The Annunciation. In this essay, I will compare and contrast two of such paintings to demonstrate how El Greco evolved artistically over time

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Compare and contrast two paintings of your choice under the headings composition, space, form, tone, colour, subject matter and historical context.

The Annunciation’– the moment where, according to Christian belief, the Virgin Mary is visited by the archangel Gabriel and informed that she will bear the Son of God – was a favourite theme of Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), more famously known as ‘El Greco’. He was born in Crete but eventually settled in Toledo, Spain and through the course of his career produced several variations on this subject. In this essay, I will compare and contrast two of such paintings to demonstrate how El Greco evolved artistically over time and attained the trademark qualities, which have transformed him into one of the greatest and most original painters in history.

The first of these paintings dates from 1576  and was completed just before El Greco left Rome for Spain. Thus, this earlier The Annunciation, or EA for short, was created at a turning point in El Greco’s career, where his original formation in the Byzantine icon painting tradition had been supplemented by further artistic education in Venice and Rome. As a result, EA is a work that is influenced by Venetian Renaissance artists, and to some extent, the ‘mannerist’ movement, which rejected classical elements in favour of subjective expressionism. However, in 1576, El Greco had not yet had a chance to synthesize all these influences and make them his own. On the other hand, the latter The Annunciation (c. 1596-1600), or LA, was painted some twenty years later in Toledo where El Greco had reached artistic maturity and crystallized his technique by specializing in highly imaginative religious paintings, which auspiciously coincided with the fervent religiosity of the Spanish Counter-Reformation. Although both paintings depict the same subject matter, a closer examination of their pictorial elements – composition, space, form, tone and colour – reveals key differences and I will discuss each of these in turn.

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The composition in both paintings is essentially asymmetric and the elements are similarly assembled. However, the horizontals, in the form of rows of floor tiles, take precedence in EA, and these not only ground the narrative in the ‘earthly’ setting, but also evoke a sense of order and tranquillity. In contrast, LA is a predominantly a vertical composition, where the spectator’s gaze is in flux and continuously carried upwards towards the heavens. In fact, the heavenly firmament dominates the composition. This is due to the more detailed and animated depiction of the angels, the prominent symbolism of the white ...

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