FORMAL ANALYSIS: El Greco, Lamentation

(Enjoy this really, really old assignment I completed for my junior year class on Spanish Golden Age art! If you click on the "close visual analysis" tag, you can find lots of other similar assignments I did in school.)
Part 1: Analysis of the Work

For this assignment, I have chosen to analyze El Greco's Lamentation, which dates from 1565-70, as well as the context in which it is exhibited in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

This small painting, painted in oil on panel and measuring 11 3/8 by 7 7/8 inches, or 28.9 by 20 cm, depicts with great emotion and dynamic brushwork the moment when Christ has been taken down from the cross. His mother, the Virgin Mary, holds her lifeless son in her arms one last time, accompanied by two attending figures (one of them likely Christ's disciple John), her head titled upwards with clear anguish and confusion on her face. In the background at the left of the painting are the three crosses on a hilltop, while the rest of the background is dominated by an ominously dark blue and purple sky. Together, the four foreground figures--Mary, Christ, and the two male figures--form a pyramidal composition, with Mary's head as the apex. Mary's eyes are focused to the left of the painting on the three crosses, including the one on which her son was crucified, which directs the viewer's gaze to the site of the crucifixion as well, inviting us to meditate on the meaning of Christ's death as we consider the painting as a whole.

The palette of the work is restrained, using only a few colors--namely, gray-white, dark blue, red, and a yellowish brown--but hints at El Greco's future coloristic tendencies with its use of reds and blues, along with the chalky gray-white skin tones of all of the figures (living or dead). Of particular note is the distraught face of the Virgin, rendered in detail more softly and smoothly than the rest of the work. The overall brushwork is almost electric in its intensity and energy, instilling a sense of motion in the painting's figures; the three male figures, including the dead Christ, are so graceful that they seem to be dancing. Additionally, this work also foreshadows El Greco's mature style with its de-emphasis on creating a unique or detailed landscape, instead describing the location of this Lamentation in a few broad strokes. Yet even in this spare, desolate landscape El Greco has included a reminder of hope and of life through his depiction of the tiny flowers and vine on the painting's right side, hidden in the shadow.

This work, created when El Greco was under thirty, demonstrates the Italian Renaissance influence on the artist's early works, especially that of Michelangelo (which the work's caption also points out). El Greco studied painting in both Venice and Rome, and would have been familiar with the earlier master's paintings and sculptures. The inspiration El Greco has drawn from the earlier artist's (1498) marble Pietà, which he likely would have seen in Saint Peter's Basilica, includes not only the triangular composition of the Virgin supporting her son in her lap, but also displays El Greco's study of Michelangelo's other works, including, perhaps, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, in the incredibly muscular torso of the dead Christ. Yet while Michelangelo focuses on the intimacy of the scene of the mother holding her son for the last time, cleansing the scene of the preceding violence of Christ's death, here El Greco chooses to not only include the crosses in the composition of the painting, reminding the viewer of the context of Christ's death and ultimate sacrifice, but also includes the figures of two men helping to support the body to symbolize the Christians and followers of Christ whom the savior has left behind--an explicit reference to the viewer of this painting.

Part 2: Contextualization of the Work

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, with its Greek temple-inspired design and prominent elevated location at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, immediately promises a significant and grandiose art-viewing experience even from far away. The way the building relates to the streets around it provided a sense of anticipation and mounting excitement as I walked up the Parkway, passing the Barnes Foundation and Rodin Museum. By the time I had climbed the famed Rocky Steps, I could see the detailed flutes on the massive golden columns and the pediment frieze on one of the side façades. Turning around in front of the museum afforded a similarly breathtaking view down the Parkway and Center City Philadelphia, with City Hall off in the distance.

Entering the museum through the Parkway (rear) entrance also prepared me for the hushed, rather quiet experience of viewing. The dim lighting of the foyer, the dizzying high ceilings and the way errant voices echoed throughout the space all add to the reverent atmosphere of the Museum, which was made even more clear when I walked up the steps towards the European painting section.

Within the museum, the Lamentation is located in the Rubenstein Gallery (Gallery 254), hanging on a wall surrounded by various other works of art, including decorative works such as bowls, jugs, and carved frames, along with a few other small paintings. The work is not particularly illuminated under any special lighting, and on first glance during my first journey through the gallery, I almost missed seeing the work due to its small size and its deceptive context, surrounded as it was by unrelated three-dimensional works.

However, the context in which the Philadelphia Museum has placed the Lamentation is likely not the one the painting would have been viewed in originally. Due to the painting's small size, it would likely have been a devotional image for a private patron, rather than a painting for an altarpiece, which would have required a larger work to be seen by many congregants and worshippers in a church or chapel. Thus, the inclusion of the male figures holding up Christ's body also is important in this vein, because they provide human proxies in the painting for the viewer to identify with.

Ultimately, I would have found the work more impactful and its presentation in the museum more successful had it been placed in a smaller room, with similarly sized paintings, a lower ceiling, and under more directed or dramatic lighting. Or perhaps, were it located in the Spanish Gallery (Gallery 253) around the corner amongst the other works by Spanish masters, including Zurburàn's The Prophet Elijah, Velàzquez's Portrait of the Infanta Maria Teresa, and El Greco's own Crucifixion, it would be much better contextualized and able to be appreciated for its numerous positive qualities.