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El Greco (c.1541–1614) was a Greek painter born in Candia, Crete. His real name was Domenicos Theotocopoulos. He was first apprenticed as a painter of religious pictures in the Greco-Byzantine tradition. He is said to have studied under Titian in Venice in 1567 and thereafter spent (1570–77) he painted in Rome. By late 1577, El Greco was settled in Toledo, working on the altar of the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. His important works include: The Disrobing of Christ (1577-1579); The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586); The Agony in the Garden (c. 1590-95); View of Toledo (c. 1597) and Laocoön (c. 1610) (Esaak, 2007).
El Greco’s style of painting belonged to a class known as mannerism and belonged to a period known as Baroque. The word “baroque” was first applied to the art of period from the late 1500s to the late 1700s, by critics in the late nineteen century (Huntfor.com, 2007). Baroque was primarily associated with the religious tensions within Western Christianity (Huntfor.com, 2007). Born on Crete, which was then under Venetian control, El Greco learned his craft in the Byzantine manner. He later spent enough time in Venice itself to pick up dramatic color techniques, then synthesized all into a whole after settling in Spain (Esaak, 2007).
The year before El Greco migrated to Spain, King Philip II finished building his vast Escorial Palace, which he was expected to fill with religious pictures. Spain at that time had few native painters. These conditions motivated El Greco to move to Spain. Moreover, the spirited Counter Reformation going on his Spanish home lent itself to his mystical/religious themes. His style was so completely unique that it died with him.
The Agony in the Garden by El Greco is oil on canvas painting dated c. 1595. It is presently situated at the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH, USA. The painting focuses more on the spiritual elements rather than on the physical ones. In this painting, Christ depicted as a person undergoing a spiritual struggle. El Greco communicates Christ’s inner turmoil as he contemplates his coming crucifixion through Christ’s expressive face and pose, the use of ethereal light and strident colors, and the confusing sense of space and form.
Jesus is shown praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, located on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, just before his arrest for his teachings. Judas and the Roman soldiers are approaching at the right. The scene is a grassy clearing which looks like to be a lighted stage. In the foreground the tired pupils are sleeping, their unnaturally rigid robes refer to the wax models which El Greco used (Kren and Marx, 2007). In the background on the left are the sleeping apostles – Peter, James the Greater and John; on the right Judas approaches with soldiers. There are two versions of the painting both by El Greco.
In both versions El Greco paints a mystical vision complete with the glow of moonlight and two trampled olive-trees, their branches torn and their fruit dispersed on the ground (Kren and Marx, 2007). Above a cavity in the night-misted crag, where the three disciples sleep, an angel kneels. After a night of weeping, Christ lifts his weary face towards the radiance of the angel and a ray of light, whose source is not the moon. Judas and the Sanhedrin’s soldiers are shown crossing the brook on a footbridge and approaching Christ with their torches held high (Bruce, 2004). The design has a very artificial feel to it. This artificial feel along with the passion of expression are characteristics of iconic painting. In this painting, one finds that El Greco has returned to Byzantium (Bruce, 2004).
A notable feature of this painting is that in the upper left an angel appears to him with a cup, a reference to his forthcoming Passion. The colors used are mostly greens, yellows and grays with the central focus of the painting on Christ who is shown wearing a crimson garment. The lines are well etched and also indicated by light and shade on the figures. It is done in a mannerist style of art and proclaims a sense of spiritual power of religious faith.
El Greco’s use of form resembles the Florentine Mannerism. Venetian Mannerism can be seen in the peculiar brilliance of his coloring. He broke away from the Renaissance tradition and ceased to depict reality and nature. In order to convey mystic emotions and to imbue his work with passion he distorted and elongated the forms and used stridently blazing colors to express the transcendental (Kren and Marx, 2001).
The Agony in the Garden is a mystic interpretation which is symbolic of El Greco’s late years and mature style. The work unfolds the fantastic vision of a Spanish mystic. The Agony in the Garden builds on the Byzantine concept. The elongated forms, eerie moonlight, and expressive colors help the viewer to identify with his suffering. The figures and landscapes depicted in this painting are distorted and very unnatural in shape, lighting, color and texture.
However, it is not randomly organized like a dream picture. It has excellent organization, and revolves around a central theme (AD, 2007). As a narrative picture, it provides all the essential elements of the familiar biblical story in an intensely religious age of the Inquisition (AD, 2007). The most significant aspects of the painting are its diagonal planes and vivid colors. In this work, Greco seems to have sought more and more compression and simplification, the integration of individually scattered elements, and highlighting the main features with greater emphasis (AD, 2007). Christ and the angel are thus depicted in a large and bold fashion, in slashing angular strokes amidst twirling clouds (AD, 2007). The smaller parts seem to fall in sync with the diagonal swirling and crisscross motion of the larger ones (Greco, 1938).
The painting is has great depth of pure color. It is not as if there is light and line with color added on the surface. The painting as a whole is bright with a lurid phosphorescent glow of changing colors, crimson, blue-green and golden yellow. This combination of bright colors, though exciting, is also in harmony with the rhythm of movement, and with the general spirit of ecstatic drama. Regarding his painting technique, in nearly all his pictures with a bolus groundwork, which is usually red, but sometimes of a brownish, sometimes of a yellowish-red hue (Greco, 1938).
This priming is not painted over everywhere, but remains in places untouched, both in shadow and in light. Greco always painted from dark into light. He painted with a whitish paste, a thick resinous oil- transparent where it is laid on thinly, and semi-transparent where it is more pastose. Upon the red-brown groundwork, therefore, there is this single , applied thickly or thinly, a great wealth of tones and the whole from white to grey and grey-brown.
Many of El Greco’s paintings are often complex and give way to multiple interpretations of the same subject, each with variations that range from the profound to the subtle.The painting ‘The Agony in the Garden’ depicts the last night of Christ on the Mount of Olives. According to the Holy Bible, knowing of his coming betrayal by Judas, Christ went with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane (Phelan, 2001). He took the disciples Peter, James, and John aside and asked them to keep watch while he went apart and prayed. Twice Christ returned, found them sleeping and woke them (Phelan, 2001). Upon returning the third time, He asked them to sleep on and take rest because it would be soon time when the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of the enemies (Matthew 26:45).
The idea of showing Christ as if he were about to receive communion came from the gospels’ reference to a cup and actually has no other basis. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus asks to remove the cup from him (Earls, 1996). Christ’s ‘Agony in the Garden’ was not a popular topic during the Baroque period and is rarely found in baroque art (Earls, 1996).
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El Greco, though recognized as a Master before he left Crete, was not much known for his drawing capabilities and sketches until much later and even then, he was not exactly a draughtsman. That he did not care about his deficiency may be a feature of his extreme individualism.
In particular, he could not convincingly portray torsos, hands, legs or feet. However, his tilt towards spirituality and mysticism was ideally suited to the fervent religious climate of Counter-Reformation Toledo, but his style was not easily transmitted, and he had no important followers. The art of El Greco was neglected for three centuries, until the artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with their interest in distortion and abstraction of form and in emotional expressionism, restored the painter’s reputation as one of Spain’s leading masters.
The many duplicates, revisions, and versions of his paintings suggest that he was very busy but he had no follower of note. His complex inheritance as an artist, his background and personal genius, combine to give a unique quality to his achievement that cannot be easily followed. He did not wield much influence on the Spanish painting scenario, though Diego Velázquez was one Spanish artist who studied his portraiture and method of design.
El Greco was basically a Spanish painter called ‘the Greek’ because he was born in Crete. He studied in Italy, worked in Rome from about 1570, and by 1577 had settled in Toledo. He painted elegant portraits and intensely emotional religious scenes with increasingly distorted figures and unearthly light, such as The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586; Church of S Tomé, Toledo). His visionary expressionism and extreme abstraction of forms are seen in The Agony in the Garden (c. 1597-1603; Toledo Museum, Ohio). The intense emotionalism and spirituality of El Greco’s art marks him as one of the last and greatest inheritors of the 16th-century international Mannerist style.
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Esaak, Shelley (2007). Artist Profile: El Greco. Web.
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Huntfor.com (2007). Baroque. Web.
Kren, Emily and Marx, Daniel (2007). The Agony in the Garden. Web.
Phelan, Joseph (2001). The Passion of Christ in Art. Web.