Oil on canvas
285 x 173 cm
Sacristy of the Cathedral of Toledo
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For information regarding possible commercial licensing of this image from Scala Group, Art Resource or Bridgeman Art Library, click here.IT SHINES like an enormous jewel. Spanish cathedrals are full of jewellery crowns and chalices and encrusted altars but their splendor becomes boring, like a lazy, monotonous chant. El Greco's jewel is also a passionate cry. This huge ruby set in topaz, aquamarine and smoky quartz is also the seamless garment of Our Lord, which is about to be torn from Him. The emotion I feel as I stand dumbfounded before the Espolio in the sacristy of Toledo Cathedral is that same amalgam of awe, pity and sensuous excitement which I feel in reading certain poems by Crashaw and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The richness and iridescence of the materials, by challenging my senses, give me a flash of spiritual insight which a more reasonable consideration could not achieve.
This comparison with jewellery occurs to everyone who looks at the Espolio, and is not an isolated fancy, for one has a feeling that the colour and disposition of jewelled bindings or enamelled altars were often in El Greco's mind when he began a composition. Little as we know about his origins, we can at least be sure that he was brought up in the Byzantine tradition of art. How far this influenced the imagery of his later paintings seems to me debatable; but I believe that he did retain throughout his career that fundamental premise of Byzantinism, that beauty of materials gold, crystal, enamel and translucent stones gives art its splendour and its power to arouse our emotions.
He made his way into Europe through the meeting ground of East and West, Venice; but we have no idea how old he was when he got there. indeed we know absolutely nothing about him until November 10, 1570, when the Roman miniature painter Giulio Clovio recommended him to his patron Alessandro Farnese as 'a young Cretan, a disciple (discepolo) of Titian. Can this be taken to mean that Titian, at the age of ninety, with a well organized studio, had accepted the young Cretan as a pupil? Or does it mean only that El Greco was the devout admirer of Titian, which would commend him to Alessandro Farnese? Of the second fact there can be no question. The later paintings of Titian, the Munich Crowning with Thorns, or the Annunciation in S. Salvatore, painted probably when El Greco was in Venice, have a burning beauty of colour which plays on the emotions as El Greco felt it should. Titian certainly meant more to him than Tintoretto and Bassano, although a few tricks of mannerism which appear in the work of all three give an illusion of similarity.
What else he saw in north Italy is only conjecture, although I think he must have looked attentively at the work of Tibaldi in Bologna, and perhaps at the Correggios in Parma. And then in 1570 he was in Rome. Michelangelo had died six years earlier, but Roman art was still reeling under the impact of his genius. The painters worked in a post-Michelangelesque trance. They extracted from his designs hieroglyphics of the human body and a repertoire of poses and gestures which they used without any of his original conviction. Not since the early middle ages had European art departed so far from visual and substantial truth; and this unreality, as great as that of his own Cretan icon painters, certainly appealed to El Greco more than the solid abundance of Paul Veronese.
In one respect the Roman mannerists must have seemed to him inadequate in their colour. Following, as they believed, the example of their master Michelangelo, they considered colour as a mere bedizening of form and a concession to the senses which detracted from the high seriousness of art. We may suppose that it was this which led El Greco to speak disparagingly of Michelangelo, for even if he did not say (as was reported of him) that he could repaint the Last Judgement with more decency and no loss of effect, he unquestionably did say to Pacheco that Michelangelo was a good man, but didn't know how to paint. But he could not shake off what Blake might have called the outrageous demon of Michelangelo. His naked figures, sprawling, inverted, drastically foreshortened, are often copied directly from the despised Last judgement; and without Michelangelo's frescoes in the Pauline Chapel the Espolio would have taken a different form. I feel this in the man bending forward to prepare the Cross, in the three women who emerge from the bottom of the frame, and above all in the effect of life pressing round a dedicated victim, which is also the theme of Michelangelo's Crucifixion of St Peter. As the memory of this sublime work, with its circle of doomed humanity in a desert concentration camp, passes through my mind, I look again at the Espolio and realize how completely different it is from anything in Italian painting.
The first difference lies in the treatment of space. Instead of solid figures occupying a definable area, as they had done in Italian art since Giotto, and still do in the dizzy perspectives of Tintoretto, El Greco's figures fill the whole surface of the picture with shallow intersecting planes. The abstract substructure of the picture and that in the end is where the force of any picture lies is more like a cubist Picasso of 1911 than a work in the Renaissance tradition. The conflicting stresses of the planes, and the way in which one suddenly shoots behind another, lead us to look all the more eagerly at the central area of red.
At this point I think once more of the Espolio in terms of its subject and become more fully aware of the vividness of El Greco's imagina tion. It is the moment at which Christ is about to be deprived of His splendid earthly raiment, which is also the symbol of His kingship The world of men presses round Him. Two of them look in our direction and seem to act as intermediaries: a stupid, puzzled military man and an elderly administrator, his face bristling with negation, who points a commanding finger at Our Lord. For the rest, a few are brutal and join in the persecution with relish, but the majority are ordinary men from the streets of Toledo and the surrounding fields, looking exactly as they did when they came to be painted in El Greco's studio. It is the number and closeness of the heads that is terrifying, for they have become a crowd and as such they resent Our Lord's isolation. His thoughts are already concentrated on another world. The gaze or gesture with which this is expressed show some of the rhetorical pietism of the Counter Reformation, and used to cause me a moment's embarrassment. They do so no longer, but I record the fact as it may be one reason why the Espolio has been less admired outside Spain than El Greco's other masterpieces.
In the lower half of the picture, separated from the crowd, are those directly concerned with the sacrifice, the Marys and the executioner who prepares the Cross. Between them, painted with extreme delicacy, is Christ's foot, and I notice that the three women are looking fixedly at the nail with which it will soon be pierced. But, like the men, their faces show no emotion. That is one of the strange features of the Espolio. One has only to think of how other great masters of Christian drama, from Giotto and Giovanni Pisano to Titian and Rembrandt, would have treated the theme, to recognize the dreamlike unreality of El Greco's imagination. Apart from a conventional heavenward rolling of the eyes, the faces of his figures are without expression. He is like a classical dramatist who does not feel it necessary to distinguish the idioms of different characters. In fact the emotions of his figures are expressed through their gestures, and of this the Espolio gives a most moving example, the gesture of Christ's left hand which, passing under the arm of His tormentor, pardons the executioner at work on the Cross.
El Greco received a part payment for the Espolio in 1577. it is the first surviving record of his having gone to Spain and settled in Toledo and he may well have been living there for some time before being given the most important commission which the city had to offer. Two years later he brought a lawsuit against the cathedral authorities in order to obtain further payments. The expert witness was a Toledan goldsmith named Alejo de Montoya who said that the Espolio was one of the best pictures he had ever seen, and estimated its value at a large sum, which apparently was paid. it seems that the young Greek was accepted by the Toledans as a great master and one of the glories of their city. He may well have hoped to take the place of his master, Titian, in the confidence of Philip II, but in this he was disappointed, for the King was understandably alarmed by that extraordinary work, the Martyrdom of St Maurice, and preferred the commonplace and circumstantial style of Titian's Spanish pupil, El Mudo. Ecclesiastical authorities, however, continued to patronise El Greco, either because he provided images of fashionable ecstasy, or because nothing better was available, or because he was obviously a man of superior powers: perhaps from a mixture of all three, for the motives of a committee ordering a work of art are always very mixed. There is evidence that he was admired by the finest spirits of the day; and Toledo, at the time of his arrival there, offered the most intense spiritual life in Europe. St Theresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross and Frey Luís de León were all in Toledo when the Espolio was being painted. At a later date Góngora, Cervantes and Lope de Vega lived in the town, and El Greco probably met them. There is no question of his highly eccentric style being (as is sometimes the case) the result of provincial isolation.
At the same time it is arguable that El Greco exploited his isolated position, which for thirty-five years gave him something like a monopoly of painting in the district. It is even possible to say that he exploited his visionary power. Like other painters whose ideas have come to them with unusual completeness and intensity Blake is an obvious example he was prepared to repeat individual figures or whole compositions as often as was required. This is a characteristic of all magic art: once the image is charged with its meaning it need not, or must not, be varied. The magic animals in palaeolithic cave paintings have identical outlines in northern France and southern Spain. No doubt El Greco was satisfied that lie gave his clients good magic. He had, Pacheco tells us, a large room containing small replicas in oil of all the pictures he had ever painted in his life. His customers could take their choice. Of the Espolio, there still exist eleven replicas of all sizes, and five versions in which the upper half has been made into an oblong picture. Individual figures are treated in the same way. The Virgin's head is used again in groups of the Holy Family; the lefthand Mary appears several times as St Veronica with the sudarium. With subjects more in demand the numbers increased; there are over twenty replicas of the St Francis in meditation, most of them the work of assistants. However 'modern' El Greco may be in some respects, he certainly would not have subscribed to our modem notion of 'a work of art'. His pictures were partly objects of devotion, icons in which the image represented an unalterable fact; and partly saleable commodities, which could be made wholesale once the prototype had been established.
And yet the critics of the 1920's who saw in El Greco the precursor of modem painting were right. Partly owing to the coincidence in his formative years of two non realistic styles the Byzantine and Mannerist and partly owing to a naturally metaphysical turn of mind, El Greco was the first European painter to reject the main premises of the classical tradition. He thought surface more important than depth, and suddenly brought a head to the front of a design if it suited him; he thought colour more important than drawing, and scandalized Pacheco by saying so; and he sought to communicate his emotion by pictorial means, even if it involved distortion or an almost incomprehensible shorthand. Since the early middle ages no other painter had dared to let his sense of rhythmic necessity carry his hand so far away from observed facts, or rather, from that convenient version of the facts which had been sanctioned by academic convention. In the Espolio these characteristics are still contained in the habitual forms of mannerism: that is why for three hundred years it was the most acceptable of his works. In his later work, when he had evolved his own handwriting and his brush scrawled across the canvas like a storm across the sky, he seems closer to our own unsettled feelings; but his imagination never burnt more intensely than in the holy fire of Toledo Cathedral.
Text from Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures.