“Opening of the Fifth Seal” by El Greco
“Opening of the Fifth Seal” by El Greco depicts the story from the Book of Revelation (6:9–11), where the souls of persecuted martyrs cry out to God for justice upon on Earth. The ecstatic figure of St. John dominates the scene, while behind him naked souls respond with supreme emotion as they receive white robes of salvation. The upper portion of the canvas has been cut down, as it was destroyed in 1880. This lost upper portion is believed to have depicted divine love.
Also called the “The Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse” or “The Vision of Saint John” this painting was created in the last years of El Greco’s life for a side-altar of the church of Saint John the Baptist outside the walls of Toledo. After the 1880 fire, the work was in such poor condition that it was restored by trimming by at least 175 centimetres (68.9 in), leaving John the Evangelist pointing nowhere. It was this strange revised composition that intrigued modern viewers the most and contributed to the painting’s fame in modernist circles.
It has been suggested that the Opening of the Fifth Seal served as an inspiration for the early Cubist works of Pablo Picasso, especially Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. When Picasso was working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, he studied this painting when it resided in Paris.
Doménikos Theotokópoulos, widely known as El Greco, Spanish for “The Greek”, was a painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. The artist normally signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), often adding the word Κρής (Krēs, “Cretan”). He is best known for elongated figures and for marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.
El Greco was born in Crete, which at that time was part of the Republic of Venice, and the centre of Post-Byzantine art. He trained and became a master Byzantine art before travelling to Venice to work; then he moved to Rome, where he opened a workshop and executed a series of works. In 1577, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. In Toledo, El Greco received several major commissions and produced his best-known paintings.
El Greco’s style was met with puzzlement by his 16th-century contemporaries, but he found greater appreciation in modern times and is today regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. His works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers, and he is considered, as an artist, so individual that he belongs to no conventional school.
- What intrigued modern painters about this painting?
- Does Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, mirror the expressionistic angularity of the painting?
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The Vision of Saint John or The Opening of the Fifth Seal
- Title: The Vision of Saint John or The Opening of the Fifth Seal
- Artist: El Greco
- Year: 1614
- Medium: Oil on canvas (top truncated)
- Dimensions: 87.5 × 76 in (222.2 × 193 cm)
- Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET and Met Breuer
- Name: El Greco – “The Greek”
- Greek: Doménikos Theotokópoulos
- Birth: 1541 – Heraklion, Crete
- Died: 1614 (aged 73) – Toledo, Spain
- Nationality: Greek
- Movement: Mannerism
- Notable works:
“I paint because the spirits whisper madly inside my head.”
– El Greco
Photo Credit: El Greco [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons