(b. 1541, Candia, d. 1614, Toledo)

The Assumption of the Virgin

Oil on canvas, 401 x 229 cm
Art Institute, Chicago

Painted for the central panel of the High Altarpiece of the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, Toledo, the commission which brought him to Spain. This, the first work executed in Spain, is the only painting by El Greco bearing the date of its execution. It is the first large-scale painting by his hand.

There is a clear reminiscence of Venetian paintings of the subject, and specifically of Titian's early masterpiece in the church of the Frari in Venice, but the treatment is his own. The Virgin rises as from a chalice formed by the two unified groups on either side of the open tomb, which introduce and extend motifs developed in his Cleansing of the Temple and Healing of the Blind. A complete unity is achieved in this bipartite composition, in which the circle of Apostles, with its contained and concentrated internal movement, or emotion, is continued in the circle of angels with their easy and sympathetic movement around the rising figure of the Virgin. There is a sustained rhythm of the expressions, gestures and surface treatment within each group, and an easy and inevitable connection of one group with another. This is achieved essentially by paint, the measured relationship of the passages of colour over the surface. This also explains his treatment of the draperies, which has its own logic, has no suggestion of conflict, but is also not concerned with disclosing the anatomy beneath.

When we compare the The Assumption of the Virgin with the famous painting on the same subject by Titian in the Frari Church in Venice, it becomes clear how new were the paths El Greco took in Spain. Under the influence of Michelangelo he not only found an unusually naturalistic style with monumental figures, but adopted a palette tending towards that of the Roman school. The great luminosity of the painting is striking, an illumination that, probably not coincidentally, conforms with the real light falling on it from above.

No other version of the subject is known, but the painting may be regarded as the forerunner of the related composition of the Immaculate Conception, a subject more compatible with El Greco's mystical approach to the Universe.