Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco
Spanish, born Crete, 1541–1614
The Assumption of the Virgin

Oil on canvas
158 3/4 x 83 3/4 in. (403.2 x 211.8 cm); original image, approximate: 156 1/16 x 79 3/4 in. (396.4 x 202.5 cm)
Inscribed on paper at lower right in Greek: (Domenikos Theotokopoulos, Cretan, displayed this in 1577)
Gift of Nancy Atwood Sprague in memory of Albert Arnold Sprague, 1906.99

This enormous painting by El Greco (The Greek) was the artist’s first major commission when he arrived in his adopted country of Spain after training in Italy. It was commissioned for the central panel of the high altar of the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo. The story of the Assumption—when the Virgin Mary was taken up to heaven—is based on the apocryphal account by Saint James, who is depicted holding his book. The subject was represented often by artists, but El Greco’s treatment of the theme is striking. He divided his canvas into two zones, an earthly sphere of apostles and the heavenly sphere of angels. The apostles, arranged in a circle, turn toward each other in amazement and confusion. Above, angels express their joy. Mary rises from her tomb on a crescent moon, a symbol of her purity. Although she has almost completely entered the divine realm, the hem of her dress falls lightly over the crescent, connecting her to earth.

El Greco’s work is an example of the Mannerist style he helped define in which figures are elongated, cloaked in ample drapery, and twist and turn dramatically. The narrative of the Assumption unfolds through the emphatic gestures of the characters: the praying hands of the angels, the outstretched arms of the Virgin, the pointing finger of the apostle, and the gracefully upturned palm of the unidentified man to the left, which is emphasized by a break in the clouds. The artist’s use of flickering, high-keyed colors and broad brushwork further lend the work an ecstatic feeling sought after by Catholic Church patrons during the Counter-Reformation. El Greco used such bold colors and figural arrangements to arouse a spiritual fervor in the viewer and impart the deep sense of faith he himself felt.

Francisco de Zurbarán
Spanish, 1598–1664
The Crucifixion

Oil on canvas
114 5/16 x 65 3/16 in. (290.3 x 165.5 cm)
Signed and dated on a scrap of paper painted at the foot of the cross
Robert A. Waller Memorial Fund, 1954.15

Although stylistically different, the work of El Greco and the Spanish painter Francisco Zurbarán are both dramatic, conveying intense religious feeling and aiming to inspire a deeply spiritual response. In his paintings, Zurburán employed an exaggerated form of chiaroscuro, defined by extreme contrasts in light and dark. In The Crucifixion, the body of Christ emerges from a dark background, as if suspended outside time and place. The idealized anatomy and serene composure of Christ contrast with the shocking realism of his painful wounds flowing with blood, complemented by the startling illusion of the paper tacked to the bottom of the cross that bears the artist's signature. This work, painted for the monastery of San Pablo el Reale in Seville, made Zurbarán’s career. It caused such a stir among those who saw it that the Seville governing council urged the artist to move to its city.

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