El Greco received his artistic formation in studios en Crete, but by 1566 he had relocated to Venice, where he modified his post-Byzantine manner of painting, turning toward greater emphasis on chromatic contrasts and more concern for manipulating anatomy and space. These changes were affirmed during his later stay in Rome. By 1576 he had moved to Spain and there are records in 1577 of his presence in Toledo, where he would remain until his death. In this city, his style evolved into a very personal synthesis, where color and brushstrokes acquire primary roles. In parallel, he introduced increasingly radical anatomical alterations, situating his figures in space in a way that defied Renaissance laws of perspective, under skies scored by streaks of light in strange, almost unreal atmospheres.
In the MNBA’s painting, El Greco handled an episode from the Passion of Christ: Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives prior to his arrest and the crucifixion. His presentation remains faithful to the Gospel accounts (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46) and traditional iconography established in Christian art since the late Middle Ages. He developed the scene in two different registers, following a type of composition with Italian precedents (1). In the lower portion he represented the sleeping disciples: John and James the Greater, one facing the other, while Peter faces front on the right wearing a blue tunic with a yellow blanket. Only two truncated olive trees that stand out against the darkness of a crevice separate this more somber area from the upper portion, bathed in the glow that descends upon the figure of Christ, kneeling in prayer, at the moment when an angel materializes before him with the chalice that gives visible form to his plea: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). To the right, the outcrop of earth constitutes a device to open the representation into distant space with an abrupt change of scale, where a group of small figures with diffuse contours appears, and in the furthest plane, the blurry silhouette of a city. It is Jerusalem, barely visible in the moonlight.
As in other works from his final period, white brushstrokes appear throughout the painting’s surface, creating the effect of an arbitrary, unreal illumination. Both figures and objects seem to have lost weight and substance, and long, broken or zigzagging brushstrokes are responsible for their imprecise definition. The forms that emerge from the half-light or that lose substance in the light, the contrast between light and shadow and the brusque changes in scale all come together to augment the scene’s dramatic charge, creating an atmosphere loaded with portent and allusions.
El Greco painted various versions of this theme from the late 1580s onward, in two formats: first horizontal, and then after 1600, vertical as is the case in our version. There are at least six known examples of works of this type; of these, the one conserved in the Santa María de Andújar church in Jaén (oil on canvas, 169 x 112 cm), is considered to be of the highest quality, and probably the first of this kind. He represented the same characters in all of the versions, using a similar arrangement and the same poses. He also reiterated how space, anatomy, clothing, color and light were handled. In the vertical versions, space responds to a more naturalistic concept—in spite of its fragmentary and discontinuous character—than in the horizontal versions. The group of apostles is larger in size and occupies the entire lower area, instead of being encapsulated in a cloudy area beneath the angel. With this change, the artist lent them greater weight and prominence, highlighting the figure of Peter in particular, through his complex pose and the elements that surround him, loaded with symbolic meaning: the olive tree’s severed trunk and the shoot that emerges from it, which may allude to the resurrection, and the branch of ivy that adheres to a rock, a symbol for the persistence of faith (2). In this way he emphasized the crucial role that Peter played in the episodes that followed the Passion, remembering his repentance, a theme frequently handled by the artist and one of his favorites—along with those involving other penitent saints—among counter-reformation religious practices.
This work was acquired in Madrid in 1908, a significant year in El Greco’s historiography, when Manuel B. Cossío published his monographic work (3), considered the point of departure for scientific knowledge about his life and work, following a rediscovery and growing appreciation of his painting during the 19th Century. In 1928, German scholar August Mayer saw this work in Buenos Aires, published it and included it in the catalog of El Greco’s work. In 1950 the task of revising the body of work attributed to the Cretan painter began, and in 1962 Harold Wethey published what is considered to be the authorized catalog of his work to date, which includes the Museum’s painting in spite of some reservations regarding the possible intervention of his studio in it (4).
Although the work is signed, today only a few, incomplete letters can be observed, given that the painting’s surface has deteriorated in that area. Both August Mayer in 1928 and Juan Corradini, who restored the work in 1957, point out the existence of the signature, with the artist’s complete name in greek letters: Doménikos Thetokópoulos. Nevertheless, it must have been quite faintly visible at the time the piece entered the museum, since while on exhibit at the Amigos del Arte in 1939, Eduardo Eiriz Maglione is attributed with having discovered it. This affirmation was the motive for a controversy that became public through Buenos Aires’ news media (5). The newspaper articles that appeared represent a good indicator of the amount of attention provoked by El Greco’s work, which had already been the case in museum circles with its acquisition and the act held on April 11, 1937 on the occasion of is being incorporated into the Museum’s collection.
1— Harold Wethey, 1962, vol. 2, p. 30.
2— José Álvarez Lopera, “Las lágrimas de San Pedro” in: Álvarez Lopera, 1999, p. 374.
3— Manuel B. Cossío, El Greco. Madrid, Victoriano Suárez, 1908, 2 vols.
4— Carmen Garrido, from the Museo del Prado, is a specialist in El Greco’s work and saw this painting in Buenos Aires in 1999. In 2002, on the basis of an analysis of x-rays images, she pointed out certain faults in the internal structure of some of the figures, which indicate intervention by the studio.
5— In the Museum’s Documentación y Registro area (Documentation and Records Department), press clippings of the articles that appeared in October of 1939 in newspapers such as La Fronda, El Mundo, La Nación, Crítica, Noticias Gráficas and La Vanguardia, among others are conserved.
1928. DEL VILLAR, Emilio H., Estudios hispánicos. El Greco en España. Madrid, Espasa- Calpe, p. 109-110, lám. XIV, il. 20.
1930. MAYER, August L., “Ältere Europäische Kunst in Privatbesitz zu Buenos Aires”, Der Cicerone, Leipzig, nº XXII, p. 269- 270.
1931. MAYER, August L., El Greco. Berlin, Klinkhardt & Biermann, p. 120, il. 98.
1937. LEGENDRE, M. y A. Hartmann, Domenico Theotocopouli dit El Greco. Paris, Hypérion, p. 172. 1939. RINALDINI, Julio, “La pintura española”, El Mundo, Buenos Aires, a. 12, 4 de octubre, p. 6.
1950. CAMÓN AZNAR, José, Domenico Greco. Madrid, Espasa-Calpe, vol. 1, il. 629 (epígrafe: Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo) y 630, p. 814-815, p. 818, p. 823-840; vol. 2, nº 105, p. 1362.
1956. CORRADINI, Juan, “La Oración en el huerto de los olivos del Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes”, Ars, Buenos Aires, a. 16, nº 74, [s.p.].
1958. GAYA NUÑO, Juan Antonio, La pintura española fuera de España. Madrid, Espasa- Calpe, nº 1434, p. 207.
1962. WETHEY, Harold, El Greco and his School. Princeton, Princeton University Press, vol. 1, il. 148; vol. 2, nº 35, p. 31.
1964. LARCO, Jorge, “La pintura española en la Argentina”, Lyra, Buenos Aires, a. 21, nº 192-194, [s.p.]. 1971. GUDIOL RICART, José, Doménikos Theotokópoulos. El Greco 1541-1614. Barcelona, Polígrafa, nº 213, p. 355.
1973. SALAS, Xavier de y Tiziana Frati, La obra pictórica completa de El Greco. Barcelona/Madrid, Noguer, nº 153b, p. 120.
1993. ÁLVAREZ LOPERA, José, El Greco. La obra esencial. Madrid, Sílex, nº 205, p. 288.
1997. FERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA, Ana María, Catálogo de pintura española en Buenos Aires. Oviedo/Buenos Aires, Universidad de Oviedo/FFyL-UBA, nº 213, p. 68-69.
1999. ÁLVAREZ LOPERA, José (ed.), El Greco. Identidad y transformación. Creta. Italia. España, cat. exp. Madrid, Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, p. 412. — PITA ANDRADE, José Manuel, “El Greco en España”, en: José Álvarez Lopera (ed.), El Greco. Identidad y transformación. Creta. Italia. España, cat. exp. Madrid, Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, p. 144.
2003. SERVENTI, María Cristina, Pintura española (siglos XVI al XVIII) en el Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Buenos Aires, Asociación Amigos del MNBA, p. 64-69, reprod. color.