Painting Darkness to Reveal Light: El Greco

This Thursday we celebrate the Annunciation to Mary, so it seems right to look at at least one of the hundreds of paintings treating the subject.

My personal favorite is by El Greco and hangs in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. ‘El Greco’ is actually just the nickname the Spanish gave the artist; he was born in Crete in 1541, but when he was making fantastic paintings in Spain it was just easier to call him ‘the Greek’ than to try to pronounce his real name, Domenicos Theotokopoulos.  We’ll follow their example.

He painted this Annunciation composition three times, the largest of which measures over 10 feet high and 5 feet wide. When viewed side by side, it’s obvious that the design is relatively stable: an extra angel’s profile appears in the second composition, and there are minor shifts in his treatment of the fabrics and clouds, but overall the image is the same.

Click to see the painting larger & in a new window

Rather than comparing the three with each other, let’s just focus on understanding the first one. There’s a lot going on in this painting, so as always it’s best to start with the basics.

Formal Elements

The canvas has a strong vertical pull- at ten feet your neck would start to ache as you struggled to look at the heavens and the bottom of the canvas at once. Mary and the Angel are each a little over four feet, not quite life size. There are very few fixed edges: the lectern that holds the bible behind Mary is the sole right-angled architectural structure. The lighting comes from the center of the painting, illuminating the faces of both Mary and the Angel as they look at each other while darkness encroaches on the edges of the canvas.


For being a painting of the Annunciation, El Greco’s composition is quite crowded. Typical paintings of the subject depict the Angel, Mary, her Bible (typically in codex format, despite the anachronism), lilies, some sort of architectural background, and occasionally the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. No such simplicity is found here: the image teems with additional angels and swirls in a dizzying plethora of clouds.

The top half of the painting shows an Angelic concert, celebrating the Incarnation by playing a variety of contemporary instruments (Lute, Harp, Shawm, Clavichord, and Bass Viol). Musical Consorts such as these were the choice entertainment at regal courts at the time, and here they’re basically a heavenly chamber music ensemble meant to underscore Christ’s real status as a king.

The strange bulbous forms lining the clouds that connect the dove and Mary are actually cherubs. I know they look like skulls. That’s part of El Greco’s style, and certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Perhaps they function as pre-figurations of Christ’s ultimate crucifixion at “the Place called The Skull” (Luke 23:33).  Comparing El Greco’s cherubs with those of Rubens and Raphael reveals both their identity as cherubs (note the curly hair on the heads, framed by small wings) and their radical departure from the traditional representation of a cherub.  Raphael’s cherubs might be cousins of Cupid; El Greco’s really do look more like a pile of skulls.

Despite the typically joyous subject of the painting, El Greco’s color choices (muted reds and greens, a dominating pearl grey offset by black) lend a psychological pressure to the composition that is unsettling. This is an image of upheaval, of celebration and of pain. The lilies -a flower traditionally denoting Mary’s purity- look stretched, strained, half dead. The dark and twisting clouds replace any firm architecture, leaving us unsteady and unsure of our footing. If this had been painted in the modern day, we might suspect Tim Burton had a hand in it. Even the musical angels are distorted, elongated, and a bit creepy- just take a good look at their fingers.

Certainly the image is macabre, but not without relief.  The announcing Angel stands on a cloud that enters the painting from the side- from where we, the viewers, stand. He has actually come to earth, not simply shouted to Mary from heaven. His arms form a cross over his chest, and he wears green, a color symbolizing fertility and rebirth.  Though the rest of the painting is illuminated by a cold silver light, the path of the dove is gold, and it casts a warm light everything it touches. The dove is undistorted, pure, and opens a clean pathway from the heavens to Mary, representative of the earth.  Embedded here is a metaphor of hope, of divine redemption entering the world.

Unlike most paintings of the Annunciation, this one does not celebrate Mary as a pure, retiring domestic woman-it’s hardly a painting about Mary at all. The tension and center of attention is the mixture of light and dark, the grand entrance of the ordered Divine into the chaotic world. This is precisely the reason that El Greco’s version of the Annunciation is my favorite: he does not downplay the darkness of the world into which Christ born, but rather used it to focus our attention on the real event, the advent of mercy and redemption. ‘

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Renee Bolinger

Renee graduated Summa Cum Laude from Biola University in December 2009, earning a B.S. in Studio Arts and a B.A. in Philosophy. While at the school, she was awarded the ‘Outstanding Thesis Presentation’ by the Philosophy department, and the ‘Order of Peter & Paul’ by the Torrey Honors Institute. At present she is a practicing artist, working towards a Masters degree in philosophy at Northern Illinois University. Renee is passionate about making art and helping people understand it.

  • T.A.Carroll

    By lilies, are you referring to the plant-thing by the Angel’s feet? If so, I do not believe those are lilies — but rather the Burning Bush of Moses on Mt Sinai. The Bush as a type of Mary is a quite common interpretation (especially in the Greek speaking Church). And Icons of Mary as the Unburnt Bush (filled with the burning fire of God [Christ the Word], yet not consumed) are associated with the Feast of the Annunciation.

    On a more general note: I love El Greco’s work — Thanks for discussing him. Your insights and pondering are quite enjoyable.

  • Renee Bolinger

    Timothy- thanks for the clarification. Such an association makes sense given Mary’s position as a God-Bearer. I wonder whether El Greco painted the plant ambiguously intentionally: the portions that I read as lilies you read as flame, and they permit both interpretations.

    If it is a flaming bush, it does not seem to give off any light. The angel’s foot near it has a cast shadow from the garment just above it, Mary’s dress is illuminated from above, etc. Any thoughts as to why that may be?

  • T.A.Carroll

    Renee, good question. The primary light certainly seems to be the Dove, but notice that there is some light on the underside fold of Mary’s cope (under her left arm). There are also a couple other examples of anachronistic lighting, as well (viz. back side of Gabriel’s left shoulder). My inclination is to posit two things:
    1) The Unburnt Bush is a type of which the painting’s subject is the archetype. Thus, even if a shrub on fire should, we would agree, cast light around it — the light of God in the incarnation, of Mary the Unburnt Bush, and of Gabriel an Angel of God cast greater light. But, as you point out in the original post, this is not a bright and glimmery piece. Thus the ‘background’ OT image of the bush casts only a little light on who Mary is.
    2) Iconographic tradition often has inexplicable light sources — usually from within the subject itself. While El Greco is not writing Icons, I’m inclined to say he is heavily influenced by the tradition. So while no one person is really glowing, the light seems to be generally present from above. Notice that even the angel whose foot is closes to the Dove seems to be lit from above — the shadow of his garment being cast upon his ankle.

    I like the idea of El Greco making it intentionally ambiguous and implicative of both. I’m curious though, if it is Lilies, why does the plant look more like a desert shrub, and nothing like a Lily plant?