At the heart of symbolism

Elevation towards light


Presumed self-portrait at the age of 45 (Detail)

When the body becomes soul

Domenikos Theotokopoulos is more commonly known as Dominico Greco or simply El Greco (1541-1614). Born in Crete, he was taught during his youth about the painting of the late Byzantine frescoes and glittering mosaics. At that time, Crete and Cyprus were attached to the Venetian Republic, a place were Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches were coexisting. In around 1567, he went to Venice. Although Michelangelo's and mostly Tintoretto's works seemed to have had a stronger impression on him, he got in touch with the workshop of Titian. El Greco remained faithful to Titian all his life, but he always claimed his Greek origins and signed his works with his real name.

El Greco was recommended to the cardinal Alessandro Farnese in Rome by his friend and illuminator Giulio Clovio. At the Farnese palace, he made acquaintance with the great humanist and librarian Fulvio Orsini, whose collection later contained seven of his works. He also got in touch with the Spanish ecclesiastic Luis de Castilla who became one of his most faithful friends. The important Spanish population living in Rome enabled him to receive several orders from Madrid.

Philip II of Spain had the ambition to build a palace-monastery, the Escorial, destined to put into practice the ideas of the Catholic Council of Trento (1545-1563), which defined the new doctrine of the Church in opposition to the Reformation one. El Greco had been sounded out about the altar decoration, notably:

However his too personal work did not fit the requirements and ended in the private collection of the King who could appreciate the artist's qualities. El Greco had thought of becoming a painter at Philip's court. After his aborted hopes, he moved to Toledo in 1577 where he painted his mature works. He spent the rest of his life in the burnt heart of Spain, painting a succession of great altar-pieces. He also excelled as a portraitist, particularly of churchmen, and painted two striking views of Toledo. In addition, he also worked as an architect and sculptor like any Renaissance's artist.

After having left Crete, El Greco abandoned more and more the wooden panel proper to Eastern countries in advantage of canvass. He used to lay down a background layer and paint the outlines of the figure with black strokes of his brush; he also marked the light zones with white spots and the dark zones with black ones. At that moment, he really started to paint without leaving anything to chance contrary to the impression his canvasses could create.

Very quickly, he felt the need to stretch the bodies to give them the undulation and the sparkling of the flame, to elevate them beyond the terrestrial gravity and inspire them with the celestial lightness breath. El Greco wanted to transform the body into a soul, the only one able to reach firmament.

The dematerialization of form along with the sumptuous use of colour bind El Greco to 16th century Venetian art and to Mannerism. Besides, his strong sense of movement and use of light prefigure the Baroque. He became one of the great masters of the passage between the High Renaissance and the Baroque.

The intense emotionalism of his art, which naturally appealed to the religious fervour of his adopted country, is not strictly speaking Spanish. His work has no connection with the former Spanish painting neither later one. Through a cultural marriage, El Greco's art gave birth to a very personal style. He was a painter without homeland, but not without roots. The strangeness of his art has even suggested that he was mad, but his paintings only expressed the faith of the land of the greatest mystics such as Saint John of the Cross and Saint Theresa. After his death he was generally forgotten until the emergence of Expressionism in the early 20th century. His canvasses have particularly influenced modern painters, especially the painting below:

Its unfinished upper part was cut off during a restoration. The pathetic gesture of John the Evangelist henceforth watching an absent sky as well as the group of naked figures in the background have particularly impressed contemporary painters, among which Picasso.

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