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

The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception

Oil on canvas, 348 x 174,5 cm
Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo

The great masterpiece of the late manner of the artist, painted for the High Altar of the Chapel of Oballe, San Vicente, Toledo, begun 1607, finished 1613. The painting certainly represents the Immaculate Conception, although it has often been referred to as an Assumption. The various attributes of the Virgin (roses, lilies, mirror, fountain of clear water) proper to the representation of the Mystery, appear at the foot of the painting on the right. A view of Toledo appears on the left. The spiritual excitement of the scene is reflected in meteorological effects: sun and moon shine simultaneously while explosions of light burst through the clouds like fire.

El Greco took the distinctive characteristics of his late style to their extreme conclusion in this work. Ordered scale and proportion, spatial recession and anatomical accuracy have been subordinated to imperatives of visionary experience. Colours are unblended, forms have become dematerialised, the logic of gravity and shadows is subverted; the distinctions between near and far, open and enclosed, physical and spiritual, are all dissolved. At the same time, however, El Greco has included a passage of naturalistic still-life that seems to belong to the earthly realm - the roses and lilies at lower right, traditional emblems of the Virgin. Their inclusion intensifies the visual transition from the earthly to the mystical.

The painting is the grand culmination of Greco's career. No artist has been able to express so convincingly the infinite: an infinity of colour and light, an infinity of movement and of space. This expression of the spiritual reality of the universe was only possible to attain by the uncompromising disengagement of his art from the material and transitory of this World. The earth, symbolized by Toledo, is already a phantom. From the burst of rose and white flowers at the base, a great upsurge of movement - of colour and light, in constant flux - commences, and increases in its rapture, and met by the light of the Dove, becomes all-pervading and infinite. It is perhaps the most remarkable realisation of spiritual ecstasy in painting, and one of the greatest masterpieces of colour. A single detail - the offering of flowers, the opening of a wing, the Virgin's mantle transfigured by light - is a moving experience in itself.