Fundación Casa Ducal de Medinaceli

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El Bautismo de Cristo

The large Baptism of Christ (1608-1624) painted on canvas belongs to one of the three altarpieces of the chapel []. Its magnificent composition is a personal invention of El Greco, and was completed in areas by his own son Jorge Manuel.

As is known, Pedro Salazar de Mendoza, administrator of the Hospital Tavera, signed a contract with the elderly Greek-born artist on 16 November 1608 for the high and side altarpieces of the chapel, which was logically dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. This major project is one of his most prominent works, even though the main altarpiece was not crafted entirely according to his designs and nor did the paintings come to be placed in the respective structures for which they intented. Of the  7,000 ducats established for this work, which was to be completed over a period of five years, when the lawsuit arose between the Hospital and the painter's workshop, it was found that El Greco and his son had progressively received various payments which, added together, amounted to the huge sum of over 8,600 ducats.

No contract survives relating to the paintings that were to decorate these three altarpieces; the 1614 inventory compiled at Domenikos's death states that the paintings for the hospital chapel had been begun and that two paintings to decorate the side altarpieces were merely at the preparatory stage; the inventory of the possessions of his son Jorge Manuel Theotocópulos, drawn up in 1621, lists among works that were merely sketched "the main Baptism for the hospital" (the Baptism that still survives in the institution in Toledo) and "two large square paintings for the sides of the hospital", which are assumed to be the Annunciation [] owned by the Banco de Santander in Madrid--the upper part of which, the Concert of Angels [], is in the National Gallery of Athens--and the so-called Vision of Saint John [] in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; furthermore, the evident deterioration in quality, above all in the main foreground figures of the two gospel scenes, can only be attributable to the involvement of Jorge Manuel.

While some historians agree on the involvement of El Greco's son, others maintain the tradition that it is an autograph work, even though the reference to its unfinished state in the inventories of the period cannot be interpreted as an invention by Jorge Manuel to prevent the seizure of possessiosn to which he was exposed owing to the long lawsuit with the Hospital's administrators over his delay in the delivery of the works.

Indeed, in 1624, the Baptism had been hung on the left-hand altarpiece and an unidentified "Coming of the Holy Spirit" ("Pentecost") on the right, as works lent by Jorge Manuel to the hospital while the whole commission was completed. The first was moved to an infirmary before Jorge Manuel died in 1631 and the second, owned by the painter's heirs, was sold that same year.

Nowadays it is totally impossible to reconstruct the iconographic scheme devised for the three altarpieces; it has been assumed, in accordance with the contract signed in 1635 by the painter Félix Castello to execute the three altarpieces again following the death of Jorge Manuel and his substitute Gabriel de Ulloa, that the originals would have continued to be part of the 1635 scheme: the side altarpieces were to display new images by Castello of the "Incarnation" and a "Vision of the Apocalypse", topped by the "Preaching in the Desert" and the "Beheading" of the saint in question, while the central altarpiece would display only one new painting of the "Baptism".

It is possible that the Incarnation and, in our opinion, the painting of the Resurrection of the Flesh (as it is called in the United States) or "or the Dead", with the transformation--justified by the Baptism and Resurrection of Christ--of the "physical body into a spiritual body", or of the "terrestrial man into celestial man", according to the Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians (15, 12-49), may have been envisaged for the side altars. Located at the ends of the chapel, they would have symbolised the beginning and end of the Salvation, which made possible the eternal life of the deceased cardinal and the patients and poor of the Toledan hospital.

The Baptism of Christ, as the Trinitarian epiphany and central theme, would have been intended for the high altar, logically devoted to the saint in question, as it would justify this possibility, the certainty of Salvation.

This painting is compositionally based on that of the no longer extant Colegio de los Agustinos de la Encarnación [] or Colegio de Doña María de Aragón in Madrid (now in the Museo del Prado). The figure of God the Father, less hieratic and frontal, is even more skilfully rendered. Although it depicts the miraculous divine appearance on Earth and the resulting dynamic transformation of the natural, the Cretan's figures (except that of Christ) retain their three-dimensional power and lifelike anatomies, in a heavy atmosphere transmuted by light.

While Salazar de Mendoza required religious painting to be appropriate to tradition and the writings on which it was based, he also accepted that painters and sculptors should enjoy the same licence as poets. If with Horace he recognised that artists had the power to dare to embrace whatever they wished, the painter who considered that his art should encompass even the impossible should have been hired not only as a translator of texts into textual images but also for his own formal, transforming abilities. Therefore, we should not be surprised by the "imperceptible" nature of the five virtues that are depicted in minute size, one of them lacking identifying symbols, above the scene of the Annunciation, or by the "intrusion" of the foreground angel between Christ and Saint John in the Baptism, which is unjustified on historical, textual and doctrinal grounds. Or by the fact that in the Resurrection of the flesh the souls of the bodies are not clearly distinguished, in accordance with Salazar's interests, accompanied by five virtues (Charity, a figure without symbols that may be Hope, Prudence, Faith and Temperance).

Despite his age, Domenikos continued to allow himself to be carried away by his own desires and intentions, expressed in the preparatory drawings and sketches he executed on canvas,  even though they were briefly rendered, in order to become--like someone capable of painting the impossible--the artistic personality who had taken the concept of the unknown the farthest; the natural and the supernatural and their interaction required different formulas that could only be addressed by a style of painting which, in the artist's opinion, was, precisely for that reason, "scientific".

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Fernando Marías