The altarpiece was commissioned by Philip H for the chapel dedicated to St. Maurice in the Escorial and is signed on the sheet of paper in the mouth of the snake in the foreground. The oldest reference to the work in the documents is the king's order to the prior, dated April 25, 1580, to procure for the artist the material he needed, and ultramarine blue in particular. The work was completed on November 16, 1582. It is likely that the task was assigned to El Greco following the death, in 1579, of the painter Fernandez de Navarrete, who had undertaken to supply thirty-six altarpieces for the Escorial. The king was not satisfied with the work and a few years later decided to replace El Greco's masterpiece with a canvas ordered from the Umbrian painter Romolo Cincinnato. The picture was to remain the only royal commission fulfilled by Theotokopoulos. Among the soldiers of the "Theban Legion" can be recognized portraits of some members of the court with high military rank: in the background on the right, we see Emanuele Filiberto, duke of Savoy and grand master of the Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus, and Philip's nephew Alessandro Farnese, duke of Parma. St. Maurice was the patron of the Order of the Golden Fleece. The saint was given the features of Philip II himself. The scene in the foreground is the moment when the saint persuades his companions to face martyrdom for their belief in Christ. The martyrdom itself is represented in the background: two soldiers are holding a long pole, symbolizing the yoke under which they were forced to pass as an act of humiliation prior to their execution. In direct conflict with the Roman school (favored by Philip II, always on the lookout for Italian artists), El Greco painted a profoundly Mannerist picture with the diagonal separating the scene of the martyrdom from that of the decision, the off-center position of the figure in the foreground and the great differences of scale. The work was found wanting because it was not historically accurate, because it distorted the meaning of the scene by concentrating more on the acceptance of martyrdom than on the martyrdom itself and because it did not invite devotion: in his version, Cincinnato brought the martyrdom of the saint into the foreground and eliminated the portraits of contemporary personages.
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