Believed to be El Greco’s first commission by the Spanish King Philip II, this painting is considered to be an allegory of the Holy League of 1571, formed by Spain, Venice, and the papacy against the Ottomans. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, widespread devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus reinforced the League’s mission (Blunt 1939: 58–68).
In the upper register, angels and saints hovering on clouds adore a shining Christogram, ‘IHS’ (from the Greek ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, ‘Jesus’). The left of the lower register exhibits faithful members of the church militant, including portraits of Pope Pius V, King Philip II, and the Doge of Venice, among others. They are kneeling in awe of the sign above, ‘the name that is above every name’ (Philippians 2:9). Juxtaposed at the lower right, the gaping jaws of an enormous sea monster swallow the dead amidst burning flames, and in the background, souls appear under an archway through which they enter purgatory, though some fall into the fiery lake of the beast (Revelation 19:20).
The prominent depiction of death and hell in this painting is graphic and evocative, but the inclusion of the Leviathan is not unprecedented in scenes of the Last Judgement. The sea monster’s long visual history as a symbol of death or hell can be traced all the way back to the earliest Christian iconography, where it appears in connection with Jonah. In El Greco’s painting, a deliverance like Jonah’s is the reward of the faithful and repentant.
In the Gospels, Jesus repudiates those of his generation who are looking for a sign; their faith is much weaker than the Ninevites, who repented at the preaching of Jonah after his deliverance from the sea monster (Jonah 3:5). The importance of a faith which does not rely on visible proof or miraculous signs is reflected in El Greco’s painting, with the adoration of Christ’s name rather than his figure. Jesus refuses to give the people the sign they demand, but instead reveals to them a different kind of sign—a typological one: ‘For just as Jonah was … so will the Son of Man be (Matthew 12:39).
In El Greco’s painting, the risen Word beckons, while a fearsome death in the gaping maw of hell looms threateningly nearby. The prayers of the adoring faithful are thus given a sense of urgency and import, lest we forget the significance of Christ’s salvation.
Blunt, Anthony. 1939. ‘El Greco's “Dream of Philip II”: An Allegory of the Holy League’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 3.1/2: 58–69
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Ninʹeveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
16 And the Pharisees and Sadʹducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ 3And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.
29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Ninʹeveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation. 31The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32The men of Ninʹeveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.