This piece is modestly sized at 102 cm x 131 cm, by El Greco's normal standards, and the item was purchased by the gallery back in 1919. Intriguingly, many rejected to the acquisition at the time because of the style of he artist, which they described as that akin to the work of a madman. El Greco was certainly unique in his approach, but most have embraced these differences, and marked him out as an important contributor to the 16th century, encouraging more expressive artistic styles which would appear more frequently in the centuries that followed. Research has uncovered an original vresion of this scene, found at the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, with the version in the UK likely to have been produced afterwards. It may have involved members of his studio, but that is unclear. El Greco became a very sought after artist once his career took off and eventually he was forced to hire assistants to work alongside him in order to keep up with the steady procession of commissions which came in. He first achieved fame in Italy before than spending time in Spain and so eventually his reputation spread far and wide around Europe.
Gethsemane is a region on the outskirts of Jerusalem and the tale describes how Christ fears for his life whilst taking on his divine mission, as he sees it. Little content within the painting refers to the setting itself, but it is implied via the title of the painting. Christ understands that his sacrifice will help others and so he heads to Gethsemane to pray by himself within an olive grove. El Greco communicates this important moment through his use of light and the naturally emotive style of his art. A small moon sits to the right hand side, but most of the work is placed in near darkness. He looks desperate at this moment, but retains an inner belief in his purpose. From the top left hand side a beam of light strikes down, signifying a connection to the heavens above, just as an angel appears. That sign is enough to strengthen his resolve as Romans move in upon him as they seek his arrest and potential death. The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane therefore refers to the moment in which Christ is beaten down by reality, but fights hard to remain on course for his greater purpose.
The artist completed the original in the Spanish town of Toledo, where he lived for many years. That piece is dated from 1577 and is confidently attributed to his hand alone, where as the copy came later and may have involved his studio. In fact, several other versions are also believed to have been created and clearly the piece was considered a promising one, for so many copies to have then been made. Much of his work centred on religious themes, naturally, but this was not only down to who was offering commissions at the time. The artist was himself highly religious and so would not have minded working on these themes. Aside from his religious content, there was also a large number of portraits as well, and these two genres were enough to keep him very busy both in Italy and Spain for a number of decades. Despite the unique, contemporary style that he used, El Greco was still able to achieve fame within his own career and benefit from his own innovations. See also The Holy Trinity and The Disrobing of Christ.