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El Greco Paintings Lead Toward 'City of God'
By Nora HamermanSpecial to the Herald (From the issue of 12/4/03)

On Oct. 7, the feast day of the Holy Rosary, an exhibition honoring El Greco opened at New York City?s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show, on view until Jan. 11, 2004, brought the "Year of the Rosary" declared by Pope John Paul II to a fitting end. Not only was El Greco a consummate painter of so many Mysteries of the Rosary, but his work offers a unique bridge between the widely different Christian traditions that meet in this beautiful devotion.

His incandescent colors, unlike those of any other artist, and the spiritualization of his people and landscapes have made El Greco one of the most popular of European "old masters," especially since his highly emotional style struck a chord with modern artists.

Unlike many of his modern admirers, though, El Greco lived and died as a devout Catholic, and as the exhibition catalogue documents, he gave expression to the cherished teachings of the Church at a time when Christendom was internally torn by the Protestant rebellion and threatened from the outside by the Turkish armies.

Exhibition curator David Davies, who has studied the artist for decades, proves that El Greco fulfilled the spiritual needs of the Catholic Reform movement springing out of the Council of Trent, which had been taken place during his youth.

El Greco was a 30-year-old artist in Rome when the Christian armies, combined in the Holy League, defeated the Turkish forces at Lepanto on Oct. 7, 1571. Crediting the historic victory, which saved Europe from immanent Muslim conquest, to the rosary prayed by the Christian faithful across Europe, Pope Pius V named Oct. 7 as the feast day of the Virgin of the Rosary.

Although the nickname "El Greco" (Italian for "the Greek") stuck to the artist all his life, he always signed his work with his real name, Domenikos (belonging to the Lord) Theotokopoulos (whose root means "Mother of God") in the Greek of his native Crete. He was born in 1541 and trained to be a painter of religious icons. Crete was a colony of the Italian city-state republic of Venice, and a relaxed interchange between Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic rites had prevailed on the island during his youth, heralding El Greco?s future role as an artist who stretched the limits of two artistic traditions. In 1567 he moved to Venice and in 1570 to Rome.

Two of the young Cretan?s early icons have been found and are in the New York show. He quickly conquered new artistic domains: the style of Titian in Venice and of Michelangelo in Rome. From Italy Domenikos Theotokopoulos moved to Spain and was perhaps hoping to work for King Philip II on the royal monastery at Escorial then under construction. The king commissioned him to paint the "Adoration of the Name of Jesus," in 1576.

Victory at Lepanto Celebrated

This incandescent picture is based on the text of St. Paul?s Epistle to the Philippians: "That at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things under the earth; and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father."

The panel shows angels, earthly authorities, and the inhabitants of the underworld submitting to the Holy Name, represented by the monogram IHS, a Latin abbreviation of the name of Jesus in Greek. The adoration of the name is combined with two other themes, the Last Judgment and the Triumph of the Holy League.

To the right, the yawning jaws of the Leviathan swallowing up the damned in hell, while in the center background El Greco brushed the fires of Purgatory, and behind the Holy League leaders he sketched the resurrection of the Blessed. In the upper realm, adoring angels encircle a glowing vision of the Holy Name, while below to the left, kneeling on the carpet are the principal leaders of the Holy League that defeated the Turks in 1571: Pope Pius V, King Philip II of Spain, and Doge Mocenigo, leader of the Venetian Republic. The military figure is thought to be Don Juan of Austria, the commander of the Holy League?s Fleet.

Although El Greco failed to win commissions from Philip II, another door opened. He went on to become the reigning artist of the ancient city of Toledo until his death in 1614. Toledo was the Spanish hotbed of religious reformers who admired the Dutch Catholic thinker Erasmus. These reformers, including some of the most admired saints of the 16th century, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, opposed the doctrines of racial purity that were unhappily gaining currency in Spain. They preached the purification of the Church by imitating Jesus and by the devout use of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. El Greco was personally close to Toledan leaders of these reform movements, and they influenced his work.

For example, El Greco followed St. Teresa?s lead in seeing St. Joseph as a vigorous man of middle age who protects Jesus and hence, the Church. He is one of the first artists to extensively portray The Holy Family and to give St. Joseph his paramount importance.

Icons Transformed

In the tradition of Greek icon, pictures are not meant to create illusions of natural reality. Rather, the iconographer "dematerializes" the natural world of appearances to transport the soul toward heaven. Typically, the icon progresses from an earthy region at the bottom toward the purely ethereal at the top of the panel. Colors symbolize this progression from muddy to brilliant.

While adopting western techniques of perspective and drawing, El Greco kept this model of the icon through his career. Also, as he matured, the flame-like appearance of his figures and the vertical thrust of the compositions became more and more accented, along with brilliant colors that are kept pure and translucent like stained glass.

Yet in his masterful portraits, El Greco did not follow this "icon-like" approach, but portrayed his sitter?s features and psychology with fierce realism. He knew mysticism, but El Greco was not a mystic. He was, surprisingly, a partaker of that famous Spanish realism that we know in literature from his contemporary Cervantes (who, by the way, was proud to have fought at Lepanto) and in art from Velasquez and Murillo, later painters who imbibed the Cretan-born artist?s portrait techniques.

Often his two styles are juxtaposed to show that the split between spiritual and physical is only healed by the miracle of Christ?s sacrifice.

The Mother of God

Another facet of El Greco?s art that defended Catholic doctrine, is found in his many paintings of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose special role in redemption had been denied by Protestant teachings. As the recipient of grace, as the Mother of God and as the Immaculate Conception ? a beloved teaching in Spain although not yet declared a dogma ? an ideally beautiful Mary reigns in many of El Greco?s altarpieces.

In his "Nativity" of 1612-14, an aging Theotokopoulos painted himself as a shepherd kneeling before the Mother of God, "Theotokos" in Greek. It was most appropriate because this painting was destined to hang above the artist?s own tomb.

Besides altarpieces, El Greco created smaller devotional paintings like his "Mater Dolorosa" (1590s, Strasbourg Museum), where the Virgin of Sorrows looks directly out at the viewer. This harks back to the tradition that icons had a mystical presence: not only do the faithful look at the icon, but the icon has eyes to look upon the faithful. This particular image evokes the "Salve

Regina" prayer which pleads to Mary, "Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us."

Although he never painted a full cycle of the Rosary, El Greco favored the episodes of the Gospel that portray Christ?s salvific role, coinciding with the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries, rather than narratives of His life. Among his paintings of Jesus on view in New York, are scenes of the miraculous infancy (Annunciation, Visitation and Nativity), the Passion (Agony in the Garden, Carrying the Cross and the Crucifixion), and the glorification of Christ.

The dazzler may be the famous "Resurrection" owned by the Prado Museum, one of six panels from a huge altarpiece for an Augustinian monastery in Madrid. Was El Greco trying to paint the "Living Flame of Love" described by St. John of the Cross?

The exhibition is a faith-enhancing experience. Any Catholic interested in theology or Church history will enjoy devouring Davies?s impressive scholarship. Davies sums it up at the end of his catalogue essay on El Greco?s religious art: "To El Greco and the spiritual reformers, life was a pilgrimage. Its quest was the City of God." Times, of course, have changed; but the timeless quest of El Greco has not faded one bit.

Copyright ?2003 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

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