New Shows in DC, New York Celebrating El Greco

To mark the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco (1541-1614), both the National Gallery of Art here in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have just opened new exhibitions celebrating his life and work.  Although ethnically Greek and born on the island of Crete, El Greco – whose proper name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos – did the vast majority of his work in Spain, where he settled in his mid-30′s and spent the rest of his life.  His is quite a fascinating story of how a creative person’s output can completely change over time, based on the environment they work in.

In Manhattan, “El Greco in New York” runs from now until February 1st, and features 16 paintings by El Greco from the collections of both the Metropolitan Museum and the Hispanic Society of America. The show includes El Greco’s stunning “View of Toledo”, a landscape of his adopted city under storm clouds and lightning,which looks as though it could have been painted centuries later; his captivating portrait of the very intimidating  Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, whom you clearly did not want to tangle with; and two very different versions of a nocturnal “Adoration of the Shepherds”, showing the shepherds arriving at the stable with joy to meet the Christ Child.

Here in Washington, the National Gallery has mounted “El Greco: A 400th Anniversary Celebration” of the artist’s work, in collaboration with The Philips Collection, Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, and The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.  There are 10 paintings in the exhibition, which opened this past weekend and continues until February 16th.  Highlights include his charming, bright altarpiece of “St. Martin and the Beggar”, which is one of my favorites for showing the Roman soldier and martyr dressed in contemporary Spanish armor; the powerful, heavy contrasts of the “Repentant St. Peter” from The Philips; and the almost-abstract “Visitation” from Dumbarton Oaks, which I always make a point of seeing when I drop by the museum.

Unusually for an important artist of the late Renaissance, El Greco began his working life as an icon painter.   While there is always some room for individual expression in the creation of such works, the repetition of familiar and well-established elements is very important to that school of Christian art.  As a result, it makes it difficult for the average person to tell what century a particular icon was painted in, from simple observation.  El Greco might have remained content to stay in the tradition of icon painting, or “writing” as it is often referred to, but instead he decided to take a chance and go to Venice, which ruled Crete at the time.

Once he got to Italy, El Greco began to change radically as an artist.  From his work and studies in Venice and Rome, he absorbed what he observed in the late Renaissance and Mannerist art that was being created around him, so different from the Byzantine icons he himself had been trained to create. He was able to study with Titian, the last of the living great masters of the High Renaissance, explore the churches and palaces, and meet with a number of very important people.  He even communicated with Pope St. Pius V, offering to wipe out Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel and paint something more suitable, noting that the late Florentine master was a great sculptor who did not know how to paint very well (a sentiment I share.)

However most of El Greco’s greatest work even today is located in Spain, because that is where he moved after job opportunities in Italy were not working out as he had hoped. The Spanish imperial court was quite different from the flashy, humanist salons in Rome or Florence that El Greco had grown accustomed to.  Serious, stiff, and devoutly Catholic, the Spanish aristocracy when El Greco arrived was not interested in showing off.  They dressed almost exclusively in black most of the time, seeking to impress through sober formality rather than over-familiarity or flippancy, and saved their decoration for their churches.

As a result, El Greco’s art began to change once again.  Whereas previously, he mimicked the colors and light of the Italy he experienced as a young man, as he grew older and spent more and more time in the barren, desert-like plains and cities of central Spain, El Greco’s paintings gradually became darker, featuring stark outlines and contrasts, more elongation and distortion.  His style changed to the point that by the end of his life, some of his later pieces could very easily be mistaken for being works created by a Modern artist in the 20th century.

While you may not be able to get to Madrid or Toledo to see El Greco’s finest work, here in the United States we are fortunate to have about 4 dozen works by El Greco, many of them quite good, in collections around the country.  And now, even more fortunately for those in the Northeast Corridor, two of the best places to see his work are New York and DC.  With these anniversary exhibitions having just opened, you’ll be able to more closely observe his progression as a creative thinker for yourself.

"St. Martin and the Beggar" by El Greco (c. 1597) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

“St. Martin and the Beggar” by El Greco (c. 1597)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Lessons from a Stinky St. John the Baptist

It was interesting to read this morning that the exhibition in Milan of a very large, important painting by the High Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520) known as the “Madonna of Foligno”, has attracted almost a quarter of a million viewers in the roughly six weeks it has been on loan.  I have always thought of this altarpiece as being a rather swarthy picture, particularly in its imagining of the figure of St. John the Baptist.  Yet thinking about this painting gives us a good opportunity to see how and why an artist’s work can dramatically change as they mature, and also gives us non-artists the opportunity to reflect on how we ought to be doing the same in our own lives.

Ansidei Madonna by Raphael (c. 1505-1507) National Gallery, London

“Ansidei Madonna” by Raphael (c. 1505-1507)
National Gallery, London

Raphael’s peaceful, meditative “Ansidei Madonna” of c. 1505-1507 for example, is quite different in feeling from the “Madonna of Foligno”, even though St. John the Baptist appears in both. The “Ansidei Madonna” is a colorful and genteel picture which, like many of the images from Raphael’s time in Florence, had a tremendous impact on mass-produced Catholic devotional images in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  We can look at this picture and admire its architectural perfection, the loveliness of the figures, and the stillness of the composition.  However, while Raphael’s work in Florence at this period has a sense of hushed meditation about it, this style was not to last.

Raphael moved to Rome about a year after finishing the “Ansidei Madonna”, and when he arrived he was quickly inundated with more artistic commissions than he could handle.  From executing famous frescoes like “The School of Athens” in what was then the Papal Library, to designing the magnificent tapestries with scenes from the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul for the Sistine Chapel, Raphael was an extremely busy man.  Yet despite the overwhelming amount of work he took on, he did not stay stagnant as an artist.  Rather, he found the time to study, to think, and to grow artistically and intellectually, so that as he grew older, his style lost that porcelain, idealized quality he started out with, to become something still beautiful, but far more realistic.

The figures in the “Madonna of Foligno” bear some relation to those of the “Ansidei Madonna”, in that we can see they came from the same artistic mind, but the differences are very striking.  In the scant few years since Raphael left Florence, he has been exposed to the work of more diverse artists, and is living in an ancient, rough-and-tumble, sprawling city, the center of the Christian world in the West.  Raphael begins to see that there is another side to life, just as worthy of representation as the courtly images he was famous for.  As he grows, Raphael begins to become interested in “real people”, i.e. the poor, the downtrodden, the working class, the not-so-pretty.

Compare the figures of St. John the Baptist in the “Ansidei Madonna” and the “Madonna of Foligno”, for example, and you can see how Raphael’s world expanded when he moved to Rome.  In the earlier painting, although he is dressed in camel skin and has facial hair, St. John does not appear to have just come in from the Jordan River, having munched on some bugs covered in honey for breakfast, but rather from having taken a nice, hot bath and enjoyed a good lunch. He is built like an idealized athlete from ancient Greece, and could just as easily be the figure of Apollo but for the setting and his accouterments.  The saint is draped in a glorious, expensive red satin cloak, symbolizing his martyrdom, and holds a delicate gold and silver staff in the form of a cross.

"Madonna of Foligno" by Raphael (1511) The Vatican Museums

“Madonna of Foligno” by Raphael (1511)
The Vatican Museums

Now, compare this image to the figure of St. John the Baptist in the later painting.  Here St. John looks like he positively stinks from not having had a bath in quite awhile: his skin is dirty, tanned, and leathery.  His hair and beard are matted and unkempt; he is muscular, but not in a male model sort of way.  Rather, he has the sinewy arm of someone who is used to doing rough work with his hands.  He looks drawn, tired, and pinched – in short, a believable ascetic, who suffers for his faith.

Like in the earlier painting, St. John is depicted wearing his iconic camel hair and having the red robe of the martyr.  Yet whereas in the Florentine image the red drapery is luxurious and more important, here the rough and dirty animal skin is the more prominent article of clothing, with a rugged red martyr’s robe only suggested by a bit of fabric appearing over St. John’s left shoulder and jutting out behind him.  And unlike the jewel-like cross in the earlier picture, in this altarpiece St. John’s staff is a very rough, wooden pole, with a crossbeam affixed toward the top by some rope wrapped around it.

Truly, it is hard to believe that these two figures representing the same historical person could come from the same imagination, painted only four to five years apart.

Keep in mind, of course, Raphael is not trying to represent actual scenes from the Life of Christ in these pictures, but rather the concept of “sacra conversazione”, which you can learn more about here.  Because of that fact, there is always going to be idealization in such compositions.  Yet notice how remarkably less idealized, how much more believable, is the St. John the Baptist in the later picture.  The earlier picture is arguably the more beautiful of the two, but the later picture brings us into this “sacred conversation” in a very different way.  For in it, with all its swarthiness and grime, we can more clearly see ourselves as we are, in all of our human imperfections.

Thus I think the lesson here in comparing these two works is not simply an artistic or academic one.  Raphael’s art evolved the more he saw and experienced, even while remaining tied in to where he had come from as an artist.  So too, we should be open to change as we go along through this life: not losing sight of who and what we are, but at the same time gaining greater nuance and insight into our relationships with God and with our neighbor as we mature.

Art, Transfigured

Today the Church marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that moment recounted in the Gospels when Christ briefly revealed His true nature to His three closest disciples, Sts. Peters, James, and John.  Without question the single most iconic image of this event in the history of art is Raphael’s eponymous altarpiece, which he was working on when he died, now in the Vatican.  Chances are you will recognize the image of Jesus which appears in the painting, even if you have never seen the entire work at full length, for it has proven to be one of the most enduring images of Christ in the world.  And this last masterpiece by one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance gives us the opportunity to consider what secular art historians so often fail to consider when examining Western art, which is the influence of spiritual writing on popular piety.

The painting itself is unusual at first glance because it combines two different stories from the Bible: that of the Transfiguration, which dominates the upper half of the piece, and the attempt by the other Apostles not present at the Transfiguration to cure a boy possessed by demons, which takes up the lower half.  Because these two events occurred sequentially, rather than simultaneously, in the Gospels, one way to “read” the painting would be somewhat like how we read a comic strip.  However nothing in religious art, back when people actually thought about things like iconography and spirituality, happens by chance.  This is what makes the study of art history not only fascinating, but something of a multi-disciplinary subject.

A current theory for the juxtaposition of events shown in this altarpiece would not be apparent unless one was also familiar with the writing of the Franciscan mystic, Blessed Amadeo of Portugal (1420-1482), who suggested that the Transfiguration was a Biblical preview of Christ’s return in glory at the Last Judgment.  The Apostles down at the bottom of Mount Tabor are unable to cast the demon from the boy on their own, and they have to wait until Jesus comes back to them for the healing to happen.  Thus, symbolically, evil cannot be finally cast out from the world until Christ returns.

In the early 16th century, a collection of Blessed Amadeo’s sermons and writings attributed to him were combined into a work entitled the “Apocalipsis Nova”, or “The New Apocalypse”.  It was published after his death, and loosely formed a commentary on the Book of Revelation based on Blessed Amadeo’s own thoughts and experiences, in part examining the symbolism of that book of the Bible.  This work was widely circulated among the well-read and well-to-do in Rome and elsewhere, as they reflected on the signs of the times, and the role they themselves were playing in them.

We often forget that until the so-called Enlightenment, most people were deeply concerned about the impending coming of Christ again in time, in order to render the Last Judgment.  This ongoing concern is reflected through a long period of Western art, including sculptures depicting the Last Judgment which usually dominated the Western facade of the great cathedrals, all the way to Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel.  It is perhaps all too telling that today, one rarely sees this subject treated in art, or if it is, it is treated somewhat mockingly.

What is interesting about Blessed Amadeo is that after his death some of his work and the work attributed to him was condemned as heretical by theologians, and placed on the Index of Forbidden Books.  As it turned out, with greater scholarship it later became apparent that some of the works attributed to Blessed Amadeo which were clearly heretical, turned out not to be by him, but rather were written by another Amadeo or even by unknown individuals, and given his name.  However at the time that Raphael was working, Blessed Amadeo’s spiritual writing was certainly popular, but not exactly acceptable, at least in certain circles.  One can imagine those reading the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, a century later, going through the same issues.

This question mark over Blessed Amadeo’s work arose even though he had not only been a confessor to Pope Sixtus IV, but he had also founded and led a reform movement of the Franciscans known as the Amadeans, who sought to bring the Friars Minor back to their roots of poverty and simplicity.  As an interesting footnote, the fact that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment appears where it does in the Sistine Chapel is likely no accident, for the structure was originally built by Blessed Amadeo’s friend, Sixtus IV.  So despite whatever controversy his spiritual writing engendered, Blessed Amadeo’s recounting of visions of heaven and the saints struck a chord with the well-read and the powerful.  He influenced not only works of art such as this, but the spirituality of influential people such as the Medici family, one of whom originally commissioned this painting from Raphael, and the Hapsburg family, particularly those in Spain.

Like other spiritual writers before and after him, Blessed Amadeo was sometimes misunderstood by his contemporaries, even while his mysticism was embraced by others.  However with the Feast of the Transfiguration today, and with Blessed Amadeo’s own feast day coming up on August 10th, we can appreciate how he has helped us to picture an event in a way which our tiny human brains can understand: a brief glimpse of the Divine in all its glory.  It also gives us, at a more earthly level, a greater appreciation that the study of great art in the Western tradition goes well-beyond simply looking at the image and understanding – or THINKING we understand – what we are seeing.  For even as this painting of the Transfiguration has a permanent impact on how we imagine that event in our own minds, the story behind how this particular interpretation came to be can be just as powerful, if we dig deeper into the story of its creation.

Raphael

“The Transfiguration” by Raphael (1516-1520)
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City