There’s an old bromide that says, even when experts agree, they can be wrong. Trite, but true. Consider the case of a painting verified as an El Greco by Ximo Company, an art professor at the University of Lleida in Catalonia, Spain, and researcher Mariona Navarro, founder of the Prado Museum’s Technical Documentation Cabinet. Then reckon that scholarship with Fernando Marías, an art professor at the Universidad Autonoma, Madrid, who thinks the attribution is a big mistake.

Big find

The Observer cited a story in the Spanish newspaper El Pais that tells of a tiny privately-owned painting, measuring just little more than 22 inches of Christ in a crown of thorns bearing a cross, recently authenticated as a true El Greco.

The validation came after a two-year study at the University of Lleida. The analysis consisted of comparing the painting to El Greco’s work at the Prado in Madrid and the El Greco Museum in Toledo.

Proof positive

To further make the case, The Observer noted that the newly authenticated work resembles the El Greco painting Christ Carrying the Cross at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Particular characteristics of the painting are said to have aided researchers in reaching their conclusion. Ximo Company suggested that the small painting could have been used as a model for larger canvases. But because it’s too finished to be a sketch, he thinks it more likely that it was made for a nobleman or clergyman.

In doubt

But wait. This story about a new-found El Greco may not be as solid as the University of Lleida scholars think it is.

The Art Newspaper points to another art scholar in Spain who pooh-poohs the verification. Fernando Marías, an art history professor at the Universidad Autonoma, Madrid, told The Art Newspaper a different story. He said that while he's only seen the pictures in El País, he doubts the painting is by El Greco because "the mouth is terrible, so are the cross, hands and signature."

What’s more, Marias said the painting had no provenance.

He calls the attribution “wishful thinking at best." He also questioned the research because it did include published radiographs. "I won’t trust it until I see all the materials they could have gathered."

Missing piece

But here’s the thing. I saw the same pictures in El Pais and Twitter that Marias saw, but he didn’t see what I saw – the obvious flaw in the verification argument.

If you compare the Met’s El Greco’s painting of Christ carrying the cross with the newly attributed painting, it varies from the Met’s version in a very noticeable way - in the stormy sky in the background.

Look and see

Unlike other Renaissance painters of religious subjects who use landscapes in the background, El Greco was known for his storm skies, complete with streaks of lightning. And the one in question is not as convincing as the one at the Met, which describes fiery, flashing colors that seem to reflect the impending doom. The sky in the so-called El Greco is too uncertain, too faint.

I’m surprised that none of the scholars at the University of Lleida picked up on that, especially since the Met painting was used as one of their proofs.

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