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

The Modena Triptych (front panels)

Tempera on panel, 37 x 23,8 cm (central), 24 x 18 cm (side panels)
Galleria Estense, Modena

Small portable altarpiece with hinged wings, painted on both sides, of a type similar in form to others produced in Crete in the sixteenth century, but with an Italian Renaissance frame. The subjects on the front, from left to right, are the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Allegory of a Christian Knight, and the Baptism; and on the back, the Annunciation, Mount Sinai, and Adam and Eve.

The central panel on the front, showing the Christian Knight received into Heaven, with Purgatory and Inferno below, and the three Theological virtues, is of medieval inspiration, and precisely follows a known representation of the subject. The Jaws of Hell are a specifically medieval motif. Saint Catherine, with the Wheel of her Martyrdom, appears below the figures of Christ and the Knight. The theme of Mount Sinai, on the back of the central panel, was of Cretan origin, and faithfully repeats a traditional Byzantine model. The reference to Saint Catherine in both the central panels has been suggested as a possible indication of the artist's connection in Crete with the monastery of Saint Catherine, a dependency of that of Mount Sinai, and the most important school of painting in the island. The other compositions are similarly not original, but here the artist has used engravings after Italian (mainly Venetian) compositions as his models. The repetition of traditional images was usual in Byzantine art.

The Triptych is interesting as one of the earliest known work by El Greco. It clearly belongs to the time soon after his arrival in Italy. We see the artist acquainting himself with the new Italian subject matter and its treatment, and making his first essays in the new technique of Venice. The flat, linear, geometrical designs of Byzantine art give way to compositions employing rounder, more solid forms, and a looser handling. The somewhat nervous quality may be regarded as El Greco's own, and the Triptych does contain motifs and compositions that he later develops. The subjects of the Annunciation, Adoration of the Shepherds and Baptism inspire some of El Greco's grandest works. The Allegory of the Christian Knight is appropriately recollected in the Allegory of the Holy League. The Byzantine image of Mount Sinai is not unreasonably brought to mind in front of the late Toledo.