El Greco at the Met

There is simply no mistaking an El Greco. But once you identify it, do you really look at it? That is precisely the challenge facing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ambitious retrospective (more than eighty pieces, including icons, paintings, and two small sculptures) of the work of Doménikos Theotókopoulos (1541-1614), on view in New York through January 11. The Met devotes seven well-lit salons to this expatriate Greek’s portraits, landscapes, and studies of the mystical life. It will have the veils dropping from many eyes.

El Greco was and remained an outsider. Born in Crete when it was a Venetian protectorate, he began as an icon painter. The exhibit opens with two of his earliest works, classic Byzantine-style icons depicting St. Luke painting the Virgin and Child, and Mary at the hour of her death. These early treasures are beautifully displayed and set the tone for all that follows. They convey the artist’s serious, lifelong attraction to religious subjects, and hint at his later, trademark elongated figures (a feature that came to the fore in his forties). They also introduce us to his signature in Greek, which he employed throughout his career.

At age twenty-six, Doménikos left his native island and Orthodox roots for Venice. The great republic was in its political and artistic heyday. He remained there for three years, and came under the influence of Titian and Tintoretto. The opulence, light, and ambiance he encountered in Venice jump from his subsequent paintings, adding new subject matter, the use of perspective, and a dynamism that pulls the viewer into his scenes.

In the exhibit’s second room, side by side, the Met presents two depictions of Jesus healing a blind man in a courtyard, and one of Jesus driving moneychangers from the Temple. Viewing the three at once is like watching the sequence on a digital camera-the settings are similar, the colors repeat-but as you zero in, each frame reveals its distinctive secrets. The Met has tipped you off on how best to read El Greco: he sometimes repeats but is infinitely variable.

From Venice, the young artist moved down through Italy to Rome, where (1570-76) he was introduced to the powerful Farnese family, the intrigues of the papal court, and the architecture of the city. The Roman Church had just completed the Council of Trent (1545-63), and the so-called Catholic Reformation/Counter Reformation was in full sail. In 1571, Venice and the Papal States joined a coalition of the willing under the mighty Philip II of Spain, and defeated the Turks at Lepanto. It was a heady time to be in Rome, and El Greco came under the influence not only of Michelangelo but of the elegant new Mannerism that followed and issued a generation later into the Baroque. Still, his personal fortunes foundered and he was drawn to the court of Philip II in Madrid. Philip was constructing a massive palace, the Escorial, and needed artisans. El Greco made his pitch with The Adoration of the Name of Jesus, displayed in room 3. A somewhat formulaic tableau depicting Philip II kneeling before the heavenly court in the guise of the Spanish imperium, it landed El Greco only one other royal commission. The following year, the outsider migrated to Toledo, a university town and the nation’s ecclesiastical seat, the “holy Toledo” of numerous churches and potential contracts. It was to be his home for the rest of his career.

In room 4, the artist is shown coming into his own. There is a remarkable Crucifixion, done mostly in blacks, grays, and whites, in which Jesus seems to float over two stationary figures (two kneeling donors). The clouds behind the crucified are racing-as if to announce a cataclysm-but in the midst Christ seems fully at peace.

You might call room 4 the cloud room. All its paintings-whether depicting saints, the Holy Family, the Annunciation, or the Resurrection-are set outside, with the sky in constant play. Picasso remarked that El Greco was a cubist in structure, and here you sense it unmistakably in the massive formations that sweep the planes of Spain. In a vertical representation of St. Martin of Tours, for example, the officer divides his cloak for a beggar outside the walls of Toledo. Martin met Christ in the man, and it changed his life. Here, clad in black armor and astride a white stallion, Martin covers the dark-skinned beggar with his ample green robe. It falls stiffly but is softened by the artist’s use of iridescent tones. Both Martin and the beggar convey a human nobility that raises the mind and the eye to things above.

Also stunning in this room is a vertical Annunciation, dark but glimmering. The Holy Spirit, a white dove, is placed in the absolute center of the painting and banks like a small jet passing over Mary’s head. The dove bursts from and imparts a flame, and beneath Mary’s feet a small bush turns to fire, an iconic reference to the New Covenant. One thinks of El Greco’s stunning rendition of Pentecost in the Prado (not on view here), where the flames over Mary and the Apostles flash as if shot from a cannon.

The next room displays a series of portraits-some busts, some full length. El Greco’s portraits have been hailed as forerunners of those of Rembrandt and Velázquez. The two most striking here are of a cardinal inquisitor [see detail, page 16] and of a friar poet. The former is anchored in his armchair in full ecclesiastical regalia and red biretta before a golden tapestry. One of his beringed hands grips the chair, the other languidly protests the artist’s impertinence. This hierarch is the very summation of a lord high inquisitor. His mirthless eyes scan through rimmed glasses to another part of the room. He’s not looking at you, but you know he sees you. He’s the sort of comptroller general you wish had been on the board of Enron; but you’re glad he’s not your confessor.

The portrait of Fray Hortensio Felix Paravic is the obverse. A young, ascetic poet (who later dedicated a number of sonnets to El Greco), he represents what was best in seventeenth-century Spanish Catholicism: intelligence, purity, and mystical awareness marshaled in service of the good. If you can’t make it to the Met to take in his gaze, track him down at his permanent home, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Room 6 is a vestibule to the climactic final gallery, a quiet space for distinguished, sober saints. Its helpful wall inscriptions prepare you for what it calls “The Art of the Spirit,” on view in the next salon.

When you enter it, you are dazzled by the size, range of subject matter, and variety of execution presented. This is El Greco at his apex, his visual language so astute, free, and accomplished that he will stand forever as a brilliant, one-of-a-kind outsider. His landscape of Toledo is here, the city’s white walls rising above a luxuriant panorama of green and anchored beneath brooding, Mahler-like skies. Next to it, the myth of Laocoön, acted out before an even wider backdrop of Toledo, entwines Hellenic mythology with the events of El Greco’s day.

The massive, apocalyptic The Opening of the Fifth Seal [see cover detail], based on the vision of St. John (Rev 6: 9-11) is here as well. To the left, John, like a prophet of lamentation, seems to be imploring the God beyond the blood-stained clouds to avert the impending catastrophe. This is no effeminate John but a Rodin-like figure attempting to hold back the destructive tide. His cloak shimmers with a frisson of blues.

And finally, The Adoration of the Shepherds (1610), one of the largest canvasses in the exhibit, is a superb representative of light overcoming darkness. Here the infant Jesus is the light at the center, a photon who illuminates not only Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, but the angelic figures above. El Greco designed this work for his own grave, and tradition has it that the old man paying homage in the foreground is the artist himself.

There is much more to tell of this exhibit: El Greco’s influence on Picasso and Jackson Pollock, and even why his religious imitators produced so much second-rate art. Missing are two important works, his masterpiece The Burial of Count Orgaz in the church of Santo Tomé in Toledo, and The Trinity in the Prado. The latter is a divine pietà in which God the Father lifts the body of his dead Son beneath the light cast by the Spirit. The scene’s rendering of compassion is nearly overwhelming. It is a quality often conveyed in El Greco’s figures at the Met, even the more angular, dark, ethereal ones. Reintroduced to a Western master, you leave this exhibit seeing the world differently. [The El Greco show moves to London’s National Gallery from February 11 through May 23, 2004.] end

Published in the 2003-12-05 issue: 

Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

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