Tuesday, March 06, 2007

El Espolio: The Disrobing of Christ

GRECO, El (b. 1541, Candia, d. 1614, Toledo)
El Espolio (The Disrobing of Christ)
Oil on canvas, 285 x 173 cm
Sacristy of the Cathedral, Toledo

El Greco: Espolio

The carpenter is intent on the pressure of his hand

on the awl and the trick of pinpointing his strength
through the awl to the wood which is tough
He has no effort to spare for despoilings
or to worry if he'll be cut in on the dice
His skill is vital to the scene and the safety of the state
Anyone can perform the indignities It's his hard arms
and craft that hold the eyes of the convict's women
There is the problem of getting the holes exact
(in the middle of this elbowing crowd)
and deep enough to hold the spikes
after they've sunk through those bared feet
and inadequate wrists he knows are waiting behind him

He doesn't sense perhaps that one of the hands
is held in a curious gesture over him--
giving or asking forgiveness?-
but he'd scarcely take time to be puzzled by poses
Criminals come in all sorts
as anyone knows who makes crosses
are as mad or sane as those who decide on their killings
Our one at least has been quiet so far
though they say he talked himself into this trouble
a carpenter's son who got notions of preaching

Well here's a carpenter's son who'll have carpenter sons
God willing and build what's wanted
temples or tables mangers or crosses
and shape them decently
working alone in that firm and profound abstraction
which blots out the bawling of rag-snatchers
To construct with hands knee-weight braced thigh
keeps the back turned from death

But it's too late now for the other carpenter's boy
to return to this peace before the nails are hammered

Earle Birney (1904 - 1995)
From: Fall by Fury. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977

El Greco painted at least three versions of this theme.

The above image is the first and was commissioned by the Dean of the Toledo Cathedral, Diego de Castilla, to hang in the vestry there. For Espolio, El Greco designed the original altar of gilded wood which has been destroyed.

It is a vivid example of El Greco's synthesis of the anti-naturalism of Byzantine painting with Venetian coloration and Mannerist principles.

The Chapter of the Cathdral at first rejected the painting. They complained that Christ was being treated disrespectfully: some of the tormentors and torturers stand higher than He does. El Greco sued for his fee. The Court assessors unanimously praised the painting and supported El Greco`s claim. But it was a lesson that El Greco did not forget. It was Roman Catholic Spain in the period of the Counter-Reformation.

Although the canons of the Council of Trent regarding Art had been framed in broad terms, the devil was in the fleshing out of the details of the prescriptions and proscriptions set out by various learned authors and theologians. Artistic licence in religious art was in danger of being snuffed out.

The painting was moved about 1612 from the vestry into the re-modelled sacristy, and in the 1790s was inserted into a new frame, in which it can be seen today.

The powerful effect of the painting especially depends upon his original and forceful use of colour. Something of the effect of the grand images of the Saviour in Byzantine art is recalled.

A small, signed version of the Espolio, at Upton Park, Warwickshire, is probably the original preliminary model for the large painting. See below.

The Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio)
Oil on panel, 55,6 x 34,7 cm
Bearsted Collection, Upton House, Warwickshire

Another signed copy by El Greco now hangs in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich

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