El Greco’s Curious Virgin

You’ve seen the Virgin Mary with her Child in countless paintings. You’ve seen her with Joseph in Holy Family pictures; with her Son at the feast of Cana; with St. John at the foot of the Cross; with the Angel Gabriel announcing the Good News.


Have you ever seen her alone?
Have you ever seen a portrait of the Virgin?
Have you ever seen her look back at you?
Here she is, according to El Greco.
The portrait is about the size of the Mona Lisa and hangs on a wall of the Prado Museum in Madrid.



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9 Responses to El Greco’s Curious Virgin

  1. cyurkanin says:

    Swallows, there’s actually ample imagry of the Holy Virgin both alone and in portrait style. In the west, it certainly is much more of a modern phenomenon, especially last century. In the east, although she is especially venerated because of her role as the Theotokos and generally pictured as such, icons do regularly show her not only alone but staring directly back at the viewer. I assume the iconic tradition is not what you had in mind here, though.

    • 100swallows says:

      Cyurkanin: Right, I wasn’t thinking of icons. Vasari (and the Italian Renaissance masters) thought that old Greek art was “bad” and it took geniuses like Cimabue and Giotto to begin to “correct” it. Those icons, being more like symbols than real humans, were stiff and cold. They showed a lack of observation. This Virgin goes to the other extreme: she looks maybe too familiarly human.

  2. cyurkanin says:

    By the way, do you have any other information on this particular painting? I seem to remember seeing it years ago but never knew anything about it. Who was it made for, any idea?

    • 100swallows says:

      Cyurkanin: I’m afraid I know nothing else about her. There’s another very similar Virgin by Greco in the Art Museum of Strassburg but she doesn’t look so charming.

  3. erikatakacs says:

    He was born a Greek orthodox, wasn’t he? And back in Crete he got familiar with the iconic style. Maybe he’s reaching back to that tradition with her Virgin.

    I’ve never seen this portrait. She reminds me of Mona Lisa a little. The gaze specifically. Only this gaze is more symphatetic, more understanding. Someone you can put your trust in. This Mary is not saintly at all, not in the Renaissance tradition anyway. The halo is barely suggested, it seems to be there primarily for aesthetic reasons, for composition’s sake, to lighten up, emphasize her beautiful face. It looks to me that he used a real model for this portrait.

    I really love this El Greco, thanks Swallows for sharing.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Erika. I too have wondered if it is a portrait of a real girl, not an imagined face. Every time I go to the Prado I stop to say hello to her.

  4. Ken Januski says:

    If she wasn’t real she must have been real in El Greco’s imagination. As Erika says she exudes a real personality. El Greco is just full of surprises! I’ve certainly developed a much greater appreciation for him over the last few weeks.

  5. wrjones says:

    I wonder how Joseph felt about this business?

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