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El Greco painted a number of works showing transitions from the earthly to the heavenly – not only an Assumption and an Ascension, but also the famous painting The Burial of the Duke of Orgaz, in which a teeming hierarchy of divine beings is separate from the mortal world, but hanging just above the heads of Spain’s mourning dignitaries.
The upper panel of “The Opening of the Fifth Seal” is cut off, now lost, and some have suggested that this painting was originally intended to show earthly love, with its counterpart of spiritual or divine love placed literally on a higher plane.
El Greco's personal faith – like much else about the man – has been an area of analysis and outright guesswork. One thing we do know is that, not being favoured as a court artist, he found commissions with that other great patron of painters, the church. Working in Toledo, away from the Escorial and the levers of monarchical authority, he developed a career around works for the religious orders that made up the kingdom’s other great power base. The style that was to become so characteristic of his work was uniquely suited to religious subjects, combining an ability to dramatize through paint, with an impulse to portray figures with vividness and grace.
El Greco's career began in Crete – then part of the Venetian republic, but also influenced by Byzantine religious art. Combined with an artistic rite of passage in Venice and Rome, his background was unlike that of most artists working in Spain at that time. As his nickname indicates, he was seen as foreign in his adopted country, and certainly his work stands out as proceeding from an individual vision, even while it reflects the Mannerist treatment of the human body. The elongated form and the luminous quality of the main figure could only ever have been created by El Greco. Such an idiosyncratic style was seized upon in later centuries by Picasso and the Cubists, and it is a tribute to an uncategorizable artist that The Opening of the Fifth Seal has been a centrepiece in exhibitions about both Modernism and Mannerism.
From the pages of the gallery guidebook, many of the famous names of Spanish art seem to have enjoyed an easy transition from contemporary patronage into modern-day status as respectable old masters. In comparison, El Greco has had to wait centuries for us to reach a more adequate critical response to his style and vision. While art is about more than finding answers to questions, works like this demonstrate the appeal of exploring the questions it raises.
Any understanding of The Opening of the Fifth Seal starts with the biggest question-mark on any figurative artwork: what are we looking at? The title is a reference to the famous episode in the Book of Revelation. Deep into the end of days, with the horsemen of the apocalypse already loosed upon the Earth, the martyred dead of the Christian faith cry out to heaven, asking God for justice against those who have persecuted true believers.
But is that actually what we can see? The turbulent sky – out of which putti are tumbling - seems wracked with supernatural violence and presents a suitably doom-laden background for the Day of Judgement. Yet something doesn’t add up. As the martyrs cry to heaven, “white robes were given unto every one of them”, yet the figures in the background – male, female and androgyne – appear before a colourful backdrop of glowing fabrics that display a typical El Greco vividness of palette. Their pale bodies look more like a Garden of Earthly Delights than a rising of the wounded seeking vengeance.
It is perhaps significant that there is nothing in the original cataloguing to confirm the title subsequently given to the painting – after El Greco’s death, it was described simply as one of the four lateral panels for the Great Hospital.