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Holy Family

ca. 1580-85
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco (1541-1614)
Oil on canvas
106 x 87.5 cm

When El Greco moved to Spain by 1577, he almost certainly did so in search of royal patronage under Philip II, a Maecenas on a massive scale. Philip II, however, disapproved of the artist's first royal commission, The Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion, so El Greco turned to the next greatest source of patronage in Spain, the Archdiocese of Toledo. Literate and worldly, the artist carved a place for himself within the sophisticated class of clerics who revolved around the cathedral of his adoptive city.

Painted at the height of El Greco's fame and success, devotional pictures like the Holy Family were immensely popular. In them, the artist gave visually appealing and accessible form to the religious ideas and ideals of the Catholic Reformation. One of the most hotly contested questions of faith was the role of the Virgin Mary. In this painting, Mary, Mother of God and intercessor for the faithful, appears at her most human and most compassionate. Rarely, if ever, did El Greco surpass the sense of tenderness achieved in the Holy Family. Mary looks down upon her son with maternal affection, while Joseph peers over her shoulder with an expression of gentle concern. El Greco pays particular attention to the Virgin's transparent lace mantilla, making it a display of bravura brushwork.