El Greco returned to the subject of Christ on the Cross in around 1585-90 in his full-scale altarpiece of Christ on the Cross with Donors, commissioned for the side chapel in the Royal Convent of the Visitation in Toledo, and today in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (see Fig. 3).4 The sheer scale of the work and the audacious inclusion of the two donors distinguish it from the artist’s earlier design, but here for the first time the artist employs Michelangelo’s drawing as the direct model for the figure of Christ, which he would later reuse in the present treatment. In handling the Louvre painting marks a development in the artist’s style from his earlier essay in the subject, through the use of bold, almost impressionistic brushstrokes to render the form of the clouds and the use of silvery highlights in the modelling of Christ’s body, a legacy from El Greco’s direct knowledge of the work of the great Venetian colourists.
The present work is likely to have been painted a decade or two following the Louvre altarpiece. In the overall design of the composition El Greco has assimilated his two earlier treatments by placing the model of Christ from the Louvre altarpiece into a landscape setting similar to his first treatment of the subject. Stylistically however the present work belongs to El Greco’s later more mannered style that he developed towards the end of the 16th century. The contorted body of Christ has become narrower and more elongated than in the Louvre painting and the torso is modelled through an increased contrast of light and shade to generate a greater sense of movement. The overall palette has darkened and Christ’s starkly lit figure is set against a background of black cloud, tinged with incandescent light, for increased dramatic effect, whilst a supernatural light falls on the trees and landscape below, where a line of figures and soldiers turn their backs on Christ and make for the city of Jerusalem. In regard to the narrative, El Greco appears to have chosen to depict the moment when Christ looks up to the heavens to cry out to God the Father: ‘My god, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’, whilst at the foot of the cross the skulls and bones have been incorporated to remind the onlooker of Christ’s triumph over original sin and the potential for man’s salvation.5
El Greco must have particularly favoured the present design of Christ on the Cross, for the painting exists in numerous autograph and studio versions in both large and reduced format. In addition to the present work, two other large-scale autograph versions (or variants) are known: a painting in the Museum of Cleveland, which is slightly larger (193 by 116 cm.) but omits much of the landscape, and a version of almost identical size to the present work which is recorded as in the collection of the Marqués de la Motilla, Seville. In addition, there are three reduced autograph versions: a signed work (82.5 by 51.8 cm.) sold London, Sotheby’s, 6 July 2000, lot 36, for £3,853,500, today in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (see Fig. 4); another (96.5 by 61 cm.) formerly in the Gutzwiller Collection, Paris, sold New York, Sotheby’s, 19 May 1995, lot 64, for $2.1 million; and a third (95 by 61 cm.) formerly with Wildenstein, New York, today in the Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
Scholars are today inclined to date all of these versions towards the end of the artist’s career, around 1600-10, at a time when the artist’s studio played an increased role in his work. A leading academic on El Greco believes that, in keeping with his working practise at this date, the master would have painted a prime original of the composition of Christ on the Cross (now lost) and that all subsequent versions, including the present work, as well as those in Museum of Art, Cleveland, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo would have involved a modest degree of assistance from the master’s studio. This modus operandi should perhaps come as no surprise given its proximity to that of late Titian, in whose workshop the young Cretan master is believed to have trained following his arrival in Venice during the early 1570s.
1. The four versions are: a version on canvas (67.5 by 42 cm.) in a private collection, Spain (Fig. 2); a signed version on canvas (43 by 28 cm.) in a North American private collection, sold New York, Christie’s, 31 January 1997, lot 217, for $3,605,000; a version on copper (35 by 26.7 cm.), today in a private collection, Texas; and a version on panel (30.5 by 19.8 cm.), formerly in the collection of Dr. Gregorio Marañon, Madrid, and today in the Caja Castilla La Mancha, Toledo. For the last three see J. Alvarez Lopera, El Greco. Estudio y Catálogo, Madrid 2007, vol. II, part I, pp. 35-37, nos. 5-7, reproduced figures 12-14, respectively.
2. See P. Humfrey, Titian. The Complete Paintings, London 2007, p. 280, cat. no. 211, reproduced.
3. As pointed out by Fabianski, the direct model for El Greco’s figure of Christ in his early treatment of Christ on the Cross appears to be a small sculpture by Giambologna, datable before 1573, which is known in various casts including those in the Palacio de Apostoles, Loreto and the National Gallery, Prague. See M. Fabianski, ‘El Greco in Italia: precisazioni su due quadri’, in Paragone, LIII, no. 46, November 2002, pp. 33-38.
4. Oil on canvas, 250 by 180 cm.
5. Matthew, chapter 27, verse 46.; Mark chapter 15, verse 34.
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