The present work is one of four recorded versions of this composition: the first is a panel formerly housed at the Palacio Real, Madrid, but never part of that collection. It may have been the property of Manuel Asúa, an employee at the Palacio, and is sometimes thought to have been from the Salamanca collection, but the full history of the painting has never been properly established.2 It disappeared in 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, and its present location is not known. The only real record of it is a 1928 black and white photograph, the negative of which is the basis for all reproductions. Although some authors believe that the present work is identical with the Madrid picture the visible differences in the compositional details make that very unlikely, even allowing for possible restoration or cleaning. The panel here was first published in 1949, but it had been recognized earlier by August L. Mayer as an autograph work by El Greco.3 A third panel was published by Martin Soria in 1954 as being in the collection of the Conde Viuda de Ibarra, Seville. It is in oil on panel and has been dated by Álvarez Lopera to circa 1571-72.4 It is smaller than the present work (28.1 by 19 cm) and is now in a private collection, London. A larger panel (45 by 27.4 cm) from the Anstruther collection was sold at Christie's, London, March 19, 1965, lot 44. According to the note in the catalogue, it was framed to give it an arched top, but the corners had been filled in and painted over. Included by Steinberg in his article in 1974 without a comment about the attribution, it is scarcely mentioned in the recent literature.5
El Greco left his native Crete sometime after 1566 and by 1568 was documented in Venice where he may have worked in Titian’s studio. In late 1570 he was in Rome, having passed through Verona, Parma and Florence along the way. The present work probably dates to the mid-1570s, a remarkably fertile period for El Greco, during which he was relinquishing the hieratic style derived from icon painting and turning to contemporary Italian art for inspiration. His setting for The Entombment is a place of total desolation. A tall rounded hill top with some vegetation sprouting from it rises in the middle ground. Its sharp and stony presence is reminiscent of the larger but equally barren hills on the reverse of the Modena triptych, one of his most important early works. The background is cut off by a range of cold distant peaks. In the sky above the clouds are wild and disturbed, reflecting the feelings of those present, while the light from the setting sun brings no comfort to these grim surroundings. The landscape is devoid of any human presence apart from the figures at the burial, who are gathered in distinct groups. In the foreground is the Magdelen, in her bright orange robe, kneeling by the sepulcher and supporting Christ’s limp arm. Three young men and an older, bearded figure who might be Nicodemus, lower Christ into his tomb. Behind them are smaller figures who observe the scene but are detached from the action. At the right is the Virgin, who tenderly caresses her son’s feet and legs, and a group of elegant female mourners.
Despite the brevity of El Greco's stay in Venice, we see its impact here and in his painting from the early 1570s onwards. In the present work it is evident in the artist’s use of color, particularly the Magdalen's brilliant robe, and in the general structure of the composition, which has the crowded activity of Titian's late paintings. Comparing this to an earlier representation of the same subject in the National Gallery, Athens, datable to circa 1568-69 (fig. 1), when El Greco was still in Venice, we can see the degree to which he has absorbed the influences of Italy.6 In the Athens picture the figure of Christ is shown with his face turned toward the viewer, rather than away and there are fewer figures attending him. The landscape is similarly barren in feel, but the coloring is much brighter and the handling of the paint broader. Here the brushwork is more refined and differentiated, and the artist glories in his depiction of the agitated drapery as well as the smooth skin of the elegant young men. In the Athens panel several of the figures are taken directly from etchings by Parmigianino, while in the present panel the references to Italian art are, for the most part, more fully integrated into the composition as a whole. The coloring is toned down, though the Venetian influence can be seen in the Magdalen’s brilliant robe, while general structure of the composition has the crowded activity of Titian's late paintings. Apparently as a tribute to his mentor, El Greco has also included a portrait of Titian in The Entombment: he is part of the group of observers, the second figure from the left with the black cap and white beard. The elegant elongated bodies and necks of both the men and women surrounding the tomb, owe a great deal to Parmigiano, but in contrast to the Athens picture, El Greco has, for the most part, not borrowed directly from earlier artists. The great exception is the figure of Christ himself, which, as Leo Steinberg convincingly demonstrated, is based on Michelangelo's Pietà in the Duomo in Florence (fig. 2).7 The pose is the same, the relation of the limbs and torso are those of Michelangelo’s sculpture, but El Greco rotates the figure 90 degrees counterclockwise to make it suitable in the context of a burial. While later in his Italian sojourn, El Greco famously criticized Michelangelo, asserting that he could repaint the Sistine Chapel in a better and more seemly fashion, his quotation of the Pietà here seems not so much a challenge to the older artist but more a way of enhancing the emotional content of the painting while at the same time demonstrating his knowledge of Italian art. The Pietà was already well-known and much copied by the 1570s, and by introducing it into The Entombment El Greco was able to draw on the powerful emotions that the sculptural group elicited. It is also a sophisticated compositional device, connecting the disparate groups of mourners.
In 1577 El Greco left Italy for Madrid, and then Toledo, where he remained until his death. The paintings from his Spanish period, with their turbulence and distortion are what we generally associate with the artist, but the seeds for those pictures are all present here in this small panel, where elegance and emotion are combined, though the latter prevails.
A Note on the Provenance:
The early history of this panel is unclear, and, as noted above, the painting has sometimes been confused with the picture formerly stored at the Palacio Real de Madrid. After studying the 1949 newspaper accounts of the discovery of The Entombment and the evidence of the picture itself, we believe that the provenance differs somewhat from that in previous publications.
An inscription in pen on the reverse of the panel suggests it was in a private collection in Aix-en-Provence, in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, but we have been unable to identify who that might be, though there appears to be a street address on the Boulevard Roy René.
The picture first came to the notice of art historians before World War II, when it was identified by a curator at the Pinokothek in Munich, possibly A. L. Mayer himself. At that point it was in a European private collection. According to the two newspaper articles of 1949 (see Literature), the picture was in storage in Geneva by 1939 and during the war. Piecing the information together we believe that by 1949 it came to Carlo Broglio, the art dealer, who was then living in Paris. The suggestion that it was once owned by Mario Broglio, the journalist, seems to have been due to a confusion of the two men by later writers. The picture is then firmly documented as being in the collection of Gegette Broglio, Carlo's widow and was included in the sale of her estate, where it was acquired by the present owner.
1. See Literature for his and the earlier opinions regarding the attribution.
2. See H. Wethey 1974, see Literature for a summary of the known information.
3. L. Steinberg, p. 474, note 1, see Literature.
4. Álvarez Lopera 2007, cat. no. 29, see Literature.
5. L. Steinberg, loc. cit. Álvarez Lopera 2007, p. 84, refers to it in his note on the present work and Puppi 1999, p. 104 incorrectly identifies it as having come from the Ibarra collection. See Literature.
6. Álvarez Lopera 2007, p. 79, cat. no. 28.
7. L. Steinberg, pp. 474-477.
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