Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion

(1580; El Escorial, Monastery of San Lorenzo)
   El Greco painted the Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion for King Philip II of Spain as the altarpiece to the Royal Church of El Escorial. The Theban Legion was composed of 6,000 Christian men from Upper Egypt from the third century who were led by St. Maurice. When the saint and his men refused to sacrifice to idols as commanded by Emperor Maximian Herculius, all were decapitated. Maurice and two fellow officers encouraged their soldiers not to lose faith as they were being martyred, which is the moment depicted by El Greco. In the painting, angels above hold palms of martyrdom and await the men's souls in heaven. El Greco deemphasized the horror of the scene by placing the executions in the middle ground and decreasing considerably the scale of the figures in that portion of the painting. Philip II rejected the work, though El Greco was paid for his services, and the painting was placed in storage in the Escorial basement. El Greco did not obtain further royal commissions; his unique style may have proved too progressive for his patron.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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