The oil painting ‘The Opening of the Fifth Seal’ (or ‘The Vision of Saint John’) created by the Spanish artist and architect El Greco (birth name Domenikos Theokópoulos, 1541-1614), is a landmark painting in the history of not only art, but also Cubism and Modern Art too.
This large (dimensions 222.3 cm x 193 cm) oil on canvas painting, also known by such names as ‘The Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse’, and ‘Profane Love’, painted between 1608 and 1614 by El Greco, is now on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA.
The Opening of the Fifth Seal, painted in the last years in the life of El Greco, is incomplete in many ways. It was probably unfinished at the time of his death. The upper portion of the canvas seems to be cut off. As the painting was in very poor condition, its then owner Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, who was the Prime Minister of Spain, ordered its restoration around 1880 when possibly some more of it was cut off.
In its present form, The Opening of the Fifth Seal might not be showing what El Greco originally portrayed, and the remaining portion of the painting in its incompleteness depicts Modernist and Cubist characteristics, largely due to Pablo Picasso, who was hugely inspired by it.
Also El Greco’s typical style of contrasting very bright and dull colors and his style of using bold and rough brushstrokes do not conform to the styles of paintings of his period or earlier periods. Another notable departure from the painting techniques and art styles of his period is his preference for distorted and overly elongated human figures in unrealistic backgrounds.
The theme of The Vision of Saint John is from the Bible (The Book of Revelation, 6:9-11). The human figures in the painting represent the souls of the persecuted Christian martyrs praying to God for justice on their persecutors. The dominating large figure raising his hands heavenwards is St. John, behind whom the writhing souls scramble and clamor for robes of salvation being distributed by angels.
After Antonio Cánovas del Castillo passed away in 1897, The Vision of Saint John was bought by the painter Ignacio Zuloaga. In 1956, the Zuloaga Museum sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
According to many art historians, The Opening of the Fifth Seal was the prime inspiration for the early Cubism paintings of Pablo Picasso, especially Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. When he was working on it, he visited the painting’s owner Ignacio Zuloaga and made extensive studies of The Opening of the Fifth Seal.
The relation between Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and El Greco’s monumental painting was first pointed out by the British art historian Ron Johnson in the early 1980s. Further, the British art historian and Picasso biographer John Richardson links Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to El Greco’s The Opening of the Fifth Seal and also to Paul Cézanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses (The Large Bathers).
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