My Favourite Painting: Mary Plazas

'There is compassion, awe, humility, a knowing yet a questioning in the glistening eyes. It moves me, it inspires me beyond the need to know.’

Mary Plazas comments on Christ at Prayer:

‘For me, El Greco captures with such powerful simplicity the sense of greatness in the Beyond; an ever more powerful presence; the Soul in connection with God and the Universe.’

‘We see the head and shoulders of Christ the Man, almost exaggerated, but the childlike face of Christ the Son. It’s the most revealing yet intimate of moments: Christ in prayer with The Father. There is compassion, awe, humility, a knowing yet a questioning in the glistening eyes. It moves me, it inspires me beyond the need to know ’

Mary Plazas is an opera singer. She is singing the title role in English Touring Opera’s new production of Rossini’s Elizabeth I (Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra), touring until May 23.

John McEwen comments on Christ at Prayer:

El Greco left Crete, his birthplace, as a ‘master painter’ in 1567, bound for Venice, centre of the empire of which Crete was a part. The Venetian masters Titian, Tintoretto and Jacopo Bassano were all working there and profoundly influenced him. Indeed, Giulio Clovio, a famous manuscript painter who died in 1578, wrote that the young Cretan was a ‘discepolo di Titiano’.

When El Greco moved to Rome, Clovio recommended him to Cardinal Farnese, writing that he had ‘a rare gift for painting; and among other things, he has done a portrait of himself which has astonished all these painters of Rome’. The calling card of the self-portrait worked. El Greco was awarded temporary lodging in the Palazzo Farnese.

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In 1572, he was admitted to the Guild of San Luca, registering under the name ‘Dominico Greco’– the first record of his using the pseudonym by which he is now known. In 1577, he left for Spain, where he remained for the rest of his life.

One thinks of El Greco as primarily a religious painter, so his portraiture – Manet being only one of its famous admirers –– might seem a secular sideline. Not so. Portraiture in the Renaissance acknowledged the individual first and foremost as being ‘in the image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1: 26–27). Through the Incarnation, Jesus, God the Son, took to himself the nature of Man: ‘the Word was made Flesh’ (John 1: 14). This soulful portrait is very much of Jesus the man.

As Catholic doctrine also says, likeness to God is ‘chiefly’ in the soul. It was said of Velázquez: ‘In his portraits he imitated Domenico Greco, whose heads he whose heads he considered could never be too highly praised.’

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