The Virgin Mary El Greco Buy Art Prints Now
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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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At around the end of the 16th century, El Greco was continually producing multiple versions of the same painting and did so again within his depiction of the Virgin Mary. Today, two versions of it exist within the Prado, Madrid and the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg.

The Prado version is dated at 1595-1600 and may have been the first of the two. The artwork is around 51cm in height which would be consistent with something we refer to as being for the purposes of "private devotion". Essentially that means it would be commissioned by private individuals, with the intention of it being hung within their own home. The painting is believed to have passed through the Convento del Carmen Descalzo and the Museo de la Trinidad before ending up in central Madrid. Within this portrait, the Virgin is shown in her trademark tones of blue which cover her cape. Underneath she wears several modest garments which are predominantly cropped out of this composition, which features her only from the shoulders-upwards. Her identity is played on by the artist with a golden halo circling her head. The background side from that is entirely neutral, allowing our full focus to be given to the main subject. She looks directly at us with the same neutral expression that El Greco would give to most of his single figure portraits, regardless of whether they were religious figures or ordinary individuals from the 16th and 17th century.

The version in France has a slightly elongated facial structure and the expression looks decidely more unhappy, with lips pursed more tightly. Her eyes are slightly unwelcoming in this piece too and the Virgin Mary appears ever so slightly older. In fact, some have argued that the French version came slightly earlier, but it is very hard to tell either way today. Despite one's own personal preference for the Prado version, most historians have claimed the Strasbourg version to be technically superior. Neither can be considered amongst the artist's most famous paintings, but they still both offer reminders as to several elements of his career, such as his use of colour and expression. Both do feature the facial style used by El Greco in his portraits, often with narrow shapes to the head, long nosese and a slight elongation of form which became more pronounced in his later years. This technique would be more obvious in other full length portraits, such as with his fingers that were often expressive and strangely stretched.

El Greco would combine two genres into his career, portraiture and scenes of a religious nature. In this example he puts the two together, but normally they would be kept separate. His personal portrait of local people allowed him to bring new patrons to his studio and also meet their requirements fairly quickly, whilst his religious paintings tended to be much larger and more complex, requiring weeks if not months of work to complete each one. The artist became highly skilled in satisfying different needs, and these two genres alone were enough to bring in more than enough work for himself and his team of assistants. He would even struggle to keep up with the demands placed upon him by eager buyers, and so was forced to rely more and more on the help of others, including his son who became a well skilled painter and head of the studio.

The Virgin Mary in Detail El Greco