A Visitation in Georgetown

No, dear reader, this is not a piece about the prestigious all-girls Visitation Catholic Preparatory School in Georgetown, as beautiful a spot as that institution happens to be. Rather, today marks the birthday of the great Venetian Renaissance artist Tintoretto, whose work had a profound influence on the later development of the Baroque style of painting. An email conversation last evening about a piece held in a museum close to Visitation Academy however, brought to mind how much of an impact Tintoretto had on the work of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as the great Spanish Old Master painter El Greco.

El Greco was born in Crete, trained in Italy, but he spent most of his working career in Spain, where he later died. Because Crete was owned by Venice at the time El Greco was born, he wisely decided to move there as a young man to develop his career. He came under the influence of the Venetian artists of the time, most notably Tintoretto and Titian.

The young artist later moved on to Rome, where he approached Pope Pius V about the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. El Greco complained to the Pope that not only was the piece unorthodox, but that Michelangelo was a bad painter, and offered to whitewash and replace Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel with something that was actually theologically Catholic instead of neo-paganism with a Christian veneer. My readers will suck in their breath as I say this, but frankly this was not a bad idea. Not having made many friends in Rome with such comments, understandably, he eventually found his way to Spain.

Moving back to the painting at hand however, I would draw the reader’s attention to Dumbarton Oaks, the great Georgetown estate with its beautiful gardens and interesting Byzantine and Pre-Colombian art collections. Dumbarton Oaks also owns a painting of “The Visitation” by El Greco, currently on display in the music room. It is a very unique example of El Greco’s later output, and provides an interesting parallel to Tintoretto’s own late work.

The painting is a somewhat unusual depiction of the meeting of the Blessed Virgin and St. Elizabeth (and indeed, the unborn Jesus and St. John the Baptist) as described in Luke’s Gospel. Two figures of indeterminate sex are shown in silver-blue cloaks, embracing at a doorway with a bracketed and fluted casing. There is nothing to indicate that this is a religious scene: there are no halos, angels, or other Christian iconography, and the faces are indistinct.

This is a very late work by the Spanish master painter, dating from between 1610-1613; El Greco died in 1614. It was part of the ceiling decoration of the chapel of the Oballe family in the parish church of St. Vincent in the city of Toledo, which was dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The various component parts of the chapel have now been dispersed to different collections, and there is some debate as to what panels were in the chapel other than this Visitation and the main portion of the high altar. However, experts believe that the main panel of the high altar was created at least several years before this piece, which stylistically has gone even further down the road to near-abstraction in the elongation of figures and singular manipulation of shapes that marked El Greco’s career.

Although a more obviously religious painting, in examining Tintoretto’s late “Last Supper”, painted near the end of the artist’s life, one can see certain relationships in terms of the understanding of figure and movement that are common to the two artists. We can see how, even though they were working in different countries, Tintoretto and El Greco’s thinking about art had developed along similar lines over the years, and as they approached their respective deaths. Was this a result of a natural affinity between the two, or merely coincidence? I am not aware of any existing correspondence between the two great Old Masters, but if any readers are so aware I would love to learn of it.

The Visitation by El Greco, c. 1610-1613
Dumbarton Oaks, Georgetown

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