Portraiture is a strange tradition. Before the invention of the camera, many artists devoted a large part of their practice to creating likenesses of the rich and powerful—a convenient and consistent means of paying the bills between grander commissions for religious or history paintings. It can be easy to overlook these portraits today, once the names and histories of the sitters has been lost. Hey look, it’s another old rich guy who wanted his portrait to hang next to his old rich ancestors in a moldering manner house.
But occasionally one of these old formal portraits can still reach out from the canvas and lock eyes with you. This portrait by El Greco, along with five others, was donated to the Museo Del Prado by the widow of the Duke of Arco, Master of the Horse to King Philip the fifth of Spain. One of the first El Greco paintings to be shown at the Prado, this gentleman has become famous for his melancholy gaze and mysterious identity.
Who was this quiet knight, dressed in somber black and holding a gilded rapier? Scholar’s speculate it may have been Antonio Pérez, a secretary of Philip II, or Miguel de Cervantes. Most likely he was a nobleman named Juan de Silva y de Ribera, whose many titles give the sitter’s simple garb a baroque dignity: Second Marquis of Montemayor, Commander of the Toledo Alcázar and Chief Notary to the Crown. The key to this possible identification lays in the sitter’s hand, resting delicately over their heart. It’s typically a religious gesture, but in this portrait it may signify a solemn oath taken in service of the Spanish crown.
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Reed Enger, "The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 23, 2015; last modified March 16, 2020, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/el-greco/the-nobleman-with-his-hand-on-his-chest/.