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El Greco's Resurrection: Ahead of its Time

Looking more like a creation from the twenty-first century than the sixteenth, The Resurrection by El Greco stands out as a work ahead of its time. The dramatically elongated figures, bold colors and loose brush strokes were considered somewhat odd in the Baroque period in which it was painted. But El Greco considered spiritual expression to be more important than public opinion and it was in this way that he developed a unique style that has allowed him to be regarded as one of the great geniuses of Western art.

Painted in oils around 1600, The Resurrection stands just over nine feet tall and portrays the resurrection of Jesus Christ according to Christian scripture. The nude figure of Christ, dressed in only a brilliant red cloak and grasping a billowing white flag, looms serenely at the top of the painting. Beneath him are the writhing figures of several guards, their bodies contorted in surprise and amazement. According to scripture, Christ’s body was placed in a cave after his crucifixion and a boulder was placed at the entrance to seal the tomb. But on the third day after his interment, Christ arose from the dead, cast the heavy boulder aside and appeared before the awestruck guards. It is the resurrection of Christ that is celebrated during the holiday of Easter.

Swirling drapery, contorted bodies and vivid colors add to the drama of the painting. High-contrast lighting, broad brush strokes and the chaotic placement of the figures create energy and tension. The angularity and elongation of the figures are often viewed as Byzantine in nature which is not surprising since El Greco, “the Greek,” whose name was actually Doménicos Theotokópoulos, was born on the island of Crete and trained as an icon painter of the Cretan school which grew out of a tradition of Byzantine art.

Although El Greco was a significant painter of his time and received many important commissions, his work was generally not valued after his death, probably because it did not espouse the principles of the early Baroque style that was popular at that time. Unlike the realistic and detailed figures of Baroque painters, El Greco’s curiously elongated bodies and imprecise brush strokes were considered queer and eccentric. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Romantic period in the early 1800s that El Greco’s works were re-examined and found to be praiseworthy and the painter himself came to be admired as a romantic hero whose genius had been misunderstood.

It is believed by many art historians that El Greco’s visionary style set the stage for the modernism of the early 20th century. It appears that Cubism was directly influenced by El Greco’s angularity and effusive lighting. Picasso, in particular, seems to have been influenced by his ascetic figures and cool tones during his blue period. The emotional effect caused by El Greco’s distorted figures seems to be closely linked with the Expressionist movement that originated in Germany and Austria as well as the Abstract Expressionism that developed in New York City and pioneered by Jackson Pollock.

The Resurrection is believed to have been part of the high altarpiece of the Church of the College of Doña María de Aragón in Madrid. It now resides in the Museo del Prado in Madrid where it is revered as one of El Greco’s most spectacular and unique religious works.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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