This work is based on an original by El Greco which now hangs in the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. It’s a scene of Christ in torment, moments before his arrest – we can see the soldiers coming for him to the right.
According to the Gospels, Christ retreated to the garden of Gethsemane to pray, asking God to spare him the ‘cup of suffering’ that he knew awaited him. Here an angel shrouded in supernatural light, stronger than that of the moon beyond, presents Christ with the cup. He is shown accepting his inevitable suffering.
When this painting was purchased as an El Greco in 1919, the National Gallery was accused of buying a picture by a madman: people were shocked by the acid colours and distorted forms that the artist used to heighten the picture’s emotional and spiritual drama.
When this painting was purchased as an El Greco in 1919, the National Gallery was accused of buying a picture by a madman: people were shocked by the acid colours and distorted forms that the artist used to heighten the drama of his picture.
El Greco was very successful in his own lifetime, however, and employed numerous assistants to help him produce enough works to satisfy the demand for his pictures. This one was probably painted by his studio after El Greco’s original, now in the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.
The scene shows Christ’s struggle between his humanity and his divine mission. He has retreated to Gethsemane, an olive grove just outside Jerusalem, to pray; only a few olive tree saplings make reference to the setting. Christ knows he will soon be arrested and killed. He fears death, but understands that his sacrifice will redeem mankind. El Greco expresses Christ’s spiritual and emotional torment through his surroundings, where the natural and the supernatural do battle. A full moon glows, illuminating the surrounding clouds, while another source of light – a much brighter, supernatural light – shines down on Christ.
A heavenly vision of an angel holding a chalice has appeared before him. In the Gospel accounts of the episode, Christ prays that he will have the courage to drink from the ‘cup of suffering’. In the distance we can see Roman soldiers making their way to arrest him; the Crucifixion is inevitable. The picture endorses the importance of the sacrament of the Eucharist – the cup also represents the chalice that holds Eucharistic wine – and obedience to God’s will.
Three of Christ’s disciples are shown cocooned in what could be clouds or a sort of cave. They are the ultimate sign of human weakness: they have not been able to stay awake to support Christ. Their unusual oval enclosure might be a reference to the Byzantine painting tradition which El Greco, a native Cretan, had been trained in, where figures are enclosed in abstract shapes to separate them from other parts of the narrative.
El Greco made the original painting upon which this is based when he was in Toledo, a town about 40 miles from Madrid where he had settled by 1577. El Greco and his studio produced several versions of this composition, suggesting it was popular among his clients. They clearly admired the artist’s ability to communicate the beliefs of the Catholic faith so vividly through his expressive painting style.
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