Faith through Art: El Greco reflects Christ’s passion, agony in the garden

By Sandra Martin

The Agony in the Garden is a subject often painted by artists throughout Christian history, for inherent in the scene is all the passion and anguish of Lent, and its powerful call of the faithful to prayer. Indeed, what better model for authentic prayer could there be than Jesus in his time of trial? One of the most striking works of the Agony is painted by the artist, El Greco, who was born in Crete as Doménikos Theotokópoulos in 1541, and died in Spain in 1614. El Greco and his workshop painted this tableau numerous times, in both vertical and horizontal orientations. This particular image was painted late in the artist’s career, and is a vertical representation. El Greco’s version is unique in that the disciples –– Peter, James and John –– who have accompanied Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane, are much larger in stature than the principal figure of Jesus, who is gazing at an angel holding a golden cup. To the right in the background are the approaching figures of Judas and the Roman soldiers. El Greco, a masterful storyteller, visually narrates the Scripture of Christ’s agony with all its pathos, and various elements and characters.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus went, “as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him.” Knowing that he himself was to undergo the ultimate trial, Jesus tells them, “‘Pray that you may not undergo the test.’ After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed,” (22:39-41). While El Greco’s painting depicts Jesus in this submissive posture, the artist chose not to illustrate Jesus with eyes closed and hands folded, but rather in an open stance, with hands spread on either side of him, almost as if caught off guard. The angel holds in her hand a golden chalice, making visible the metaphysical vessel in Jesus’s prayer: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done. And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him” (Lk 22:42-43). Jesus’s right hand reaches out toward the cup, seemingly anticipating the answer to his desperate prayer. The chalice also reminds us of its sacred place in the Last Supper (which Jesus had just celebrated before his agony in the garden), and in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
In El Greco’s painting, Jesus is clothed in a red robe, symbolic of his Passion and death, as well as his prayer in the Garden: “He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Lk 22:44). (Red is the liturgical color for Palm/Passion Sunday.) The face of Jesus, serene even in its turmoil, reveals a human being in desolation, making a heartrending appeal to his Father while at the same time displaying our Lord’s surrender to his Father’s will (“not my will but yours be done”). Thus in this one image El Greco profoundly illustrates both Christ’s humanity and divinity. 
In the forefront of the painting, we see the disciples in slumbering disarray, oblivious to Jesus’s suffering (“When he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples, he found them sleeping from grief” Lk 22:45). 
The canvas is divided into two registers by what appears to be a split olive branch, perhaps signifying the broken promise of the disciples to stay with Jesus, as well as our own broken promise to live through him, and with him, and in him. The placement of the disciples in the lower register of the painting emphasizes Christ’s separation from them, and all the loneliness, isolation, and rejection that this implies. The placement and the size of the disciples’ figures leave no doubt that El Greco wanted us to be aware of the significance of our inattention and sleepiness in the face of what is asked of us. 
In earlier El Greco paintings of the agony, a full moon is placed in the sky in the right upper register, and is sheathed by clouds; as if to further highlight the darkness of this transformative event. In this painting, what might be the light of the moon is almost totally obscured. The blackness of the sky in the upper right register, and above Judas and the soldiers, is a visual foreshadowing of what is to come. In contrast, on the left we have the angel in white and the painter’s distinctive celestial clouds underneath and behind. 
El Greco is a master of contrasts, playing light against dark, emotion against restraint, natural against transcendental. He foregoes a realistic representation of the agony for one that expresses emotional fervor and his own personal interpretation of the Scripture. El Greco’s painting captures the mind of the very human Jesus before the divine Christ submits to his Father’s will.