(b. 1541, Candia, d. 1614, Toledo)
The Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio)1577-79
Oil on canvas, 285 x 173 cm
Sacristy of the Cathedral, Toledo
Commenced in the summer of 1577, and completed in the spring of 1579, for the High Altar of the Sacristy of the Cathedral, where it still hangs. A document of 2nd July 1577 referring to this painting is the earliest record of El Greco in Spain. El Greco has produced one of the most dignified and moving portrayals of Christ in art. 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 painting shows Christ clad in a bright red robe and looking up to Heaven with an expression of serenity as he is being tormented by his captors. 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 clouds above Christ, painted in strong diagonals, provide a 'path' of uplifting communication between Christ and God the Father. On the left side of the composition, the three Marys contemplate the event with distress. Above them a soldier wearing a suit of armour reminiscent of those fabricated in sixteenth-century Toledo stares out directly at the viewer. El Greco may have intended this figure to be a contemporary portrait.
A small, signed version of the Espolio, at Upton Park, Warwickshire, the original preliminary model is probably for the large painting. Many other versions exist, but few can be by El Greco. The only occasion that he treated the subject was for the Cathedral, but the type of Christ created in the Espolio is taken up in the related subject of Christ carrying the Cross, and in other representations of Christ.
The initial reception of the painting, when seen by the artists brought to value it, was that it was beyond appraisal. After the artist's death, the first real recognition of the painting was some two centuries later when Goya painted his Taking of Christ for the same sacristy.