Friday, March 14, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - El Espolio (El Greco)

So today is the first Spanish painter that I'll be writing about.  Although technically not native to Spain, Domenikos Theotokopoulos settled in Spain for the better part of his career, and became known to his colleagues and patrons as "El Greco."  I'll admit, El Greco is not exactly one of my favorite painters.  His work is so strange and melancholy, and a lot of that has to do with the way he muted all of his colors down to a cool temperature (even the reds and yellows) and elongated the proportions of the figures.  He was a Mannerist, and it is hard to say if he could be considered one of the very last artists of the Renaissance, or one of the earliest in the Baroque.  After all, he was a contemporary of a very old-aged Michelangelo, and also of a very young Caravaggio.
But even though he's not my favorite, one of my favorite paintings is the work of El Greco - "El Espolio," or "The Disrobing of Christ."  There are a couple different versions of this subject, but this one is by far the best.  It was painted between 1577-79 and hangs in the Sacristy of the Cathedral in Toledo.  It recently underwent restoration, so now it looks even better than it did before.  The picture I've posted is the newly restored painting.
I remember the first time I saw this piece (in an image, not in life), I was in, of all places, my high school Spanish class.  More about that later when I cover another Spanish painter.  Anyway, the first thing I remember was my eye going directly to the rich redness of Christ's robe.  It is one of the most beautiful reds of a painting I've ever seen.  And this could be because of what I mentioned before about El Greco muting down his palette.  But for some reason, he kept this particular red as rich as it could be.  It sticks out like a sore thumb because everything surrounding the Christ figure is that characteristic muted coolness, and because it is placed in the very center of the canvas.  It's almost the perfect altarpiece because it actually accomplishes what it is meant to accomplish in a practical sense.  At least for me it does.  That is, it is very easy to contemplate this picture, and be in an attitude of worship. 
I mentioned before about Pontormo's work, and the way it sucks you in and doesn't let go.  This is exactly what "El Espolio" does.  If you were to see it in person, this is definitely not a painting you would look at for a few seconds and then walk right past.  This is a painting you can't help but be mesmerized by.  I think the gaze on Christ's face as he looks upward toward heaven is part of that.  In spite of what is happening and what is about to happen, the look on Christ's face is so serene and without fear, panic, or pain.  It is as though El Greco has actually captured the sound of this scene, or lack thereof.  Christ's serenity sticks out so much, that it is as though all the noise of chaos and activity surrounding him is silenced, and our eyes are fixed on Him, and Him alone.  It is a perfectly painted illustration of the Psalm 46:10, "Be still, and know that I am God."  This is a painting that tells us to let the noise, chaos, and distractions of our life be silenced, and let it all fade into the background so that our eyes can be completely fixed on Christ.

El Espolio
oil on canvas

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