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Weaving threads of light and points of style

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Most of El Greco's known paintings could have been painted by no one else. His flamboyant, ecstatic vision and his surging brushwork depicted a world in which ordinary men and women were transformed by an ethereal saintliness: they became lofty beings, dignified by his unusual sense of otherwordly grace. Events -- most of them Biblical or at least pious -- were never mere stories of happenings confined to a human realm: they trailed clouds of glory. Nativities, crucifixions, pietas, resurrections and miracles were visualized as cosmic revelations: the celestial reaches opened wide and were filled with heavenly multitudes.

On the face of it, however, "Fabula" is surprisingly untypical of his art. It has been dismissed as not much more than a glimpse of El Greco's early inclinations, scarcely connected with his later works. During the 1560s and part of the 1570s this Cretan-born painter worked in Italy, first under the tutelate of Titian, and then in Rome.

"Fabula" originated during these preparatory years and shows the clear influence of Jacopo Bassano, a Venetian painter of genre subjects which often included both peasants and candlelight effects. Two other existing versions of "Fabula," as well as some separate paintings of the central boy alone, lighting his candle, were made while the artist was still in Italy, but the example shown here, which is certainly the most complete and resolved of this treatments of the subject, was produced sometime between 1585 and 1590 -- well after he had moved to Toledo in Spain -- at a time when he was painting some of his most individual and mature pictures. So it is evident that the unknown subject of this enigmatic picture was not just an early, passing interest, but intrigued the painter over a long period, suggesting either that it was popular with clients or -- since he was apparently not short of work -- that it was, for him, a seminal and privately important study, of significance to the development of his art.

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