If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

El Greco, Adoration of the Shepherds

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), Adoration of the Shepherds, ca. 1612 - 1614, oil on canvas, 126 x 71 in. (319 x 180 cm), (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: We're in the Prado looking at El Greco's "Adoration of the Shepherds." This is a painting that he did very late in his career. It was about 1612, 1614. SPEAKER 2: And one that had personal significance for him, since it was for his family chapel. SPEAKER 1: It's a wild painting. SPEAKER 2: Well, all El Grecos are wild, but he clearly gets wilder later in his career. SPEAKER 1: He maybe felt freer because it was personally related. SPEAKER 2: The figures are incredibly elongated. The positions of their bodies make no sense. There's just enormous license with naturalism here. Naturalism, in fact, doesn't even seem to be a requirement, even though we're just coming really out of the Renaissance here. I mean, even by Mannerist standards-- because we're basically in the period of Mannerism, moving into the Baroque-- this is extreme. SPEAKER 1: Well, El Greco was Greek. And he was trained, actually, as a Greek icon painter. And of course, the Byzantine tradition was a tradition that was concerned with distorting the body for symbolic purpose. And so I think there is a kind of license that comes from that tradition. Now, El Greco gets to Spain. And he does these paintings in Toledo for the most part, by way of Italy, where he really does train in the Renaissance style. So he understands contemporary art at this point. I mean, he really understands what people are doing. But he's also willing to let go. Look what he's done. He's removed virtually any reference to actual space. We have almost no sense of real depth. We have a little bit of a barrel vault right behind the Virgin Mary, but besides that, it's all clouds and light. SPEAKER 2: And movement-- if you look at the structure of the painting, the composition, the Christ child occupies the center of about five or six figures, almost provides the light source, almost as though it was a fire in the center of those figures that they were all warming their hands by. SPEAKER 1: I think actually that idea of fire is perfect. The figures feel like flames. In fact, the light seems to be flickering. Everything seems to be transient, and nothing seems to be fixed. Even the human bodies themselves, as you mentioned before, seem completely mutable. SPEAKER 2: I think that this pictorial language that we're describing represents the spiritual, the transcendent, otherworldly. SPEAKER 1: The church was really trying to combat the threat of the Reformation. And I think that, especially in Toledo, you have a very severe reaction, a Counter-Reformation taking the Council of Trent doctrine very seriously. SPEAKER 2: So the church is really looking to reform itself, to inspire faith in believers in a new and powerful way. And I think El Greco's paintings were able to achieve that. One of the things that he's doing is using color in a way that's really, I think, unprecedented. We have neon oranges, and greens, and blues, and golds that I don't think I've ever seen before. SPEAKER 1: It really won't be until Delacroix in the 19th century that somebody is as bold with color. And even Delacroix, I think, is muted in comparison to this. SPEAKER 2: We also have these very stark contrasts of light and dark, and figures that are very close to us, and this amazing foreshortening. I mean, look at those angels up in the sky. I mean, we're seeing them from these remarkable angles. SPEAKER 1: There's a sense in El Greco's work, and especially in the "Adoration of the Shepherds," that the divine is with us in the most complete way. That is, it completely infuses the physical world in a way that more traditional, more representational Renaissance painting, and even Mannerist painting, doesn't quite achieve. There is a sense that the divine actually is a physical force that runs as a current through the space that El Greco defines.