De Guevara was named Cardinal of Spain in 1596 and made Grand Inquisitor three years later, a title which he kept until a disagreement with the Jesuits led to a personal demotion by Pope Clement VIII after which he became Archbishop of Seville until his death in 1609. When this painting was commissioned, de Guavara was still Grand Inquisitor and one of the most eminent men in the country.
For El Greco, this would have been his opportunity to return to the centre of political influence, a position he had lost two decades earlier after being unceremoniously fired by Philip II upon presenting him with The Martyrdom of St Maurice (1580). The most sensible action would have been to create a sycophantic work of praise for the Cardinal, but El Greco instead decided to infuse his painting with his unique style, creating a work of subtle tension.
Using a traditional composition reminiscent of Raphael, El Greco drapes the seated religious figure in crimson. One of the artist's dominant themes is the use of light as a divine representation, flowing from within his figures symbolising god's grace. Influenced by the Italian Renaisance's neoplatonism, El Greco was far more interested in a higher realm of intellect and spirit than grounded reality, something that would have undoubtedly appealed to the Cardinal.
Born on the Greek island of Crete, then ruled by the Republic of Venice, El Greco, “The Greek” as he would be later dubbed, followed the artistic exodus of the time to Venice where he lived for three years. He worked in Rome for seven years before moving to Toledo, the former capital of the Spanish Empire in 1577. Here he flourished as an artist and produced his most well known works, including Portrait of Cardinal Fernando Nina de Guevara in early 1600.
A century earlier Spain had instigated the Inquisition, its primary goal was the expulsion of Jewish people and practices from the country. It escalated to become one of the most violent periods in history, overtaking the Inquisitions that had dominated the rest of Europe since the 13th Century. In Spain the Inquisition would last for over 350 years and process over 150,000 people, executing around 5,000 men, women and children.
De Guevara is depicted diagonally, giving a greater depth to the image. Many of El Greco's mannerist tendencies are depicted, his elongated body and unusual hand gestures, the vivid colours giving the painting an extravagant elegance. The cardinal appears to float in the air. One hand tensely grips a chair while the other hangs flaccid, a discarded unreadable note lays by his feet. The stiff surfaces of his robes suggest a flickering glow and the figure has a medieval ghost-like ethereality.
He generates an electrical energy implying divine authority. Starring through his thick rimmed glasses, an unusual depiction for the time, the hawk-like Cardinal is surrounded by the symbols of his position and power. Bejewelled and robed in crimson silk on a red velvet chair, he stares towards the audience with an aloof ruthless autocracy. Here is a man who during his brief reign as Inquisitor oversaw 240 heretics burned at the stake and thousands more ravished.
But the painting's real focus is the Cardinal's facade, the folds and colours of his clothing, the room and chair, all demonstrating El Greco's primacy of colour over form and his rejection of classicist measure and proportion. The man engulfed in these items remains small and diminished. He hides behind his glasses, almost his entire body hidden from view, his eyes do not meet our own. The Cardinal appears powerful and cruel but emanates no natural authority other than that bestowed by his sacred institution. Form and space are interwoven through the power of the Church but not through its earthly representative depicted here.
El Greco journey from the flat symbolic world of Byzantine iconography through Renaissance humanism into a proto-cubist conceptualism is unique and his style belongs to no traditional school. His tendency to dramatise rather than describe transfers a strong spiritual emotion from his paintings directly to the audience and his work continues to find a profound connection to audiences four centuries later.