The Disrobing of Christ (1577-79) by El Greco
Interpretation of Mannerist Altarpiece Painting

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The Disrobing of Christ
By El Greco.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio) (1577-79)


Interpretation of Other Paintings by El Greco


Name: The Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio) (1577)
Artist: El Greco (1541-1614)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History Painting
Movement: Mannerism
Location: Cathedral of Toledo

For an explanation of other important pictures from the Mannerist, period, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of pictures by
painters active in Spain
like El Greco, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of The Disrobing of Christ

Trained originally in icon painting, the Greek artist El Greco (born Domenikos Theotokopoulos) went to Venice about 1567, where he learned about Venetian painting - notably the work of Tintoretto (1518-94) and Jacopo Bassano (1515-92). In 1570 he moved to Rome where he completed several commissions strongly influenced by his Venetian experience. Armed with a glowing recommendation from Giulio Clovio (1498-1578) the leading miniaturist of the age, El Greco joined the intellectual circle that gathered at the Palazzo Farnese. He stayed in Rome for about six or seven years, developing a simultaneous disdain and admiration for the work of Michelangelo (1475-1564), squabbling with the biographer Giorgio Vasari, but most importantly absorbing the intricacies of Mannerist painting with its strange perspective and the twisting, turning and stormy gestures of its figures. He was influenced by the work of several Mannerist artists, including Parmigianino (1503-40) - see, for instance the latter's Madonna With the Long Neck (1535, Uffizi). In early 1577, he moved to Toledo in Spain, where he spent the rest of his life.

During the summer of 1577, thanks to his friendship with the son of Diego de Castilla, the dean of the Cathedral of Toledo, El Greco secured the commission for an altarpiece to adorn the High Altar of the sacristy of the Cathedral. Entitled The Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio) it is one of his most famous altarpieces and was completed in the Spring of 1579.

The painting depicts the scene in which Christ is stripped prior to his crucifixion. The details are not given in the Bible but are mentioned in other Christian texts, such as the Meditations on the Passion of Jesus Christ by the scholastic theologian Saint Bonaventure (1221-74).



Christ, the main figure in the composition, is dressed in a vivid red robe and occupies the central axis of the picture. His central position is emphasized by his serene upward gaze, and by the apparent funnel which seems to open in the clouds above his head. Using a convention of Byzantine art, El Greco simulates a crowd by arranging row upon row of heads. The crowd is jostling, threatening and oppressing Christ, who ignores them as he looks up to heaven. Unfortunately, his upward path is blocked by the lances and bodies of his tormentors - a sign of the terrible ordeal to be endured before he can find lasting peace. Meantime, a man dressed in green to whom Christ is attached by a rope is about to remove Christ's scarlet robe, while two others argue over who should have his clothes. Behind Christ a black-clad figure points at him accusingly, while in front a man dressed in yellow is drilling a hole in the cross for one of the spikes that will be driven into Christ's body. All the while, the calm serenity and idealized beauty of Christ is in sharp contrast to the rough features, dark looks and violent movements of his executioners. El Greco clothes all the figures in contemporary dress; the man standing to the left, clad in armour, is probably meant to be Longinus, the Roman centurion in charge - traditionally venerated as a saint - who pierced Christ's side with a lance while he was on the cross. Directly below Longinus, the three Marys observe the scene in agitation and distress.

The dynamic quality of the scene, expressed by the calm figure of Jesus Christ in the middle of the painting, surrounded on all sides by a turbulent mob of coarse figures, is exquisitely enhanced by El Greco's use of colour - namely, the rich red of Christ's robe (a symbol of the divine passion) which contrasts vividly with the mustard yellows below him and the blacks on all sides. Only the ugly caricatures of the faces in Christ carrying the Cross (1515-16, Museum of Fine Art, Ghent), painted by Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) - a particular favourite of Philip II - gives equal attention to the contrast between Christ's humility and the bestiality of his persecutors.

One of El Greco's greatest religious paintings - reminiscent of Tintoretto's Venetian altarpieces, while paying due regard to the cooler, more austere idiom of Spamish painting - its intensity fitted well with the new style of Catholic Counter-Reformation art being adopted in Spain and across Europe.

Ironically, despite its immense popularity, The Disrobing of Christ was the object of several lawsuits between the artist and the Cathedral authorities, who wished to reduce the agreed price and oblige El Greco to erase the three Marys, whose presence so close to the rabble was deemed inappropriate. In the end, El Greco received only 350 ducats but made no corrections.

Explanation of Other Paintings by El Greco

Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-88)
Church of Santo Tome, Toledo.

View of Toledo (1595-1600)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Portrait of a Cardinal (1600)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino (1605)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (1609)
Church of San Gines, Madrid.


• For the meaning of other Mannerist paintings, see: Homepage.

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