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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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El Greco’s stay in Rome enabled his work to be enriched with elements like great perspective vanishing points or different attitudes made by characters with their continuous twists and turns and emotional gestures.

His pieces of art also featured tortuously elongated characters and great pigmentation blending Byzantine culture with Western painting.

In El Greco’s masterpiece, Baptism of Christ viewers can evidently see the dynamic, elongated features and their upward movement. The art describes the Baptism of Christ with the main casts being Jesus and John the Baptist. The two are in the company of three winged angels all standing in a natural scene that represents the landscape of River Jordan.

Similar to Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà, El Greco’s Baptism of Christ was left unfinished at the time of the painter’s death. Though unsigned, the chromatic harmony, the element of Mannerism, masterful artistry and Venetian elements such as the composition of the landscape are clearly discernible. In addition to these features, El Greco painted miniatures, and he was even a member of the miniaturist’ guild. Scenes of miniatures are evident in most of his work, especially in triptychs. The characters painted in miniature in the backdrop of Baptism of Christ are similar to characters seen in El Greco’s artwork, View of Mt Sinai.

The aspect of iconography motif is seen in the Baptism of Christ as it is a common theme in Byzantine art. The theme is well-known to El Greco, and he maintains it by placing three angels on the bank of River Jordan with St. John on the opposite side. Several details suggest the influence of contemporary Western European engravings. For instance, the characters in miniature in the backdrop of the left side of the river are reminiscent to Giovanni del Moro’s lithographic print of the Baptism.

El Greco also painted a Baptism incident for the signed Modena Triptych. The two paintings share several stylistic and iconographic features like the rendition of trees at the corners of the painting and the use of various hues of gold and brown to define the sky. Differences are visible in El Greco’s painting and the painting owned by the Municipality of Heraklion since the latter is a more polished version of the subject matter. However, El Greco’s art is somewhat developed in the aspect of the central figures. The Baptism of Christ has the figures of Christ and John the Baptist set at the same level as opposed to different ones as seen in the Modena triptych artwork. Additionally, the Baptist’s head is slightly bowed hence developing a direct relationship between the two main characters in the painting.

The baptism portrays some traces of hinges on its left side which provides a possibility that the panel was once the right wing of a triptych. Furthermore, the wing is believed to represent The Adoration of Shepherds which have the same dimensions to The Baptism, and it may have been part of the left wing.

In the Baptism of Christ, the heavy clouds in the sky depict a composition of a spectacular atmosphere. The work is reminiscent of those used by El Greco in St Francis Receiving the Stigmata. In both pieces of art, the painter used lapis lazuli blue which is lacking in the Modena triptych and which was to become one of El Greco’s preferred colours.

In his masterpiece, Baptism of Christ, El Greco has succeeded to mix conventional methods of Byzantine painting with the advanced techniques of Venetian Renaissance art. The painter used a palette that contains some synthetic pigments of resin base and glass as well as earth, mineral and natural organic colours. The observed similarities between the glass varieties used in the Baptism of Christ and those spotted in pieces of art produced by Venetian painters further confirm that the Baptism was painted during El Greco’s brief sojourn in Venice.

El Greco, born Doménikos Theotokópoulos was a renowned sculptor, painter, and architect whose active painting life was during the Spanish Renaissance. He belonged to no conventional school because his artwork was unique. El Greco enriched his style with components of Venetian Renaissance, Mannerism and stylistic features of the Cretan School. Theotokópoulos was considered one of the pioneers of both Cubism and Expressionism and whose personality and works served as a source of inspiration to many writers and poets.

Unlike other Cretan painters who had moved to Venice, El Greco distinguished himself by considerably changing his style by formulating new and unique interpretations of the traditional religious subject matter. Painters from Venice taught him to arrange his compositions in landscapes and use atmospheric light to make them vibrant.