Introibo ad Altare Dei: El Greco's 'Espolio' in the context of post-Tridentine Spain
Swain, Robert Francis
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In the vestry of the cathedral church of Santa Maria in Toledo hangs a large painting by El Greco entitled El Espolio, the ‘Disrobing of Christ’. Executed shortly after his arrival in Spain the painting marks a major stylistic departure from the artist’s earlier work and would command attention on that basis alone. The subject, while iconographically obscure, is, at another remove, utterly familiar as a Passion scene tied to a well known iconographical canon. Compositionally, the Christ figure predominates but the ‘legionnaire’ occupies a contrasting and almost equivalent space in his carapace of steel. These figures beg for further elaboration I will argue that this painting can be read as a nexus between a reformed liturgy and a post-Tridentine programme of Church renewal in Spain allied to a monarchical programme of nación under Philip II (1527-98) that was essentially one and the same. The salient questions needing a response are these: How, in a vestry, can we expect such a subject to have much impact beyond the very limited audience it was designed for? This is the crux of the matter in many ways. What in the painting suggests more than the straightforward analysis of the subject matter? What in the times suggests another reading of this great work of art? The pursuit of the answers to these questions constitutes the driving force behind this investigation. Biography, the intellectual and artistic formation of the artist, are positioned with reference to the intellectual ferment of the period, the religious upheaval iii in Christendom, the advances in the understanding of the nation state. More specifically, the altered relationship between the monarchy and the church in Spain, following the Council of Trent (1545-63)will be shown to have a reflection in El Espolio. El Greco’s work has mostly been treated as the product of a painter of the spirit, of religiosity, even of mysticism. El Espolio has been interpreted here within a broader frame of reference and the argument suggests our understanding of El Greco’s oeuvre has been somewhat narrow.