The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: November 21, 2003
El Greco at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
By Leo J. ODonovan
Hanging beyond the doorway to the fourth gallery of the El Greco exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Louvres great Crucifixion with Two Donors (about 1580) calls us toward itself as though all the church bells in Toledo were tolling. Three or so years earlier, the artist had settled in that primatial see of Spain, having failed to win favor first in Italy and then at the court of Philip II in Madrid. The two donors, a priest and a nobleman, are rendered in a direct, naturalistic style. They gaze reverently up toward the Crucified, whose elegant, long figure seems more like a vision of trusting surrender rather than of suffering. And the magnificent darkening sky behind the cross is like none youve ever seen -- yet more like sky than any youve ever seen.
This is El Greco coming assuredly into his own. In 1577, he signed a contract for The Disrobing of Christ, which hangs in the sacristy of Toledo Cathedral, and then for three altarpieces for the Cistercian convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. From this second commission we have the main altars The Assumption of the Virgin, now one of the great treasures in the Art Institute of Chicago, above which was The Trinity, now in the Prado, and between them a sculptured wooden Escutcheon with Saint Veronicas Veil, which a private collection has lent to the Met. In these first Toledan years, removed from the royal court, El Greco embraced the intense philosophical, literary and religious conversation of a city that had become a crucible of reform, according to David Davies, the London scholar who organized the exhibition. He would be part of that conversation until his death in 1614, a great philosopher [who] wrote on painting, sculpture and architecture and was singular in everything, as he was in painting, said Francisco Pacheco, Velázquezs master.
Born in 1541 in Candia, the capital of the Venetian colony of Crete, Domenikos Theotokopoulos studied the post-Byzantine style of painting icons (three examples introduce the exhibit) and remained influenced by it throughout his life. By 1568 he had arrived in Venice, where Tintoretto, Bassano and especially Titian impressed him deeply. Arriving in Rome in 1570, he admired Correggio and Parmigianino and seems to have had the temerity to criticize Michelangelos Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. His struggle nevertheless to combine Michelangelesque form with Venetian color is evident in early variations on themes that he treated repeatedly, Christ Healing the Blind, for example, or The Purification of the Temple (the first example of which includes portraits of Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio and Raphael in the lower right corner). That this as-yet-unresolved tension could produce beautiful work is evident in The Annunciation (mid-1570s) from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, but notice the Virgins awkwardly unlovely hands and the angels oddly positioned wings.
The central thrust of the artists career first becomes fully apparent at the exhibition in two versions of The Adoration of the Name of Jesus from the late 1570s. Neither ranks with his best work, but each shows a bold determination to reach from earth to heaven and to show the eternal goal of temporal existence. Reflecting an iconographic tradition based on Philippians 2:9-11 that combines a final judgment scene with an adoration, the paintings gather a great throng, including the Doge of Venice, Pius V and Phillip II (for whom the original was probably intended), beneath a choir of angels who worship the trigraph IHS. A technician uncrating the canvas at the Met is said to have exclaimed, He used all the crayons in the box.
As El Greco became more established in Toledo, his style changed noticeably. In the paintings of this period, his figures become more elongated and two-dimensional, color is used more expressively and with greater contrast, Renaissance perspective and proportion are put aside. With less concern for naturalistic settings, the spiritual reality of the presented subject comes to the fore, appealing unabashedly to the devotion of the beholder. (This was also the age of Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, and Ignatius of Loyolas Spiritual Exercises.) In contrast to Titians Christ Carrying the Cross (about 1565), El Grecos treatment of the subject from the 1580s shows not a suffering Jesus falling to the ground but a serene Savior looking with trust toward heaven. Still more typical of the period is the great Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-8) from the Church of Santo Tomé in Toledo, in which the realistically rendered company of faithful mourners seems wholly at home beneath the company of saints gathered around a luminously radiant Christ. The great work could not travel to New York, but if youve ever seen it, you may remember it with awe in Gallery 4.
The 1590s brought a further intensification of the artists aesthetic. Figures are longer still, colors more brilliant, natural space all but eliminated. From Washingtons National Gallery of Art two much-loved paintings represent the style well, Saint Martin and the Beggar and The Virgin and Child with Saints Martina (or Thecla?) and Agnes, commissioned together in 1597-1599. In the former, behind the gently rendered icon of Christian charity, we notice one of the artists first background depictions of Toledo. In the latter, the reverent movement from the saints in the foreground to the sovereign Madonna and Child above is seamless -- except that there is no foreground, really, in eternity. The Prados Resurrection, from the last years of the decade, represents it perfectly. Here the calm, commanding risen Christ, radiating light and hope, looks directly at the viewer as he soars beyond the earth-bound tomb guards. Neither tomb nor landscape is represented. A reality transcending time and space, all but impossible to represent visually, is felt as having supreme importance, not least for the muscular soldier in the yellow cuirass sprawled at the bottom of the painting with his unavailing drawn sword.
The artists late work, one of the two special strengths of the exhibition, is more visionary still. Mannerisms concern for graceful beauty has all been left behind. There is no interest in natural setting or time of day. (An understandable exception is the Diocesan Museum in Cuencas reprise, between 1600-1605, of The Toledo Museums even greater Agony in the Garden 10 years earlier.) Figures stretch into flames, colors approach the intensity of stained glass. We are drawn not to the external world around us but into the artists devout imagination -- especially in the soaring Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (between 1608 and 1613), which centers the last gallery, and The Adoration of the Shepherds (about 1612-1614), which he painted to hang above his own tomb.
The second great strength of the show is its unparalleled collection of portraits. Perhaps it was a mistake to separate them from the chronological flow of the other paintings, but one sees immediately why Velázquez said they could not be praised enough. In the course of his life, El Greco painted occasional genre pictures, classical scenes and landscapes (above all, the Mets great View of Toledo of 1597-99). But portraiture compelled him regularly, and with regularly striking results. Here we have an affectionate image of his patron Giulio Clovio from the early 1570s; the unique Lady in a Fur Wrap from later in the decade (who may be his mistress, Jerónima de las Cuevas, and the mother of his son -- and may also be from another painters hand); the elderly gentleman known fondly at the Prado simply as Un Caballero (late 1580s or 1590s); the artists best friend, whom he called a miracle of nature, Antonio de Covarrubias (about 1600); and a debonair image of his son, Jorge Manuel (about 1600-1605). Ranking near the pinnacle of all portraiture, however, are his canvases of A Cardinal (probably Cardinal Niño de Guevara) (1600-1601) and Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino (about 1609). You may not want to have spent much time with the cardinal, but you will never forget him. The polymath Trinitarian friar, on the other hand, rendered with astonishing economy, is presented as beguiling in every way.
Though the creator of these and so many other masterworks came early to be known as El Greco, he continued to sign his canvases with his original Greek name, suggesting his status as a wayfarer in the world. After being rediscovered in the 19th century, he has been deeply admired by artists such as Delacroix, Sargent, Matisse, Picasso and Pollock. Scholarship since the last great retrospective in the United States at the National Gallery of Art in 1982 has helped us to understand him, however, not only as a proto-modernist but as a man of his own time. And I believe that we can now see that what distinguishes him supremely is the degree to which he put his art at the service of undoubted faith. Critics generally speak of how he dematerializes his figures. And John Updike has said that he misses in El Grecos images of Christ a sense of a walking-around Jesus, a man among others. The figures have not so much lost their weight, however, or Christ his ordinary humanity. Rather, all have been boldly imagined as they may be not in another world (heaven above) but in the eternal life of the communion of saints. It is not the soul of Jesus but the whole Christ whom the gospel proclaims risen, and not our souls but our whole selves who hope for a share in that risen life. No painter has risked more to show what spiritual transformation might be, nor what it means to say with Paul that what is sown a physical body is raised a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44).
Just look at the painting of Christ as Savior from early in the artists last great period, and see how the vertical thrust of the ecstatically religious paintings intersects with the horizontal of the portraits. Where else would one expect the mediation of day-to-day existence and its ultimate goal? The painting seems as much an act of faith as an artistic achievement. It is hard not to think that El Greco knew his subject personally.
El Greco will remain at the Met until Jan. 11, 2004, after which it will travel to The National Gallery, London.
Jesuit Fr. Leo J. ODonovan is president emeritus of Georgetown University. A former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, he has published frequently on art as well as theology.
National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 2003
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