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

The Adoration of the Shepherds

c. 1614
Oil on canvas, 319 x 180 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

This painting once decorated El Greco's tomb in one of the chapels of the Monastery of St Dominic (Santo Domingo El Antiguo) in Toledo. It was later transferred to the high altar for which it was originally intended. This ecstatic painting is one of the artist's most colourful works, which, unlike other paintings of this period, seems to have been entirely executed by his own hand, without the help of his son Jorge Manuel.

Light radiates from the Child and the dazzling white cloth on which He lies, illuminating the figures of Mary and the amazed shepherds. From the very outset of his career El Greco had been interested in the problem of light: his early work A Boy Blowing on an Ember is primarily an exploration of the way in which a flaring light is reflected by the features of the face. When he painted The Adoration of the Shepherds, light was no longer used for its own sake but as a means to convey an idea. The words of the Pantocrator are occasionally to be found in Romanesque churches, usually inscribed in the apse, thus: Lux mundi (the Light of the World). In El Greco's picture this theme is now perfectly expressed in purely pictorial terms. The elongated figures, like tongues of fire, and all the indications of enthusiasm, faith and passion, are characteristic of a number of Mannerist painters but especially of El Greco. These characteristic features of El Greco's art are clearly seen in this beautifully realized creation which constitutes as it were a link between the Gothic style and modern art of the twentieth century.

In contrast with his earlier interpretations of the same subject, El Greco seems to forgo any attempt to achieve balanced proportions, harmonious colouring and comprehensible space, transforming the scene into a transcendent and spiritual happening depicted in bright and contrasting colours. The bearded shepherd in the centre wears a bright orange-red jacket over yellow-green breeches, while St Joseph on the left appears in a purplish-blue tunic and yellow drapery. Blue and yellow recur in the garments of the standing shepherd to the right, whereas the man on his left wears green, contrasting handsomely with the rose tunic and blue mantle of the Virgin. Against the background of the sky composed of flashing whites and blues, a group of angels hovers above the scene. One holds a banderole with the words (probably added later) 'Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace'. Another crosses his arms in a pose similar to that of the shepherd below.

This painting is one of El Greco's last paintings, and it is also one of his finest.