It is not a narrative scene. There are no other characters and the background does not pull away attention from Christ. The background of Christ Carrying the Cross is a stormy, dark sky which is characteristic of El Greco's work.
Instead, it is devoted to Jesus himself. The painting depicts his willingness to sacrifice himself for mankind. This will is expressed through his gentle embrace of the cross and his gaze toward the heavens with a resigned expression. Christ's upward gaze shows his proximity and devotion to God and encourages the viewer to feel the same devotion.
Christ Carrying the Cross is an image of perfect humanity. El Greco paints Christ's eyes as dramatic and overemphasised tears in them. His eyes are the key element of the painting as they express so much emotion. There is a delicate contrast between his robust shoulders and the feminine beauty of his hands.
El Greco paints tapering fingers. His hands are shown to be passive and beautiful. These hands are destined to be nailed into the cross and so they show Christ's calm, willing nature before his sacrifice. His hands display mother-of-pearl nails characteristic of El Greco.
Despite the somber painting, El Greco lifts the darkness with warm venetian colours and slight light which adds more sentimental sweetness to the picture.
Christ's crown of thorns is reinforced by a glimmer of a luminous halo. The precious painting of the crown shows each intricate woven branch bearing small shoots. It sits perfectly on Christ's head and a few drops of blood have fallen onto his neck from the harm caused by the thorns.
There is no sign of pain on his face, however. Like his passive hands, he expresses no anguish or effort from carrying the cross. El Greco transformed the image of Christ from weighed down and in pain from the heavy cross to one that is calm and ready to face his fate. Christ's calmness about his sacrifice invites the viewer to accept their own fate in times of fear and doubt.
El Greco's paintings are so popular because they are brilliantly painted but also express piety and provide a stimulus for prayer and devotion. El Greco also painted other biblical scenes, such as:
- Christ Healing the Blind
- St. Peter and St. Paul
The style that El Greco uses in Christ Carrying the Cross, and many other of his paintings, is Mannerism which was characteristic of the Late Renaissance period particularly from 1520 - 1570 where Baroque replaced it.
Mannerism is an European art which exaggerates proportion, balance and ideal beauty and often produces work which is asymmetrical and unnaturally elegant.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos was born in Crete in 1541 which at this time was a part of the Republic of Venice. El Greco was a nickname given to him meaning 'The Greek'. He is known to be one of the foremost painters on the Spanish Renaissance and also was a sculptor and architect.
El Greco's work did not find full appreciation until the 20th century, before then it was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries.