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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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Head of Christ can be found at the McNay Art Museum. It is believed to have been finished by El Greco in circa 1579-1586, and this wide span represents how relatively little is known about this piece.

Some have argued that this portrait was intended to be hung alongside a similar composition with the same format, but this has never been conclusively proven. Christ here looks upwards, perhaps after some help from the heavens. His skin is noticeably pale, perhaps impacted by the bright light which shines down upon him. His hair is tidy, hanging long down to his shoulders. His beard looks relatively unstyled, and his clothing is also modest. The artist allows a little light to appear around Christ's head, giving the impression of a halo, whilst the rest of the background is entirely black. Light reflects directly off of Christ's eyes, which brings an element of realism to the piece. It is likely that El Greco would have been living in Spain at the time that he produced this work, having moved there in 1577. This piece is not one of his most famous, and so there remain many question marks around it, such as a more precise dating. We also do not know why exactly he chose to produce it, because of how the composition varies so much from the rest of his oeuvre.

Items from his career that you might be more familiar with include the likes of View of Toledo, Adoration of the Shepherds, Laocoon and Tears of St Peter. He specialised in portraits and religious scenes, with the latter tending to be much larger and more complex. Portraiture offered him the opportunity to attract new patrons who wanted to be remembered on canvas, and liked the idea of being linked to one of the most respected artists in Europe at that time. The painting is believed to have been owned by Marion Koogler McNay before it was bequethed to a museum set up in the family name. It still exists today and has a broad collection of art to enjoy. They have argued that perhaps an individual has commissioned this piece with the intention of using it within their own home as a devotional piece, hence its relatively small size. El Greco had a busy studio in which many artworks were produced and copied, with many having little documentation available on them today.

The McNay features a varied selection of European and American painting, as well as a good amount of sculpture too. Most major names are included somewhere within their collection and the stunning venue helps to make the most of its impressive inventory. The gallery draw attention to this piece specifically because of the popularity of artist El Greco, whose work combines Renaissance art with much more contemporary styles and so can appeal to a wide variety of artistic tastes. Many of the paintings are actually much more recent within the McNay, including the early 20th century at which point many new and important art movements would appear, such as the Cubists and the Expressionists. El Greco therefore offers something slightly different to their overall display.