There were many better, more technically gifted artists in the 16th and 17th centuries than Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco, but it is arguable that none was as original.

Born in Crete, then under Venetian rule, in 1541, he trained as an icon painter there before spending several years in Venice and finally settling in Toledo in Spain. And it is the heady, incendiary mix of those three very different settings and the traditions that thrived within them that sets his work apart. This painting, Christ on the Cross (1600-10), typifies El Greco's intense style: Christ's body is elongated, 'flame-like', as the great scholar of Spanish art Jonathan Brown has described El Greco's figures. His agony is palpable; his eyes are moist as they look to the skies and the wounds from the nails driven into his hands and feet gush with blood, which runs down his arm and drips to the ground. The base of the cross is spattered with blood. And the atmosphere around the figure is similarly intense and unique in its description: the monstrous clouds around Jesus are in violent movement, which seems to echo the form of Christ's body. The painting captures among the most dramatic moments in the Passion: when Jesus turns to his heavenly father and cries, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). So stirring is the image, so apt for the fervour of the Counter Reformation that sought to respond to the Protestant surge in Europe at the time, that it is no wonder that so many churches and brotherhoods in Toledo commissioned El Greco. And yet, while he was always active, El Greco died in 1614 in debt. He was a quarrelsome figure, often disputing the prices paid for his works, which were decided frequently by tribunals. Such was his forthright belief in his own worth that even when, in 1580, he made a painting of St Maurice for Philip II of Spain – then the most powerful man in the world, and looking for painters to fill the walls of the Escorial, his vast palace outside Madrid – El Greco disputed his generous settlement from the king. Even worse for him, Philip had not been pleased by the work. Royal patronage ultimately eluded him for the rest of his career. There were plenty of more minor scions of the Spanish nobility prepared to commission him, though, and it seems likely that Christ on the Cross, one of a number of crucifixions with similar compositions, made over a period of 20 years, was made for a private family rather than an ecclesiastical body. It is one of at least four versions on this monumental scale – 1.8m high and 1m wide – though several others were made at a smaller size. The first of the grand-scaled paintings is in the Louvre and features two donors at the bottom of the cross rather than the heightened drama of Christ alone. This earlier painting offers a striking comparison to the later work, reflecting how El Greco evolved his composition: the Louvre picture only hints at the bloodiness of the later painting, while the shadows are far less stark, and Christ's hair is almost golden. The composition in all of the crucifixions shows El Greco's keen attention both to Biblical sources and to art history. The Bible explains that 'there was a darkness over all the earth' at this poignant moment, something in which El Greco revels. Most crucifixions include the inscription INRI above Jesus's head, from the Latin Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, meaning 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews'. But Pilate ordered that a notice should be fastened to the cross in three languages – Hebrew, Latin, and Greek (John 19:19-20); El Greco carefully renders each script. His artistic sources are debated; it seems very likely that the relative lack of a supporting cast around Christ – not even the Virgin or St John – owes much to the stark and brilliant crucifixion by Titian in the Escorial – Titian was a great hero of El Greco's. Christ's pose, with the left leg over the right leg and the head turned to his right, might be from an engraving of a Michelangelo drawing, because the pose is reversed, but recently scholars have suggested it might be based on Battista Franco's first-hand engraving of the scene at Calvary. The work will enter the collection of Auckland Castle, County Durham, where it will be displayed among other Spanish art that was included in the sale of the castle to the Auckland Charitable Trust in 2012. They include 12 paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán, one of a number of Spanish masters to emerge in El Greco's wake in the 17th century. The works will soon have a brand-new venue to house them: a former bank in Bishop Auckland, the town nearest the castle, is being converted into a £4m gallery. And Jonathan Ruffer, chairman of the trust, is ambitious in his plans for the new building, including discussing bringing loans from the Prado in Madrid to Bishop Auckland to augment the story of Spanish art it will tell. There are already significant Spanish works in the collection, but it needed a stellar new addition. This El Greco fits the bill abundantly.

This work was acquired with assistance from the Wolfson Foundation.


Dona Rosario de la Barreda y Trevino (recorded on page 48 of the 1772 inventory as 'Obra de Cristo Crucificado de mano de Domenico Greco'); by descent to present owners

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