Ask anyone if they know who Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) was, you’ll get a blank stare. Ask anyone who El Greco was, you might get a few less blank stares. Ask anyone who’s been to the El Greco exhibit at the National Gallery of Art and you’ll get a stare, but it won’t be blank, it’ll be filled with awe. El Greco was a Greek painter (from Crete) whose talent with the brush led him to begin an artistic career in Renaissance Rome before leaving the Eternal City for an artistic career in Spain. Combining oriental piety, with stylistic trends from the Venetian and Roman schools, El Greco’s achievements in Spain are a credit to his name Theotokopoulos (“God Bearer”).
Libraries have been written about El Greco’s work. What most interested me about the NGA’s exhibit was his synthesis of Greek Italian and Spanish influences into style all his own. Looking at the eternal truths of Christ’s life through this artist’s singular lens made me think about them in new ways… And isn’t that what sacred art does at its best? In the words of St. John Paul II,
“Art renders visible the perception of the mystery which makes of the Church a universally hospitable community, mother and traveling companion to all men and women in their search for God.” (JPII, Letter to Artists)
When it comes to El Greco’s style, it was all his own, but was it perhaps something more: a gift… could something that is both so unique and so true be a gift from God?
“When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desires and is able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the bridegroom [Christ] who has smitten them with this longing.” (Nicolas Cabasilas, Life of Christ, II.15 )
So there are two forces in play: eternal truth and seeing eternal truth in a new way that nevertheless preserves that truth. From a Catholic point of view, this is the essence of what Vatican II tried to do… and what new evangelization is trying so desperately to do. Whether you’re Catholic or not, the concept of presenting transcendent truths for the respectful consideration of ones neighbor is never a bad idea. In this regard, maybe all of us could take a lesson from Domenikos Theotokopoulos.
PS: Also of note in El Greco’s work: the influence of Toledo, Spain – his adopted home. A number his works include the architecture of Toledo in the background… a testament to the enduring power of good public architecture.
Note: I found the exhibit much more rewarding after seeing the 30min video in the conference room on the lower level of the Gallery.