This small yet powerful painting offers a moving portrayal of Saint Maurice, the legendary commander of the Theban legion who was martyred for his Christian beliefs in the 3rd century. Set against an otherworldly sky of mottled blues, whites and grays, the saint casts his soulful gaze toward his right. His melancholic expression reflects his resignation to the martyrdom that awaits his decision not to abandon his faith. El Greco has heightened the composition’s haunting beauty by accentuating Maurice’s ethereal nature, especially evident in his elongated features and wispy hair that seems to possess a nervous energy all its own. The artist’s bold, expressive handling of paint combined with his choice of color, characterized by a marriage of intense, dissonant hues, all contribute to the image’s strikingly modern aesthetic.
In an unpublished study of this painting written for the owner in 1993, William B. Jordan identified it as the only surviving fragment of a lost but documented second version of El Greco’s famous composition of the Martyrdom of St. Maurice that was recorded in El Greco’s inventory at the time of his death in 1614, and which was subsequently installed by his son, Jorge Manuel, above the artist’s tomb in the Theotokópoulos family chapel in the church of San Torcuato, Toledo. El Greco had famously first treated this subject in one of his most important commissions, an altarpiece commissioned for the monastery of El Escorial by Philip II in 1579 (fig. 1). The event depicted took place in Gaul toward the end of the third century. According to legend, Maurice and his legion were commanded by Emperor Maximian to swear allegiance to the gods of the empire. As Christians, they refused to engage in pagan rites, and as punishment the legion was at first decimated (one man in every ten was executed), and eventually all were slaughtered.
El Greco finished the project before 2 September 1582, but his work was not well received by the king. In 1583, the Italian painter Romulo Cincinnati was commissioned to paint a replacement, which now hangs over one of the altars in the monastery. El Greco never again painted for the king, who neither understood his art nor approved of his unorthodox and innovative treatment of the subject, which included relegating to the background the climactic moment of the legion’s martyrdom and giving prominence instead to a more cerebral study of Maurice and his companions deciding to die for their faith.
From the time of this small head’s appearance in the first-ever El Greco exhibition, in 1902, it was considered an autograph work. Sometimes misidentified as representing Saint Joseph, however, its true subject was unrecognized. Harold Wethey was the first to associate it with the Escorial The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice, but he regarded it as a 17th-century copy of the principal head in the composition. When the painting was finally cleaned of the overpainting intended to mask its fragmentary state, in the early 1990s, another head was revealed, and Jordan recognized the important implications. Behind Maurice’s left shoulder a fragmentary and dramatically foreshortened head had been overpainted. No such figure is present in the Escorial composition, but the same foreshortened head does appear in two other paintings that had traditionally been considered copies of El Greco’s Escorial altarpiece. Instead, they must now be regarded as copies of this lost later version. The first of these is a facile repetition (Wethey no. X-423, 1.45 x 1.07 m) belonging to the heirs of King Carol II of Romania and generally regarded as neither an autograph nor workshop production. The second, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (fig. 2; Wethey no. X-422, 1.46 x 1.00 m), is generally attributed to El Greco’s son, Jorge Manuel (1578-1631).
As Jordan pointed out, the earliest published account of another Martyrdom of Saint Maurice by El Greco comes to us in the writings of Antonio Ponz, who in 1787 described seeing above the artist’s tomb in the chapel of San Tocuato “el borrón original para el cuadro grande de San Mauricio” (Viaje de España, 1787, I, Carta IV p. 40). In 1800, J. A. Ceán Bermúdez also documented what he too took to be an oil sketch of that subject in the same church (Diccionario…, Madrid, 1800, V, p. 10). This painting was still in the family chapel in 1845 when it was recorded there by Amador de los Rios (Toledo pintoresco, p. 189), but appears to have been removed sometime in the following years, as it was not mentioned by S.R. Parro in his Toledo en la mano (Toledo, 1857; see vol. II, p. 251). Based on a misreading of Cossio (1908, p. 221), Wethey stated that the work placed over El Greco’s tomb was the Houston copy, which as Jordan argues, is patently implausible.
In 1612 El Greco and his son purchased a burial vault in the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, where El Greco’s body was laid to rest in April 1614. The artist had painted the Adoration of the Shepherds (now in the Museo del Prado) to hang over his own tomb, but a dispute over payment from the church and an argument with Jorge Manuel about another contract led the nuns to annul the contract for the burial chapel and required Jorge Manuel to transfer his father’s remains elsewhere. On February 18, 1619, he purchased another burial vault in San Torcuato, where his father’s body was transferred.
Listed among the “finished paintings” in the inventory of El Greco’s studio at the time of his death were two paintings of Saint Maurice, one described as large and another as small. Only one version, probably the small one, described as measuring 1/1/3 varas high by 1/16 varas wide, was recorded in Jorge Manuel’s possession at the time of his marriage in 1621, indicating that the larger version has been sold or placed elsewhere by that date.
The style of this small fragment is the highly expressionistic style of El Greco’s final years (1610-1614), in which the drawing of contours in fluid black paint upon a brown ground is allowed to show and in which the scintillating interaction of unblended brush strokes and vibrant color animate the entire surface. It seems wholly fitting that this subject, once rejected by the king, should have been chosen to commemorate the proud painter after a lifetime spent epitomizing the religious spirit of his adopted home of Toledo.
We are grateful to William B. Jordan for allowing us to make use of his study of this work and for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.
Oil on canvas, a fragment
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
Domenikos called El Greco Theotokopoulos
Domenikos called El Greco Theotokopoulos , Paintings, canvas, oil, Greece, Spain, Old Master, Christian, portrait, religious
Madrid, 1902, Exhibition of El Greco's Works (catalogue by S. Viniegra).
Old Master & British Paintings
10 x 7 ¼ in. (25.4 x 18.4 cm.)
(Probably) A. Ponz, Viaje de España, 1787, I, Carta IV, p. 40.
(Probably) A. Ceán Bermúdez, Diccionario…, Madrid, 1800, V, p. 10.
M.B. Cossio, El Greco, Madrid, 1908, pp. 299, 552, no. 10, pl. 43.
V. Von Loga, Art in America, April 1913, p. 99, pl. 16.
H. Kehzer, Die Kunst der Greco, Munich, 1914, p. 28, no. 9.
A.L. Mayer, "Paintings by El Greco in America, Part II", in Art In America, II, October 1916, p. 311, pl. 4.
A.L. Mayer, Dominico Theotocopuli, Munich, 1926, no. 174.
M. Legendre and A. Hartmann, Dominico Theotocopuli genannt El Greco, Paris [c. 1930], p. 465.
L. Goldscheider, El Greco, New York, 1938, pl. 104.
R.H. Hubbard, European Paintings in Canadian Collections: Earlier Schools, Oxford, 1956, I, p. 37.
H.E. Wethey, El Greco and his School, Princeton, 1962, II, p. 252, no. x-424, as a 17th century copy.
J. Camon-Azon, Dominico Greco, Madrid, 1970, II, p. 700, fig. 580.
G. Manzini and T. Frati, L'opera completa del Greco, Milan, 1968, p. 99, no. 44b.
J. Gudiol, Le Greco, Paris, 1973, p. 101, no. 58, fig. 84.
M.B. Cossio, El Greco, Madrid, 1981, p. 288, no. 291.
(Probably) The Theotokópoulos family chapel in the church of San Torcuato, Toledo.
Don Antonio Vives, Madrid.
with Leo Nardus, 1906, by whom given in 1906 to
Sir William Van Horne, Montreal (d. 1914), and by descent (Van Horne, Wickenden inventory, no. 101, 1926), until 1996.