Cardinal Juan Pardo de Tavera served as Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain in the mid 16th century, though passed away some years before El Greco moved to this region. The artist would regularly be tasked with producing portraits of notable figures from the local community, but normally they would be accessible and able to sit for the portraits themselves. On occasion he might be tasked with someone who had passed away some years before and this would obviously present its own challenges. In some cases he would be able to refer to drawings or paintings from other artists who had met the subject whilst they were still alive, or instead maybe speak to others who had met the person and might be able to describe their physical characteristics. Whilst remaining as faithful as possible to the subject, El Greco would also have certain stylistic trademarks that would enter most of his portraits, such as gaunt facial structures, prominent noses and also long, thin fingers. We find those same touches within the piece in front of us here, and related artworks also making use of a similar approach include Saint Ildefonsus, Saint James the Elder and An Elderly Gentleman.
The cardinal is displayed with his stunning purple clothing in all its glory. He looks directly at us, whilst positioned at a slight angle. One of his hands appears from beneath his robe and close by sits his mitre. A book is positioned on a small table in front of the subject, whilst the entire background is left blank by a thick use of dark paint. Most of his portraits would be in this manner, where the full focus would be set upon the portrait subject, and no detail would be added across the background. Some have suggested that this might have been influenced by Venetian art, of which El Greco was particularly familiar. In his early life he lived under the rule of the Venetian Kingdom whilst in Greece, and later he would study the great masters within Venice itself. This portrait of Juan Pardo de Tavera is just over one metre in height, which was the standard size that he used for single portraits such as this. El Greco's larger compositions of religious scenes could be as long as four metres, by contrast.
The piece is dated at 1609, just five years before the artist passed away. Juan himself would have been deceased for over half a century by the time that the portrait was completed by clearly his legacy was still strong, encouraging others to request a painting of him. Research has uncovered details about the cardinal's life and most significantly he actually helped set up the Hospital de Tavera himself, which completely explains why this piece was commissioned many years after his death. The original work remains at the hospital today and is a fitting reminder as to the individual who made it all possible, so many centuries ago. El Greco remains one of the finest portrait painters from the 16th and 17th century, but he also impressed within other genres as well, leaving behind an exciting and varied oeuvre which was best served by religious content.