El Espolio, The Disrobing of Christ

El Greco, El Espolio, The Disrobing of Christ

oil on canvas
285 × 173 cm
Sacristy of the Cathedral, Toledo, Spain

El Espolio (or The Disrobing of Christ), a painting begun in the summer of 1577 and completed in the spring of 1579 for the High Altar of the sacristy of the Cathedral of Toledo, where it still hangs, is one of El Greco's most renowned works.[1] A document dated 2 July 1577 refers to this painting is the earliest record of El Greco in Spain. This commission of this painting was secured thanks to El Greco's friendship with Diego de Castilla, the dean of the Cathedral of Toledo.[2]

Harold Wethey regards the painting as a "masterpiece of extraordinary originality".[3] 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. The motif of the crowding round Christ suggests an acquaintance with the works of the Northern artist, Bosch; the figure preparing the Cross could be derived from the similar figure bending forward in Raphael's tapestry cartoon of the Miraculous Draught of Fishes. This is, however, the last time that there are any hints of specific borrowings. The original altar of gilded wood that El Greco designed for the painting has been destroyed, but his small sculptured group of the Miracle of St. Ildefonso still survives on the lower center of the frame.[3]

The painting shows Christ looking up to Heaven with an expression of serenity; his idealized figure seems segregated from the other people and the violence surrounding him.[2] A figure in the background bearing a red hat points at Christ accusingly, while two others argue over his garments. A man in green to Christ's left holds him firmly with a rope and is about to rip off his robe in preparation for his crucifixion. At the lower right, a man in yellow bends over the cross and drills a hole to facilitate the insertion of a nail to be driven through Christ's feet. The radiant face of the Savior is violently juxtaposed to the coarse figures of the executioners, who are amassed around him creating a disturbance with their movements, their gestures and lances.[4]

Christ is clad in a bright red robe; it is precisely on this red tunic that El Greco concentrated the full expressive force of his art. The purple garment (a metonymic symbol of the divine passion) is spread out in a light fold; only the chromatic couple of yellow and blue in the foreground raises a separate note which approaches, in power, the glorifying hymn of the red.[4]

On the left side of the composition, the three Marys contemplate the event with distress. This is an innovation of El Greco, since the three Marys included in the scene are not mentioned in the account of the Gospels.[4] The presence of three women and the placement of the tormentors above the body of Christ caused the critical comments of the commissioners of the Cathedral, who refused to pay the price set.[2]

In designing the composition vertically and compactly in the foreground El Greco seems to have been motivated by the desire to show the oppression of Christ by his cruel tormentors. The figure of Christ, robust, tall and tranquil, dominates the center of the composition which is built vertically like a wall.[4] El Greco chose a method of space elimination that is common to middle and late 16th-century Mannerists. According to Wethey, El Greco "probably recalled late Byzantine paintings in which the superposition of heads row upon row is employed to suggest a crowd".[3]

The Disrobing of Christ was a subject of a dispute between the painter and the representatives of the Cathedral regarding the price of the work; El Greco was forced to have recourse to the courts to claim his just recompense.[4] Despite the complaints of the commissioners of the Cathedral it had a huge success; currently, more than 17 versions of the painting are known.[2]


  1. ^ M. Lambraki-Plaka, El Greco-The Greek, 43-44
  2. ^ a b c d M. Tazartes, El Greco, 100
  3. ^ a b c "Greco, El". Encyclopædia Britannica. (2002).
  4. ^ a b c d e M. Lambraki-Plaka, El Greco-The Greek, 53

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