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El Greco at the Metropolitan Museum
Information about the first major retrospective in more than twenty years devoted to the great sixteenth-century painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541–1614)—known to posterity as El Greco—on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 11, 2004.

Thomas Merton on St. John of the Cross
El Greco was painting in Toledo when St. John of the Cross was in prison there...

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EL GRECO'S MYSTICAL VISION

Allowing no division between the material and spiritual, El Greco's art was rooted in his personal vision, and the mysticism of the Catholic Counter Reformation.

View of ToledoEl Greco
October 7, 2003-January 11, 2004
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Special Exhibition Galleries, 2nd floor
New York, N.Y.

Who is Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) and why are people lined up outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to see his work?

Theotocopoulos, more popularly known as El Greco (Spanish for "the Greek") was a Cretan-born painter, sculptor, and architect who studied in Renaissance Italy and did much of his most famous work in Spain.

The enigmatic and unique nature of his work allows almost everyone to have their own "El Greco." His fluid style is a synthesis of Greek, Italian and Spanish influences and his rapturous images are claimed by each of these national traditions of painting. He has been described as a "proto-Modernist," influential on the likes of Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky, and Franz Marc, who recognized El Greco's art as having "inner mystical construction," and he may even be hailed as a Post-Modernist. While the impact of his work is timeless, El Greco's vision was rooted in his personal experiences, and the religious climate of the Catholic Counter Reformation.

Although his family may have been part of a Roman Catholic minority on the Mediterranean island of Crete, El Greco was trained in the Orthodox Greek Byzantine tradition of icon painting, which had a life-long effect on his work. One cannot fully understand El Greco's art without examining the theology of the icon. The icon is held by the believer to be an agent of communion between the worshiper and that which is represented. Before the icon, there is a moment of encounter between the terrestrial and celestial. The icon mediates the presence and power of God to the worshiper. This theology is evident in El Greco's art—the temporal is represented as sanctified and the sacred is made accessible.

Around 1566-67, El Greco traveled to Venice, which then controlled Crete and was under the sway of the Byzantine tradition (the Crusaders had carted off many of Byzantium's treasures to Venice). There the painter was likely a pupil of Titian, and influenced by Veronese and Tintoretto. Around 1570, El Greco went to Rome in search of patronage. A major achievement of his Roman sojourn is Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, (c. 1570), now in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. El Greco had painted this subject before and would return to it again (there are four versions in the Met exhibit). This biblical story was popular with the Counter Reformation movement, suggesting that El Greco had, at least by this date, identified with the Roman church, who imagined Christ driving out merchants from the temple as symbolic of the Church purifying itself from the Protestant heresy (there may be an element of irony in this, since the Reformation was motivated in part by outrage against the Pope's sale of indulgences).

El Greco's return again and again to the same subject, with only minor, but significant, compositional alterations, may be evidence of his training in the Byzantine school of icon painting, where artists are discouraged from deviating from the established model. However, the architectural setting of this version of Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, which has both Venetian and Roman elements, shows El Greco's attempt to assimilate Italian Renaissance systems of perspective. And his interest in anatomical studies is seen in the torsos of the two men turning away from Christ's whip. At the lower right of the image, El Greco has included portraits of four Renaissance artists: Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio, and Raphael (and perhaps Corregio or even a self-portrait). We can presume this is a statement of admiration. However, El Greco eventually found himself out of step with late Renaissance Italian tastes. His offer to repaint Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was rejected, and he moved to Spain in hopes of more commissions.

By 1577, El Greco was in Toledo, a center of religious reform in Spain, where he remained for the rest of his life. At a time when pure landscape painting, devoid of human activity, was a rarity, El Greco's View of Toledo, (c.1597-99, see image at top), is a milestone in the history of art. The large scale of this work would normally have been reserved for a subject of religious, historical, and political significance. The painting's composition leads us across the landscape to where the city rises up through the hills, finally culminating in the church tower that thrusts our eye into the sky. An artist known for his use of color, El Greco has here restricted himself to green, a bluish gray, and grayish blue (in addition to black and white), and yet he achieves something extraordinary. There is an intense drama, even struggle, taking place between areas of light and darkness that seems to begin deep within the work and slowly rise to the surface. The areas of green-a neutral color associated in our mind with the landscape-becomes a stage on which the drama unfolds. The protagonists are, on the one side, areas of blue and black and, on the other, the lighter areas of gray and white. The impression is one of a brilliant-an effect heightened by the painting's overall muted tones-penetrating the darkness. One can go further and suggest that in El Greco's View of Toledo, the darkness is banished by the divine light, just as Christ drove the merchants from the temple. Although its subject is secular, View of Toledo has an undeniably spiritual, even apocalyptic, dimension. The work has an air of expectation, that something has begun to unfold, the main act is about to reveal itself, and the whole earth is being transformed into a temple, the new Jerusalem.

View of Toledo is one of the masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in this exhibit is joined by works from all over the world chronicling El Greco's work from his Cretan, Italian, and Spanish periods. Given the diverse influences upon his art, and the varied interpretations of his work, one of the surprising aspects of El Greco's work revealed in this show is the overall sense of unity that he was able to create within particular works and across his oeuvre. The central element responsible for this unity is El Greco's use of light and shadow. Any art school student knows that the way to create the illusion of a unified space, in a room, in a still-life, in a landscape, is to suggest that all of the parts are bathed in light from a single source. View of Toledo does not obey this rule; some areas are brightly lit while others are in deep shadows in ways that do not make rational sense. The impression that El Greco creates is that the light within his work is active rather than stable. That it moves, like the Holy Spirit, in, through, and around space.

As with his use of light, El Greco deviated from the Renaissance rules of anatomical observation. The Resurrection, from the late 1590's, shows the style of elongated figures for which El Greco is famous.

The Resurrection



Part of a multi-part, three-level, altarpiece for the church Colegio de Doña María de Aragón in Madrid, a high point in El Greco's career, this resurrection panel shows Christ glorified. Hovering in the upper region of the work, Christ appears nearly motionless. Below him are a group of shocked, amazed, even terrified soldiers assigned to guard his tomb. As they tumble in every direction, creating the impression they might fall from their place in the second-tier of the altarpiece, onto the viewer, we are reminded that Christ has just burst forth from the tomb in an amazing demonstration of power and presence. El Greco translates this sense of energy into paint so that, standing before this work that towers above us, we feel the jolt of Christ's triumphant ascendance from the tomb and the awe of his suspension in the air.

There are markings around the edges and at the top of this resurrection panel that indicate it was part of the architectural structure of an altarpiece; areas that would have been covered by the rounded arch of this frame are left unpainted. These remind us that this painting was meant to be engaged in a liturgical setting for the purposes of worship. To encounter it in a museum, or on a page, radically alters the work. The Orthodox theology in which El Greco was trained teaches that the icon finds its meaning and reason for being only through worship. The unique style that El Greco developed was not guided by ornamental concerns, but rather to more effectively direct the worshiper in their engagement with the divine.

The visual language El Greco created to inspire the worshiper is still spiritually and aesthetically moving to modern viewers. His flame-like figures are rapturous, they shed their earth-bound constraints. Although he could paint with any degree of realism that he desired, he preferred to idealize, as seen in his elongated figures. In El Greco's art, everything on earth is in a state of ascension and everything in heaven is poured out like the spirit on Pentecost. El Greco's vision was driven by the spirit, rather than the eye, and by an intense mystical fervor, which has been dubiously attributed to some optical defect or even a form of "madness."

Many of El Greco's works reflect the mysticism and religious fervor of the Catholic revival taking place in Spain under the influence of the impassioned preaching of Saint Ignatious of Loyola. El Greco's art has been also compared to the poetry of Spanish mystics Saint Teresa of Ávila, and Saint John of the Cross, who described his spiritual vision of being united to God as "The Living Flame of Love." El Greco's art appeals directly to the individual and, although there is always an element of spiritual mystery in his work, it is not cryptic. His religious works focus on moments of passion, worship, repentance, and purification. Although some scholars have sought to distance El Greco from the mystical climate of sixteenth-century Spain, the works speak for themselves of a vibrant faith that is personal and passionate.

The work of a devout Catholic, El Greco's art reaffirms the faith of the church which, during the artist's lifetime, was going through significant reforms. The Council of Trent, first summoned by Pope Paul III in 1542 to respond to the Protestant Reformation, convened for a twenty-fifth session in December of 1563 and addressed the issue of the visual arts. Addressing Protestant accusations of idolatry, they directed that:

"...the images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints are to be placed and retained especially in the churches, and that due honor and veneration is to be given them; not, however, that any divinity or virtue is believed to be in them by reason of which they are to be venerated, or that something is to be asked of them, or that trust is to be placed in images, as was done of old by the Gentiles who placed their hope in idols; but because the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which they represent, so that by means of the images which we kiss and before which we uncover the head and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ and venerate the saints whose likeness they bear....

Moreover, let the bishops diligently teach that by means of the stories of the mysteries of our redemption portrayed in paintings and other representations the people are instructed and confirmed in the articles of faith, which ought to be borne in mind and constantly reflected upon; also that great profit is derived from all holy images, not only because the people are thereby reminded of the benefits and gifts bestowed on them by Christ, but also because through the saints the miracles of God and salutary examples are set before the eyes of the faithful, so that they may give God thanks for those things, may fashion their own life and conduct in imitation of the saints and be moved to adore and love God and cultivate piety."

That El Greco was aware of this directive, issued while he was still a young artist in Crete, is confirmed by a copy of the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, translated into Greek, listed in an inventory of his library. Tridentine re-affirmation of the Roman church is evident in such works as St. Peter in Tears. Here we see the penitent Peter, mourning both the death of Christ and his own denial of his master. Although he does not hold his usual keys, El Greco has situated Peter in front of a rock, even blurring the distinction between the two, reminding us of Christ words to Peter, recorded in Matthew 16:18, that Peter would be a rock upon which the church would be built. While the Roman church held that the Pope was the successor to Peter as the foundation of the church as the means of redemption, Protestant leaders, like Martin Luther, saw in St. Paul's epistles a doctrine of justification through faith alone.

At a moment when the Western church was being torn in half, El Greco affirms Peter's personal devotion to Christ. However, he holds up Peter not as a figure for worship but rather imitation. Peter does not look out at the viewer but rather acts as a prototype for us. His tearful eyes look up into the parting clouds of heaven directing our veneration to God. El Greco has divided the composition diagonally in half, from the lower left to upper right. One side is dominated by darkness and the other light; like many of El Greco's works St. Peter in Tears holds these two conflicting elements in a delicate tension. Our eye is drawn along the line dividing these forces until we reach the face of Peter at which point we turn away from darkness and enter the realm of glory. The theme of St. Peter in Tears is repentance, a repentance that is more than a regret of past action. It is, rather, a reorientation towards future action in a new direction. El Greco captures this understanding of repentance by designing a composition that literally causes us to turn away from our path and change course, back towards the mystical light in the upper left region of the work. The theology of this work is clear: Peter, and by extension the Church, may have faltered in the past, but he is moving in the right direction and remains the point where heaven and earth meet.

El Greco's art allows for no division between the material and spiritual. As a matter of formal construction, lines seem not to exist in this work. El Greco professed little appreciation for drawing; instead, he sets forms of color next to each other, vibrating off one another, often blurring transitions of space, particularly vertical and spiritual divisions. This allows for a very fluid movement of the eye around works such as Adoration of the Shepherds, (c. 1612-14), one of El Greco's last paintings, destined for an altar in the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo where the artist was buried (his body and painting have since been removed from the church to separate places.)

Adoration of the Shephards

The work is a symphony of color, where harmony and beauty are established by El Greco's use of blues, grays and whites that cycle the worshiper's eye around the composition. The infant Christ is himself the point from which all of the light in the work emanates. This painting-which may contain a self-portrait in the guise of the foreground shepherd-is a fitting summation of El Greco's life and work. It's subject represents the adoration his art was meant to evoke.

Although much veneration has been directed towards the artist, it's clear from El Greco's work that he saw himself as merely a vessel through which the spirit might move, his art drawing us into the light of Christ, so that we would see all things by and through it. El Greco was no Romantic, in the Modern sense; he does not encourage the viewer to look inward, as if our dark hearts held the key to anything good, but rather continually redirects our sight towards the one who is light itself.

El Greco's approach-distortions of form, unnatural direction of cast shadows, shifting points of view, rejection of natural perspective, uncreated light and spiritual energy reverberating through reality-gives his work a dynamism that resonates even in the present. El Greco had no followers, although he had a sizable studio of assistants and a son who was also an artist, because no one could emulate such a unique style without being a mere copyist.

After his death, El Greco remained in relative obscurity until the nineteenth century. Today his immense popularity means the exhibition at the Met is almost always crowded (it's best to visit early in the morning or late in the evening). And, if the El Greco retrospective leaves you still wanting more, the Frick Collection, just a few blocks south of the Metropolitan Museum, has several outstanding works by El Greco, including a fifth version of the Purification of the Temple, (c.1600).

Art Credits:

Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco 1541-1614)

View of Toledo, about 1597-9
Oil on canvas
47-3/4 x 42-3/4 in. (121.3 x 108.6 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
H.O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer, 29.100.6
(c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo 1992

The Resurrection, late 1590s
Oil on canvas
108-1/4 x 50 in. (275 x 127 cm)
Nacional del Prado, Madrid
inv. 825
(c) Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Adoration of the Shepherds, about 1612-14
Oil on canvas
125-1/2 x 70-7/8 in. (319 x 180 cm)
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
inv. 2988
(c) Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

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October 22, 2003

James Romaine is an art historian, and the author of "Objects of Grace: Conversations on Creativity and Faith."

Copyright 2003, James Romaine. All rights reserved.

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10.22.03   Godspy says:
Allowing no division between the material and spiritual, El Greco's art was rooted in his personal vision, and the mysticism of the Catholic Counter Reformation.

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