Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Nativity

Title: The Nativity
Artist: El Greco
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 128 cm diameter
Date: 1603-05
Location: Hospital de la Caridad, Illescas.

Luke 2:6-7: While Joseph and Mary were there, the time came for the child to be born. She gave birth to her first baby. It was a boy. She wrapped him in large strips of cloth.

The contrast to the birth of John the Baptist is remarkable. John's birth was announced in the capital, at the temple, in the center of the Jewish nation. But Jesus arrives in rural anonymity. John is the child of a priest and his righteous wife; Jesus belongs to Jews of average social status. God did not presume upon humanity when he stepped in to redeem it. There was no pretense in this arrival. Rather, God chose to identify in the humblest way with those made in his image.

On 18 June 1603 El Greco signed a contract to make and decorate an altarpiece for a miraculous image of the Virgin of Charity belonging to the Hospital de la Caridad in the small town of Illescas halfway between Toledo and Madrid. According to the contract the main altarpiece and the decoration of the vault were to contain four canvases: The Madonna of Charity, The Coronation of the Virgin, The Annunciation and The Nativity. This project was executed in collaboration with the artist's son, Jorge Manual Theotokopoulos. Although El Greco treated the subject of the nativity several times, this is his only version depicting the Holy Family without other human participants. In the shadows to the left, an ass contemplates the scene. In the foreground the foreshortened head of an ox, his horn echoing the curve of the circular format, looks up from below.

El Greco (1541 – April 1614) was a painter, sculptor, and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. Today considered one of the greatest artists of the Spanish school El Greco (the Greek) was actually born in Crete, a Greek island under Venetian control. The artist always acknowledged this origin, signing his works with his given name, Domenikos Theotokopoulus, in Greek characters. Interest in his art revived at the end of the 19th century and with the development of Expressionism in the 20th century he came into his own. The strangeness of his art has inspired various theories, for example that he was mad or suffered from astigmatism, but his rapturous paintings make complete sense as an expression of the religious fervor of his adopted country.

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