His name was Domenikos Theotokopolous (1541-1614), but he is better known simply as El Greco—the Greek. He was one of the most original artists of his day—so much so that it took centuries for the visionary greatness of his strange work to be fully recognized.
Perhaps you have seen some of El Greco’s paintings, which are well known for their elongated figures, expressively distorted shapes, and extravagant use of color. I recently saw many of his masterpieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where a major retrospective called El Greco is on display until January 11. Here is how one nineteenth century French art critic described El Greco’s work: “There are abuses of light and dark, of violent contrasts, of singular colors, extravagant attitudes, draperies shattered and crumpled haphazardly; but in all that there presides a depraved energy, an unhealthy strength that betrays the great painter and the madness of genius” [Theophile Gautier, Voyage en Espagne, 1845].
Apart from his paintings, we know little about El Greco’s religious views. He was born on the island of Crete, and in all likelihood he was baptized into the Eastern Orthodox Church, but we do not know this for certain. For most of his artistic career he lived in Spain. We do know that he was not well received at the palace in Madrid because King Philip II considered his works to be insufficiently orthodox in their Catholicism. We also know that he did his most productive work in the Spanish city of Toledo, which was then a leading city in the Catholic Counter Reformation.
In his later years El Greco employed many figures, themes, and symbols that were characteristic of Roman Catholic piety. He even painted Cardinal Don Nino de Guevara, who was one of the Grand Inquisitors in the Spanish Inquisition. Then there is his deathbed confession, which was conventional for Catholics of his day: “I believe and confess in all that which the Holy Mother Church of Rome believes… . I profess to live and die as a good faithful Catholic Christian.”
Most of El Greco’s paintings deal with religious subjects. He is famous for large masterpieces like The Purification of the Temple or Christ Healing the Blind. However, painting biblical scenes is not necessarily a sign that El Greco had a strong commitment to Christ. Christianity dominated Renaissance Europe, and nearly all the artists of his day painted religious themes. It was simply what artists did. So we would expect an artist like El Greco to paint many images of Christ. The question is: What was his attitude toward Christ? El Greco is usually regarded as a deeply spiritual or even mystical artist. But what do his paintings tell us about his theology?
The Christ that El Greco portrays in his paintings is divine and exalted, but seemingly beyond the cares of this world. According to the written guide at the exhibition, his artwork “dematerializes form and collapses space to create a private universe of the spirit.” It is not surprising, therefore, that the Christ who emerges from El Greco’s canvas seems immaterial, almost insubstantial. A good example is his painting Christ Carrying the Cross, in which the cross seems weightless and Christ bears it without any apparent effort.
Even when Jesus is dying on the cross, as in The Crucifixion with Two Donors, he is not suffering, but seems to transcend time and space. The idealized Christ on El Greco’s cross is otherworldly and ethereal. There is no sense, wrote John Updike in a recent review, “of any pain or muscular resistance… . This Christ spectacularly lives, in a transmaterial realm.” If El Greco understood the true humanity of Jesus Christ, or the real cost of our redemption, this is not obvious from his work. As Updike went on to observe, what is missing is “a sense of God Incarnate, a walking-around Jesus, a man among others” [John Updike, “Singular in Everything,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 50, No. 17 (November 6, 2003)]. To put this in biblical terms, El Greco displays something of the glory of Christ, but does not always show his becoming flesh and dwelling among us (see John 1:14).
Nevertheless, the great artist seems to have yearned for a true knowledge of the real Christ. This is perhaps most evident in his last masterpiece, The Adoration of the Shepherds—a monumental painting that closes the show. El Greco made this painting for the altarpiece above his tomb. Thus in some sense it must serve as his personal statement of faith.
In the painting Mary presents her child to the shepherds, who worship. An incandescent glow emanates from the manger and illuminates the rest of the composition. But the viewer’s eye is also drawn to the shepherd in the foreground, who is kneeling at the manger and leaning forward to see the Christ. Many critics think that the shepherd must be El Greco himself. The man’s face is similar to other images of the great artist, and given the painting’s location, this would make perfect sense. But the clincher is the emotional realism of the shepherd. His form is full of energy, and he is absorbed in the ecstatic wonder of reverent worship. He appears to be in a posture of prayer, as if he is beseeching Christ to have mercy on his soul.
If the shepherd is meant to be El Greco himself, then the old Greek Master painted himself into the nativity scene. He was straining to be near the Christ. Did he find him? Perhaps he did, although we might feel more confident of this if he had painted himself into a different scene. By itself, the incarnation does not save. We can only be saved by the real crucifixion of a real Savior. At the end of his life El Greco needed to find himself at the foot of the cross, and not just at the edge of the manger. So do we all.
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