Christ, the main figure in the composition, is dressed in a vivid red robe and occupies the central axis of the picture. His central position is emphasized by his serene upward gaze, and by the apparent funnel which seems to open in the clouds above his head. Using a convention of Byzantine art, El Greco simulates a crowd by arranging row upon row of heads. The crowd is jostling, threatening and oppressing Christ, who ignores them as he looks up to heaven. Unfortunately, his upward path is blocked by the lances and bodies of his tormentors - a sign of the terrible ordeal to be endured before he can find lasting peace. Meantime, a man dressed in green to whom Christ is attached by a rope is about to remove Christ's scarlet robe, while two others argue over who should have his clothes. Behind Christ a black-clad figure points at him accusingly, while in front a man dressed in yellow is drilling a hole in the cross for one of the spikes that will be driven into Christ's body. All the while, the calm serenity and idealized beauty of Christ is in sharp contrast to the rough features, dark looks and violent movements of his executioners. El Greco clothes all the figures in contemporary dress; the man standing to the left, clad in armour, is probably meant to be Longinus, the Roman centurion in charge - traditionally venerated as a saint - who pierced Christ's side with a lance while he was on the cross. Directly below Longinus, the three Marys observe the scene in agitation and distress.
The dynamic quality of the scene, expressed by the calm figure of Jesus Christ in the middle of the painting, surrounded on all sides by a turbulent mob of coarse figures, is exquisitely enhanced by El Greco's use of colour - namely, the rich red of Christ's robe (a symbol of the divine passion) which contrasts vividly with the mustard yellows below him and the blacks on all sides. Only the ugly caricatures of the faces in Christ carrying the Cross (1515-16, Museum of Fine Art, Ghent), painted by Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) - a particular favourite of Philip II - gives equal attention to the contrast between Christ's humility and the bestiality of his persecutors.
One of El Greco's greatest religious paintings - reminiscent of Tintoretto's Venetian altarpieces, while paying due regard to the cooler, more austere idiom of Spamish painting - its intensity fitted well with the new style of Catholic Counter-Reformation art being adopted in Spain and across Europe.
Ironically, despite its immense popularity, The Disrobing of Christ was the object of several lawsuits between the artist and the Cathedral authorities, who wished to reduce the agreed price and oblige El Greco to erase the three Marys, whose presence so close to the rabble was deemed inappropriate. In the end, El Greco received only 350 ducats but made no corrections.
Explanation of Other Paintings by El Greco
Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-88)
Church of Santo Tome, Toledo.
View of Toledo (1595-1600)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Portrait of a Cardinal (1600)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino (1605)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (1609)
Church of San Gines, Madrid.
The exhibition opens with the earliest works by El Greco to enter the Prado and which came from the Spanish royal collection. Together they conform a gallery of portraits and include paintings of the stature of Gentleman with his Hand on his Breast. For much of the 19th century these paintings gained El Greco fame as the portraitist who best expressed the Spanish aristocratic spirit. Together with these portraits visitors will see The Trinity, painted as part of the altarpiece for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo. It is one of the artist’s great masterpieces and the first religious painting by El Greco to enter the Prado.
The way in which the collection of El Greco’s work was gradually assembled in the Prado directly influenced the artist’s critical fortunes. Until 1872 he was primarily viewed as a portraitist due to the predominance of this genre within his oeuvre in the Museum, but the arrival in 1872 of fifteen paintings from the Museo del la Trinidad enabled El Greco to be increasingly appreciated for his religious compositions. Outstanding among these is The Annunciation from the “Altarpiece of Doña María de Aragón”, the only commission that the artist secured in Madrid and the focus of the second room in the exhibition.
The fourth room is devoted to the various bequests and donations received by the Prado between 1915 and 1962. These added other major works by El Greco, including Saint Sebastian (donated by the Marchioness of Casa Riera in 1959) and the two unique sculptures of Epimetheus and Pandora (donated by the widow of the Count of las Infantas in 1962). Such donations were exceptionally generous given that the artist’s work was fully appreciated by that period. At the time of the Prado’s foundation in 1819 El Greco was considered a minor member of the Italian school but in the 20th century his unique genius was definitively recognised.
The fifth and final room in the exhibition brings together works purchased by the Museum or by the Spanish State. These purchases have resulted in the addition of further masterpieces, such as The Adoration of the Shepherds, which El Greco painted for his own funerary chapel. In addition, they have functioned to complete gaps or fill out under-represented areas in the Prado’s holdings of his work, including Apostles series, secular paintings such as the magnificent Fábula, and the Italian period. The Museum’s most recent acquisition of a work by the artist, The Flight into Egypt, acquired in 2002, dates from the Italian period.