Portrait of a Cardinal (1600) by El Greco
Interpretation of Mannerist Painting from Spain

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Portrait of a Cardinal
By El Greco.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Portrait of a Cardinal (1600)


Explanation of Other Paintings by El Greco


Name: Portrait of a Cardinal (1600)
Artist: El Greco (1541-1614)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Portrait Art
Movement: Mannerist painting
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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

For analysis of paintings by
Mannerist artists
like El Greco, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Portrait of a Cardinal by El Greco

Although better known for his religious paintings that both exemplified the intensity of Catholic Counter-Reformation art, and captured the essence of Spanish fundamentalism, El Greco was an outstanding portraitist whose greatest portrait paintings rank alongside those of Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) and Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). El Greco's art was shaped by a number of different influences: first, his early study of icon painting and the traditions of Byzantine Christian Art; second, his absorption of Venetian painting during his stay in Venice (1567-1570); third, his knowledge of Mannerism, gained from his experiences in Rome (1570-77); fourth, the doctrines of Spanish mysticism which he encountered in the religious centre of Toledo, where he settled in 1577. Thus, his alla prima application of colour pigments was influenced by Titian (1485-1576), and mosaic art; his sense of movement, turbulent skies and dramatic lighting by Tintoretto (1518-94); his twisting figures and figura serpentinata by Parmigianino (1503-40) and Michelangelo (1475-1564); and his positional composition by Byzantine art.

El Greco's Portrait of a Cardinal is a picture of Cardinal Don Fernando Nino de Guevera (1541-1609), one of Spain's most eminent figures. He served as Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition (1599-1602) and Archbishop of Seville (1601-9), a member of the Council of Castile and President of the Chancery of Granada, who visited Toledo on numerous occasions. The painting was probably completed between February and March of 1600, when he was still Inquisitor-General. On his death, the cardinal was interred in Toledo's convent of San Pablo Ermitano and it is thought that this portrait was intended to decorate his tomb. He was one of a number of senior prelates portrayed by El Greco, and the work confirms El Greco as one of the best portrait artists of the age.

It is a fascinating painting for several reasons, in particular because of the respective positions of artist and sitter. Twenty years previously El Greco had lost the favour of Philip II, who had consigned his visionary picture The Martyrdom of St Maurice (1582) to an obscure room in his Escorial Palace. Deprived of any more royal commissions, he had continued to find enthusiastic patrons among Toledo's churches and monasteries, but he remained far removed from the centre of influence. As a result, in view of the power and influence of Cardinal Don Fernando Nino de Guevera, it would have been sensible for El Greco to have presented him with a flattering portrait, casting him in the best possible light. Instead, the Greek created a work of painful honesty.



The cardinal is shown seated on an armchair placed diagonally in order to inject the image with greater depth. The head of the Spanish Inquisition stares at us through his spectacles, adorned and surrounded by the symbols of his position - his red biretta, crimson satin robes, white lace and four rings, as well as his red velvet chair with its stamped and gilded leatherwork. The sumptuous vestments and decorations reinforce the icy, autocratic aloofness of this ruthless Inquisitor-General, pledged to unswerving persecution of heretics everywhere.

But on closer inspection, El Greco damns him with faint praise. Because almost the entire focus of the painting is on the decorative and inanimate. Huge attention is paid to the colour, folds and frills of the cardinal's clothing, all of which is rendered in great detail, as are the patterns of the wall-covering and the floor. The cardinal himself - his head, face and body - is given much less attention, and comparatively little space, and is diminished in the process. No matter how sumptuous his vestments, he is made to appear a small man.

His character is also exposed. He is depicted almost 'hiding' behind his glasses. Indeed his whole body - except for the tips of his shoes and his nervous left hand which clutches the chair - is concealed beneath decorative fabric. And his eyes do not meet those of the viewer. So although the mouth is cruel and the posture is upright, the cardinal lacks any natural, individual authority. Now compare this work with the far more romantic Portrait of Fray Felix Hortensio Paravicino (c.1605, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Explanation of Other Paintings by El Greco

The Disrobing of Christ (1577)
Toledo Cathedral.

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

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

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


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

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