El Greco

Spirituality and Abstraction

by James F. Cooper

Four centuries have passed since the death of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, known as El Greco (1541–1614), yet his work still seems remarkably relevant. A number of exhibitions have paid tribute to the idiosyncratic old master, including “El Greco in New York” (November 4, 2014–February 1, 2015), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and “El Greco: A 400th Anniversary Celebration from Washington Area Collections” (November 2, 2014–February 16, 2015), at the National Gallery of Art. The show that inspired me to write this article, however, was a modest two-hander at the Frick Collection, “Men in Armor: El Greco and Pulzone Face to Face” (August 5–October 26, 2014).

El Greco’s portrait Vincenzo Anastagi (c. 1575) depicts a sergeant major of Castel Sant’Angelo. Scipione Pulzone’s Portrait of Jacopo Boncompagni (1574) depicts a commander of the papal army. These contemporary studies of prominent Romans are very different, but it is not a simple matter of the little-known Pulzone being out-classed by the famous old master. Jacopo Boncompagni is a very accomplished work. The subject is presented three-quarter length, with the impressive regalia of his office. His ceremonial armor is ornate, and Pulzone renders the sheen of the metal with dexterity. El Greco’s Anastagi, at first glance, seems plain. Shown full-figure in a nondescript space, he wears a working soldier’s dark armor, olive-green pantaloons and white stockings. El Greco dispenses with official iconography and the illusion of spatial depth. He flattens the background; the dull brown of the floor and the grey of the walls meet at a line that hits the figure at the knees, emphasizing the two-dimensionality of the canvas. In short, El Greco’s painting looks modern.

The Pulzone-El Greco juxtaposition reminded me of what the modernists recognized, that this old master understood abstraction, as was amply demonstrated in the Metropolitan Museum’s great exhibition “Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting” (March 4–June 29, 2003). El Greco’s influence extended beyond the French avant-garde. Paul Cézanne copied a portrait (c. 1577–79) by the Spanish master in his Lady in a Fur Wrap, after El Greco (c. 1885). Pablo Picasso drew on El Greco’s elongated figures in his Blue Period work. Jackson Pollock made dozens of drawings after El Greco.1

Of course, Vincenzo Anastagi, with its phlegmatic painthandling and taciturn style, does not have the flamboyance of a signature El Greco work, such as View of Toledo (c. 1598–99)—a feverish landscape that exemplifies his experimental approach to form and color. The greenish hills, grey buildings and phosphorescent clouds are disorienting in a visually exciting way. There is not a dead inch of space on the canvas. Background and foreground form a continuous dynamic surface that quivers with vitality. El Greco keeps your eye moving around the picture.

<i>View of Toledo, </i>c. 1598-99<br/>METROPOLITAIN MUSEUM OF ART< NEW YORK CITY

This unreal city becomes even more visionary when El Greco adds his characteristic torqued figures to the composition. His Laocoön (1610–14) alludes to one of the touchstones of ancient art, a sculptural group of Laocoön and his two sons attacked by serpents (c. 27 bc–68 ad). El Greco’s nude forms writhe in space. Laocoön falls back, one leg thrown in the air, barely maintaining a foothold on the rocky ground. One son floats upside down, the other— stretched like a victim on the rack—rises nearly the height of the canvas. Laocoön was a Trojan priest who warned against the horse offered by the Greeks—El Greco shows a white horse (not the artificial decoy of the Trojan War) in the middle distance—and offended Poseidon, leading to his gristly fate. El Greco places the ancient story in contemporary Spain. A recent biographer, Fernando Marías, describes how El Greco manages to encompass different levels of reality, mythic and contemporary, physical and spiritual: “The means needed to achieve this were stylization, foreshortened and violent poses, movement as an expression of vitality.”2 One of the objectives of El Greco’s art is to paint “the impossible natural…the invisible supernatural, the reality of the celestial and divine.”3

For me, El Greco honors the laws of abstraction, anticipates modernism and expresses intense spirituality in a way very few artists do. (I would suggest Vincent van Gogh as another example.) It is always hard to account for genius, but El Greco’s eccentric style resulted, at least in part, from his unusual career path.

<i>Laocoön</i>, 1610-14<br/>NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C.

El Greco was born on Crete and received his early training there. Crete was under the rule of the Venetian Republic, and Cretan painters needed to be stylistically flexible. They worked for two different audiences: Eastern conservatives, who wanted works in the tradition of Byzantine icons, and Western patrons, accustomed to Renaissance perspective and a more worldly humanism. Often, painters combined elements of the styles in innovative ways. El Greco built on that complex juxtaposition of world views, as was demonstrated in an intriguing show at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City, “The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete” (November 17, 2009–February 27, 2010).4 El Greco never completely abandoned the abstract, spiritual Byzantine aesthetic, but he was ambitious for recognition on a bigger stage and eager to learn from and challenge European artists on their own terms.

El Greco traveled to Venice, Rome and Madrid before settling in Toledo. Competition for commissions was fierce, and he worked in the shadow of already established masters. In Venice, Titian was an inevitable influence, as a colorist and a portrait painter. Titian was also one of the premier mythopoeic painters of all time, but myth and antiquity had little appeal for El Greco. (His Laocoön is a rare instance of a classical subject, and his handling of the theme is eccentric.) Tintoretto was also an influence, with his off-center perspectives, dramatic lighting and twisting figures. El Greco’s Christ Cleansing the Temple (c. 1570) builds on Tintoretto. Jesus, in slightly off-balance contrapposto, is at the eye of a storm; the money-changers recoil from his upraised arm. The temple’s architecture is classical but full of dark corners and lit by livid skies. The setting reminded me of one of the Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico’s anxiety-haunted piazzas.

El Greco’s St. Jerome as a Scholar (1590–1600) demonstrates how well the artist assimilated the Venetian aesthetic and, at the same time, made it his own. St. Jerome (c. 342–420) produced the first Latin translation of the Bible. In the painting, he rests his hands on a beautiful, impressive book. He is dressed, anachronistically, in a cardinal’s red robe, signifying his status, like a contemporary prince of the Church. Jerome was also famous for his asceticism. El Greco captures this quality by depicting him as a gaunt and intense old man; the saint seems to be lit from within and transformed by religious fervor. The image has the formidable authority of a Titian portrait, yet it is a work of imagination, using the official trappings of sixteenth-century power to suggest the spiritual energy of an early Christian saint.

After Venice, El Greco went to Rome, another cultural center and arena for art-world competition, where he painted Vincenzo Anastagi. He secured a position in the circle of Cardinal Farnese, but found the intricacies of the patronage system hard to master. His position was not improved by his openly expressed disapproval of Michelangelo’s paintings, The Last Judgment, in particular.5 El Greco preferred the long-limbed figures and exaggerated poses of the Mannerists, especially Antonio Correggio and Girolamo Parmigianino. El Greco was no courtier; in fact, he cultivated an image of the eccentric artist.

In 1577, he left Italy behind and moved to Spain, first to Madrid, where he had little success in his pursuit of royal commissions, and then to Toledo, the city that became his spiritual home. A Greek artist who developed his aesthetic philosophy in Italy became the foremost exponent of Spanish mysticism. It is a strange journey that begins with Byzantine religious painting, passes through Mannerism and the Counter-Reformation, and ends in a unique personal style, bypassing Renaissance classicism almost altogether. El Greco’s Spanish works are imbued with the special religious atmosphere of his adopted country, but they are not provincial. His portraits take their place among the best examples in the mainstream European tradition. El Greco showed insight into his contemporaries’ souls. The subject of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara <i>Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara</i>, c. 1600<br/>METROPOLITAIN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK CITY(c. 1600) was a former Inquisitor General and longtime Archbishop of Seville. El Greco’s hectic reds and flesh tones capture the psychological intensity of the impressive but uneasy cardinal. In contrast, the serene Fray Hortensio Félix Paravacino (1611), a portrait of his friend, a poet-monk, is a formal triumph, balancing large shapes and lively brushwork. The palette is subdued—just brown, black, white and a pale flesh color. Tone rather than chroma is used to create a convincing aesthetic structure.

His most distinctive work from Toledo, however, is visionary both in subject matter and in style. The Vision of St. John (1608–14) depicts eight figures—seven of them nude—and a few putti in an amorphous space. Marías notes that it is impossible to interpret the picture as illustrating a particular incident from the Apocalypse, although most likely it shows the dead rising. Still, he makes the point that El Greco was admired “not only as someone who could translate texts into images, but as someone with formal and transformational abilities.”6 In The Vision of St. John, the undulating figures seem to have cast off gravity. They float from the earth and stretch toward heaven, leaving behind masses of drapery in green, blue, red and yellow. All these colors are united by a silvery undertone. Drapery, clouds and bodies seem to be made of the same painterly stuff. The picture is spatially daring as well as aesthetically and spiritually profound. The figures, if you were educated in modern art as I was, may also remind you of Cézanne’s bathers.

For years, American Arts Quarterly has monitored the efforts of a group of contemporary artists working to reclaim the old master heritage. They have made considerable progress in recovering valuable techniques, but there is more to learn, especially from artists such as El Greco. Four centuries ago, he fused abstract strength and spirituality in ways the best modernists appreciated. He still has much to teach us.


1. This part of the art history narrative was explored in “El Greco and Modern Painting” (June 24–October 5, 2014) at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

2. Fernando Marías, El Greco: Life and Work, a New History (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2013), 181.

3. Ibid., 182.

4. See the catalogue, The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete, with essays by Anastasia Drandaki, Olga Gratziou and Nicos Hadjinicolaou.

5. Marías, El Greco, is good on the career.

6. Ibid., 274.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2015, Volume 33, Number 2