Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino

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El Greco, Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino, 1609

Most of El Greco's portraits lack discernable features in the background. It is not unusual that he limits his color palette in Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino to white, black, and brown. And though that left wrist looks mighty odd as it seems not to have an arm attached, it still is not what makes the painting stand apart. The strange thing about Fray Hortensio, a portrait of Hortensio Felix - a poet, friar, and friend of El Greco's - is the way in which Hortensio is portrayed within the context of his chair and robe.

With the exception of his Portrait of a Cardinal and Fray Hortensio, El Greco seems to rely on the face to reveal the personality of his subjects, ignoring or simply excluding the rest of the body. His subjects are poised, proper, and still. Even Portrait of a Cardinal depicts the Cardinal in a pose that reflects his high standing in the church. Hortensio, however, seems on the verge of slouching in his seat, casually lounging as his portrait comes to life, stroke by stroke. His body looks frail and lost in the great sea of his friar's habit. His pose does not suggest his fame or importance.

Yet still he sits, smugly gazing back at the viewer with dark, piercing eyes. His strength lies not in his stature. Rather, he makes himself a giant in the intellectual arena. At his side he clutches two books, likely the Bible and a book of poetry. The larger of the two dwarfs what the viewer can see of Hortensio's physique, but also reflects the power of his mind.

Interestingly enough, Hortensio's powerful mind, though it made him a staunch supporter of most arts, also led him to decry all nudes. He once went so far as to demand that the best of these should be burned for the good of society. The best of these would no doubt have included many of El Greco's most famous works. That's a poor way to repay a friend for painting you.

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