This devotional image, one of the finest by El Greco, was probably painted about 1580-85, to judge from the comparatively normative proportions and sense of volume in the figure, the restrained expression, and naturalistic handling, which is especially evident in the crown of thorns, the hair and beard of Christ (see J. Brown in Sterling et al. 1998, p. 173). At least seven versions of this composition are known, not including those of a somewhat different type in which Christ gazes to the upper left and holds an upright cross (see Christiansen in New York-London 2003-4, p. 148, noting the influence on this type of Michelangelo’s marble Risen Christ in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome). Considering its style and exceptional quality, the Museum’s Christ Carrying the Cross is likely to have been the first that El Greco painted in Spain.
The subject, which isolates Christ from narrative scenes of the Way to Calvary, was developed mainly by northern Italian artists of the early 1500s such as Giovanni Bellini, Sebastiano del Piombo, Andrea Solario, and others. El Greco probably saw Sebastiano’s Christ Carrying the Cross (State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg), painted in the mid-1530s for Fernando da Silva, 4th Conde de Cifuentes (d. 1546), who took it to Spain where it entered the royal collection. The picture, on slate, was treasured by Philip II and hung in the monastery of El Escorial. It was evidently well known to certain artists, in particular Luis de Morales (ca. 1520–1586?) who painted several versions of the composition, with a more pathetic and cadaverous Christ (one example, dated 1566, is in the Museo del Patriarca, Valencia).
In El Greco’s treatment of the subject he departs strongly from the suffering type of Christ, bent under the weight of the cross, and established a new type in which the Savior looks rapturously up to God, and embraces the cross as an instrument of his own salvation. The frontal pose and upward glance recall some paintings of the Risen Christ by North Italian masters (such as Ambrogio Bergognone and Andrea Previtali), and of martyred saints such as Saint Sebastian. During the late 1570s and early 1580s El Greco painted a number of saints, and Christ himself, in similar attitudes, for example Saint Sebastian (the large canvas in Palencia, of about 1577–78), Mary Magdalene in Penitence (early 1580s; Worcester Art Museum), Saint Peter in Penitence (1580s; the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham), and the serene figure of Christ, indifferent to his tormentors, in The Disrobing of Christ ("El Espolio"), of 1577–79, in the sacristy of Toledo Cathedral.
El Greco’s idea of Christ Carrying the Cross was a remarkable departure from the norm in Spain, where an emphasis on his suffering is found throughout the 1500s and 1600s, in paintings, polychromed wooden sculpture, religious processions, and spiritual literature. It seems likely that Saint Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), who had influential followers in Toledo, may be counted among those who encouraged El Greco’s conception of Christ in several types of devotional image, as a figure in mystical communication with God and in a state of divine Grace beyond worldly sensation (the crown of thorns and heavy cross make no impression here). As objects of contemplation the artist’s versions of this subject must have been an inspiration to hope and faith.
[Walter Liedtke 2014]
Inscription: Signed on the cross, above Christ's left hand, in Greek: doménikos theotokópoulos epoíei (Domenikos Theotokopoulos made this)
Javier de Quinto, conde de Quinto (d. 1860), Madrid and Paris; condesa de Quinto, Paris, (sale catalogue, 1862 [no auction held], lot 68 [?]; Sir William Stirling Maxwell (1818–1878), Pollok, Keir, and Cadder, Scotland; General Archibald Stirling; Lieutenant Colonel William Stirling; acquired by Robert Lehman, New York in 1953.
El Greco was born in 1541, in either the village of Fodele or Candia (now known as Heraklion) in Crete to a prosperous family. His initial training took place at the Cretan school but as Crete was owned by the Republic of Venice during this time, it made sense for El Greco to take up his career in Venice. It's thought he went there around 1567, although there is little information about the artist's time in the city.
In 1570, El Greco moved to Rome and produced a series of works reflecting his studies in Venice. Thanks to the artist Giulio Clovio, El Greco was invited to the Palazzo Farnese, which was a vibrant art centre set up by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.
There El Greco met the acquaintance of many elite citizens, including the Roman scholar Fulvio Orsini, who went on to collect many of his paintings.
El Greco set himself apart from other Cretan artists by evolving his style and inventing new and rare interpretations of traditional religious themes. His works from this period exemplified the Venetian Renaissance style with elongated figures, chromatic framework and sometimes multi-figured compositions in vibrant landscapes, drawing inspiration from artists such as Titian and Tintoretto.
In Rome many aspiring artists were influenced by the works of Michelangelo and Raphael but El Greco was eager to introduce his own artistic views, ideas and techniques.
In 1577 El Greco relocated to Toledo, although he had no plans to settle there permanently. His main aim was to catch the attention of King Philip and to gain royal commissions.
He succeeded and was appointed to paint two works, but the King was seemingly unhappy with both, for reasons unknown, and did not employ the artist again.
Despite this setback El Greco was obliged to remain in Toledo and was hailed a great painter. In 1586 he was commissioned to paint The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, now regarded as his masterpiece.
The artist was extremely prolific between 1597 and 1607, receiving several major commissions. Furthermore, the workshop he opened produced illustrative and sculptural pieces for various religious institutions.
It's believed that from 1585 onwards El Greco lived in a plush complex belonging to the Marquis de Villena, where he also housed his workshop. He spent his last years living comfortably and continued to study.
It's possible that the artist lived with his Spanish female companion, Jerónima de Las Cuevas, although this has not been confirmed. The couple did, however, have a son together (the artist's only child) named Jorge Manuel who followed in his father's footsteps and became a painter.
While working on a commission for the Hospital Tavera El Greco fell seriously ill and passed away on April 7, 1614.