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The Disrobing of Christ

The Disrobing of Christ – El Espolio

Doménikos Theotokópoulos called El Greco (1541-1614). Alte Pinakothek – Munich. Ca. 1590-1600.

The ‘Disrobing of Christ’ is a scene that is only rarely pictured by painters. It is not a scene that is described in the Gospels. Its origin comes from the ‘Apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus’. In this text is told that before being crucified, the robe of Jesus was taken away and he was girded with a cloth of linen. So, a change of clothing had taken place at Calvary.

El Greco painted a first version of this scene around 1580 for the sacristy of the cathedral of Toledo. D11 . The priests change clothes in the sacristy of churches to perform the liturgy of mass, of baptism, of weddings and of funerals. So the theme of the ‘Disrobing of Christ’ was appropriate for such a place. Priests would change clothes in the sacristy and be constantly reminded that also Christ had been disrobed. Christ therefore would always have been present in the minds of the priests. Sacristies were often richly decorated, had a small private altar and strengthened cupboards where the reassures of the church were preserved as well as the Holy Hosts. Such a place usually also had devotional paintings on its high walls.

The work that is now in the Alte Pinakothek of Munich is a copy dating from 1585 to 1608, made either by El Greco or by his workshop. D11 . The original picture dates from 1580, when El Greco was about forty years old. He was born in 1541 in Thodele on the island of Crete, then under Venetian government. He painted first icons on his island and then moved to dominating Venice in 1566. He visited Rome for some time, but travelled to Spain from Venice in 1577. He remained and worked as a painter in Toledo until his death in 1614. He tried unsuccessfully to become a painter to the Spanish court, but he obtained many commissions of work from the monasteries and churches in and around Toledo.

El Greco was a Mannerist painter, influenced by many ways of painting from Byzantine icon painting over the Venetian smooth art to Rome’s grandeur of Michelangelo. All these experiences, his Cretan origins, his Toledan environment of scorching light and his very strong character made him into one of the most original artists of the later period of the sixteenth century.

The structure of the ‘Disrobing of Christ’ shows emphasis on the vertical lines. The frame is a long rectangle with the longest side up, so the painting may have stood to cover the highest part of a wall above an altar or a cupboard of the sacristy. El Greco placed Jesus almost in the middle of the frame, as an elongated figure. This was a feature of Mannerist painters like Parmigianino, occasionally used as an element of style also by El Greco. The feature adds to the spiritual aspect of Jesus. An armoured soldier, maybe a centurion, also shown in full length, stands next to Jesus. The soldier is dressed like a Spanish warrior, not like a Roman centurion. The soldier simply poses next to Jesus, not in a menacing or a violent mood, as a man that wants to show a scene. The soldier may indicate the symbol of the priest, as priests were soldiers of God. The centurion looks straight at the viewer, unlike any other figure in the painting, and the red of Jesus’ robe reflects on his armour. This may either symbolise that the red blood of Jesus is on the centurion, or that the red love of Jesus reflects on the soldier – and so on the priest. Long lances break out from the crowd above, adding to the static vertical lines in that part of the painting. On the left of Jesus are other soldiers; on his right are the Jews. The silhouettes of Jesus and the centurion hide these figures, so that only faces and heads are seen. Jesus and the centurion are painted in full and since they are standing, their figures add to the overall verticality of the picture.

Below the painting are two separate scenes. To the left are the three Maries. They are looking at a man who bores holes in one of the beams of the cross. These two scenes form an ‘Open V’ structure of composition, in which stands Jesus. If one supposes that the painting stood already quite high against a wall, the viewer could appreciate the lower scenes before being led to the higher scene of Jesus and the centurion, in which all the lines dramatically guide the view upwards, towards the thin lances, up towards the skies, the heavens, towards spirituality. This emphasis on verticality would definitely have been less strong if El Greco had started the Jesus scene immediately from down below on the panel.

There is much energy and movement in the scene behind Jesus, much confusion of heads stuck together, of bodies touching and pressing onto Jesus. The executioner on the right is tearing at Jesus’ red robe to tear it off. Every figure behind Jesus looks in another direction. In that scene Jesus and the centurion are calm. Jesus is resigned, mystical and serene. The centurion seems more to protect Jesus in this turmoil, to assist Jesus as the priests would. Jesus looks upwards, in the traditional poise of a spiritual being that is already not anymore of the same kind of the other figures. Jesus is almost not a human anymore and El Greco, contrary to images of Jesus made by Caravaggio for instance, shows Jesus as near God. Two half-naked men therefore are on either side of Jesus, behind him, indicating the humanity that Jesus will soon leave.

Jesus is the only figure to look upwards, away from the scene to the heavens. El Greco underlined the contrast between spirituality and the earth of the humans, between Resurrection and death, in the glances of the figures. Thus the lower figures, the three Maries and the workman all look downwards, towards the earth, towards the cross, towards the symbol of death. The centurion in armour confronts the viewer to take him or her as witness, as if he were the narrator. Jesus holds his hand to his hearth, already awaiting his fate and setting his confidence in his Father above, maybe pleading to avoid his fate, which is the cross. If a viewer first looks at Jesus, so prominently in the centre and in the purest red hue of the painting, El Greco leads the view also downwards in the gesture of the executioner. The executioner tears at Jesus’ robe and that gesture leads over the outstretched arm to the scene of the three Maries, and even more specifically to the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother. Mary’s view then leads to the workman. If one looks again towards Jesus, one is attracted inexorably to Jesus’ face as the two men on either side of Jesus look in the direction of Jesus’ face. These men were not allowed to make eye-contact with Jesus however, as no figure in the painting; so the two men glance at each other, behind Jesus. Thus El Greco guided the view of his spectators in a direct but subtle way, using as well gestures as eye-looks of his figures.

El Greco brought more structure in the picture than merely the vertical directions. The centurion’s head is on the right diagonal and so is the man on the lower left so that the right diagonal is indicated. The line from the Virgin Mary to Jesus roughly follows the left diagonal. So El Greco also used the diagonals of the frame to build his composition on. The colours indicate further structure. El Greco used harsh yellow-green in the robes of one of the three Maries and in the carpenter. He used harsh brick red for the robe of Jesus. These are the only bright hues in the picture. Together they form a triangle mass, the traditional pyramid form around Jesus, at the top of which is Jesus’ head. The centurion and the workman and Mary form equally such a pyramid, slightly skewed to the left of the frame. El Greco designed structure upon structure, using not only directions of the forms but also of the colours. The pyramid elements are not exactly in the middle of the frame so as not to mark too rigid a symmetry. The two pyramids are somewhat skewed so that enough place is left for the two figures, so that Jesus and the centurion seem balanced and not one diminished. Jesus ‘ red robe attracts more attention, as is appropriate, but also the armour shines and our looks are drawn also to this feature. El Greco balanced the view in the centre of the painting. El Greco’s painting is thus a masterpiece of delicate intelligence of design, or of course of an enormous genius of intuition for the art of painting.

We have shown how much structure El Greco drew in his picture. The colours give an impression as if they had been chosen rapidly, without much sensibility of harmony. Yet, the colours that El Greco used are almost unavoidable and logical. Jesus needed to be painted in red. That was Jesus’ traditional colour and the priests of Toledo Cathedral would have expected nothing less. To our eyes the colour seems harsh, but in the very white colour of Toledo all surfaces are of enhanced brightness so that in the sombreness of a sacristy hard colours would just be the continuation of the colours outside. The red denotes love, warmth, and it is the central colour of the blood of life. The centurion’s armour had to be painted in blue-grey. This could denote distance and coldness. So El Greco had to use yellow to contrast with the bluish armour and green to contrast with the red robe of Jesus. El Greco settled for a purer yellow in the carpenter to contrast with the blue armour and a yellow-green, grey-yellow modified hue in the robe of a Mary. These contrasts form a balance between the yellow patches and the blue and red, indicating the two pyramids of compositional structure. The yellow beneath also contrasts with the blue of the sky. And green, mixed with patches of yellow are also the colours of the executioner. So El Greco deliberately chose his colours. The colours support as well the structure, the balance of masses, as the feelings induced in the viewers. Moreover, by concentrating the lighter colours lower in the frame, El Greco attracted attention also to this part of the painting, which otherwise would have received little attention as the main scene is the disrobing of Christ. El Greco wanted to underline the fate of Jesus, the cross, and the fear that is to be found in most of Spanish seventeenth century paintings and that pervaded Spanish society. He used bright colours that deviated from well-known pure hues to do this.

El Greco seemingly brought the colours and the chiaroscuro impetuously on the panel, so that a viewer can easily forget to look at the structure in the picture. Viewers get an immediate impression of a hard, tough, very masculine art of strong colours when they look at this ‘Disrobing of Christ’ and the visible brush strokes here and there might also give the impression that El Greco worked rapidly. The crowd behind Jesus adds to the movement, to the restlessness of the scenes. These people look in all directions, in the action of the moment. But the seeming disorder and impetuosity of the picture is a mask for a very intelligent composition, of which El Greco remained the master. His own emotions were strong but without sentimentality and the emotions did not dictate the work of this artist. El Greco respected the New Testament and his commissioners. He needed to show the emotions ostentatiously and he did just that in the vivid crowd, in the pious looks of Jesus, in the witnessing and affirming centurion, in the fearful women and in the meticulously working carpenter. All these emotions are strong and the only element of peace is Jesus.

El Greco’s mark is the use of strange colours. We see not the usual pure hues, but hues that are just enough charged with discordant hues. El Greco’s red is modified with a slight tint of blue to hang to the violet; his yellow evolved to tones of green and grey; his green is sombre and tinted with green. El Greco’s blues are in dark tones. These were his colours, not academic colours. But he used them in a way to contrast the hues and yet to agree with as yet unwritten rules of harmony.

To such forceful art in which intelligence of profession is disguised in energy, we stand in awe.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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