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MFA Debuts El Greco, a Tribute to Spanish Art

When thinking of classical art, the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance or the Old Dutch masters of the Reformation period usually come to mind. Spanish art of this period is usually a mere historical footnote. Even classes on Renaissance art at UMass gloss over this subject. The Spanish artist El Greco is perhaps the one exception. El Greco, who studied in Italy and Rome and eventually found his way to Spain, became well known for his religious works.

The new special exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, titled “El Greco to Velazquez: Art During The Reign of Philip III,” is, as the name implies, an exhibition of art from the reign of Philip III, from 1598 to 1621. The paintings in the exhibition are arranged by subject, with the first room dedicated to an overview of El Greco’s work throughout his lifetime. The other groupings of his work are images of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph), paintings of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (Mary), Portraits of Ecclesiasts (important figures in the church) and others.

There are several large, life-size paintings that are actually parts of altarpieces. Some of the images feature what is referred to as the “adoration,” a depiction of the presentation of gifts to the Baby Jesus. What I found interesting was that in every picture, the magi (the men who showered Jesus with gifts) are illustrated as two very European-looking men and one black man. I’m curious as to how much of this similarity is artists sharing ideas, how much is instruction from the patron and, most likely, how much is iconography, as pictures sharing the same subject usually have the same themes and imagery.

The evolution of Spanish painting can be easily tracked by the style of the images. Before and during the early reign of Philip III, paintings used darker, more monochrome palates and focused heavily on religious themes. Later, after Philip III took the throne, he made collecting paintings fashionable and called for elaborate building campaigns and religious festivals. Paintings became more colorful; figures became more naturalistic and more emotionally expressive.

My academic introduction to Spanish Art was brief and barely scratched the surface. The collection in the exhibit was fascinating and deserved far more time than I was able to dedicate. One piece that was particularly striking to me was part of a collection of portraits of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans. St. Francis was famous for receiving the stigmata, wounds on his hands and feet like those received by Jesus on the cross. The painting was of Jesus on the cross, being embraced by St. Francis, while placing his Crown of Thorns on Francis’ head. There is far more in this exhibit than I can describe or discuss here. I recommend that every art major and art lover check out this exhibit. One helpful tip: go after 12:00 so you can get the discounted student rate!