Baroque Spain: El Greco. A Lonely and Royal Christ.
I want to preface today’s discussion by noting that I’ve included El Greco in this series on Spanish Baroque because, in Spain, he is the link between “mannerism” and the “true Baroque” style. He combined mannerist forms with Baroque drama. Just as other Baroque artists chose to work mostly in Madrid or Seville, El Greco’s city of choice was Toledo. He rose to fame there and as his career progressed, his work became more abstract. His art followed the edicts of the Council of Trent. Catholic art should insight devotion, involve the viewer, and be didactic. This stood in stark contrast to Protestants, for whom the written word was the most powerful, behavior-altering tool. El Greco’s art also placed high value on the mystic or visionary experience, as we saw yesterday.
Today we’ll look at El Greco’s El Espolio (1577-1579). El Espolio, or The Disrobing of Christ, was appropriately hung in the room where priests get dressed before mass. We don’t see the Disrobing very often in Western art, perhaps for the sake of modesty. In any case, this scene is taken from Christ’s Passion. The Roman guards disrobe him and eventually fight over who gets his clothes.
In the foreground, a carpenter is putting finishing touches on the cross, an allusion to Christ’s upcoming crucifixion. Christ’s upturned face and the heavenly light beaming down on him can be read as alluding to his resurrection. Despite the crowd, Christ seems alone and in quiet conversation with the Father in heaven. He is the focal point of the image and wears the strongest color, red, which symbolized blood and royalty. El Greco’s use of red separates Christ from the rest of the crowd, which are all in the same grayish blue palette.
The men torturing and pulling at Christ’s robes are animalistic and subhuman, reveling in violence and in disgracing Christ. Not everyone in the painting are displayed as animals. The two thieves that were crucified with Christ are also present, naked, and can be seen to the left and right of Christ. Their nakedness suggests their repentant humility. The remaining figures behind the torturers and thieves look normally human and may represent hope for humanity.
In accordance with St. Bonaventure’s textual description of this event, the three Marys are present (Mary, mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, mother of James). This caused a stir with the monks, who found the painting to be immodest because the three Marys would not be actually present at an event where a man, indeed a deity, was being stripped naked. It was also held in contempt because the heads of the crowd are higher than Christ’s head. Despite these objections, the painting stayed in its intended place.
Catechism of the Council of Trent, translated by Theodore Alois Buckley, 1852.
Stoichita, Victor. Visionary Experience in the Golden Age of Spanish Spanish Art, 1995. Preview it on Google Books.
Villaseñor-Black, Charlene. Various Lectures. Art His 109A, Spring 2010. University of California, Los Angeles.