Jan 042008
 

The first thing I noticed about this painting was St. Joseph’s hand supporting the baby’s foot: Raphael’s invention in a different variation. The second was the strange looking clouds, the gape above the Virgin’s head serving as a halo. While these features differ significantly in their specificity, they may both index El Greco’s ability to convert, reinvent and subordinate ideas, for his own particular needs. The clouds, a background element, suddenly assume the utmost role of signifying sainthood, while Raphael’s gesture becomes reincarnated to involve a different actor, a man, standing behind Mary. I think that this is an essential quality of the artist, as it reveals broad intellectual capacity — something that I found convenient to write off as secondary to El Greco’s dominant emotionalism. It seems that after all the head and the heart are together in this ploy, without any preferences.

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Holy Family, Madonna Feed…
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The third thing was the gradation of skin tones. Every face has its own distinctive shade; together they create a coordinated rhythm of color, further underlined by similar distribution of hue intensity of the robes. The darker the face, the darker the garment. Perhaps the purpose of the gradation was to suggest an hierarchy between the saints on the canvas. There is another interesting feature: the eyes are all blackened, as if masked in deep shadow. This choice of palette contributes to the sense of mystery, as we stand unable to decipher the innermost feelings of the saints from their eyes. In fact, pockets of black scattered throughout the image secretly impose an atmosphere of tension, enigma and vagueness. The colder blue and white of the sky balance it only to some degree, as the violent opposition of reds and yellows with the black sets the principal tone.

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Holy Family with Saint Anne
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The composition also offers a series of clashes. There are several imaginary perpendicular angles (the fourth thing): between the head of St. Joseph and the baby’s body, between his arm and his foot, St. Anne’s head and the baby, the latter and Madonna’s breast, his miniature hand and her long, scissor-like fingers (intersecting only slightly off the center of the piece). Mary’s head, in another characteristically Raphaelian tilt, becomes the central axis of the configuration; in a superb harmony of design, the compositional device unites with the notional Christian concept. Despite the general two dimensional setting, foreshortened faces add just the amount of perspective and depth needed for the beholder to perceive the image relatively easily. Still the, the setting is evidently abstract and forces the viewer to higher realms of imagination and fancy.

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Holy Family with Saint Anne
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Holy Family with Saint Anne
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