 January 1989) regarding the painting as a work begun by El Greco and finished by an assistant. Jordan noted that it 'is a beautiful painting' and 'while it fails to conform to the highest standards the artist set for himself, it does have a certain brilliance of touch that later copyists invariably lacked.' The signature may be original but significantly strengthened; in any event, it follows the form used by El Greco and his son, Jorge Manuel, and by the workshop after the master’s death.
El Greco was born around 1641 in Crete, then a Venetian territory. After training there as an icon painter in the Byzantine tradition, he moved to Venice, where he became a disciple of Titian and an avid student of Veronese, Jacopo Bassano and especially the Mannerist art of Tintoretto, whose expressive treatment of subjects was to have a lasting impact. Rejecting the archaic conventions of Byzantine art, El Greco quickly mastered key aspects of Venetian Renaissance painting, including the predilection for glowing color and bravura brushwork. After a sojourn in Rome, El Greco traveled to Spain, settling in Toledo in 1577. There, he created some of his greatest visionary masterpieces, such as the celebrated View of Toledo (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and the monumental Burial of Count Orgaz, still preserved in the Church of Santo Tomé, Toledo, for which it was originally commissioned (fig. 3).
Like these paintings, the more modest Saint James the Greater has the arresting power of a hallucinatory vision, in which elements inspired by Italian Mannerist art – elongated figures; irrational space; flashing, supernatural light; and surreal color – powerfully evoke the spiritual realm. Although El Greco died in 1614, after Caravaggio had ushered in the new naturalism of the early Baroque, his art is fundamentally tied to the precepts of Mannerism, with its reliance on the artist's imagination rather than the world of visible reality. It was El Greco’s anti-naturalistic palette and the emotionally resonant distortions of his figures that so profoundly influenced Modernist masters such as Delacroix, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso, all of whom copied or quoted El Greco’s works in an effort to understand his uniquely expressive power.
This intimate association with early Modernism was a principal attraction of the present painting to David and Peggy Rockefeller, who acquired it in July 1960 from Knoedler & Co. on the recommendation of Theodore Rousseau, the curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 'We liked it because of our fondness for El Greco and because we felt that, in many respects, El Greco anticipated the Impressionists more than any of the other earlier artists in the freedom of his style and, therefore, that it went with our other paintings much better than many other old master paintings would', David Rockefeller wrote in 1984. It hung in pride of place in the dining room of Hudson Pines, the Rockefeller residence on the family estate in Pocantico Hills, until David Rockefeller’s death in March 2017.