Text by Deanna MacDonald
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El Greco has always had a curiously modern appeal. In the early 20th century critic Robert Fry, watching a crowd before an El Greco, noted that they talked as ‘they might talk about some contemporary picture,’ as if El Greco was ‘an old master who is not merely modern, but actually appears a good many steps ahead of us, turning back to show us the way.’ Modern artists loved him: it was the Impressionist Mary Cassatt who found this painting for some New York collectors; painters from Picasso to Franz Marc considered him the precursor to modern art. And this is how he is still popularly perceived: as a proto-modernist who anticipated every modern ism to come.
However to appreciate his art we must remember one important point: El Greco was most certainly not modern. In fact, in his own time, he was considered old-fashioned, not to mention a bit odd. Trained as an icon painter, he embraced an almost medieval mysticism and erudite Mannerism when both were passé and Baroque naturalism was all the rage. His artistic vision was brilliant and unique, but it wasn’t au courant.
He was almost always an outsider. Born in Venetian-controlled Crete, he came to Venice at 26, where he transformed his flat post-Byzantine technique by studying Renaissance masters like Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto. But the use of perspective didn’t bring him clients. In 1570 he left for Rome, where he made the career-stalling mistake of publicly questioning Michelangelo’s talent. Six years later, after failing to gain the patronage of Philip II in Madrid he ended up in the former capital of Toledo, then the primate archbishopric of Spain. In this highly Catholic city, El Greco (‘the Greek’ as they called him) finally found a sympathetic audience. El Greco didn’t want to paint reality; he wanted to paint a Neo-Platonic vision of art, a higher realm of the intellect and spirit, and this was just what the pious patrons of Toledo wanted, including this hawkish cardinal.
Rigidly perched on his seat like a bird of prey ready to take flight, the cardinal exudes a rather terrifying authority; which is appropriate as he is thought to be Cardinal Don Fernando Niño de Guevara, who once held the title of Grand Inquisitor. However it should be remembered that this is an ecclesiastical state portrait, which was intended to embody the power and uncompromising religious fervor of the holy office of cardinal, rather than the individual in that position; de Guevara, in fact, was known for his liberal views.
The portrait reveals many of El Greco’s Italian influences. The composition - a seated religious figure dressed in red – was already an established format used by Raphael and Titian. It has a Mannerist emphasis on exaggerated forms, hyper-elegance, radical foreshortening and fantastic color. However El Greco imbued these effects with a profound expressiveness that was more than mere Mannerist virtuosity. The picture bristles with tension. The cardinal seems to hover above the ground and his black-rimmed glasses (quite unusual at the time) emphasize his intense sideways stare. One hand clenches the chair arm while the other hand is limp, as if it could not even hold the paper that lies on the floor; following Venetian fashion, El Greco has signed the paper, in Greek: Domenikos Theotokopoulos / made this.
The painting’s surfaces, particularly the stiff, metallic robes, seem to suggest the flickering light and glow of a Byzantine icon. The cardinal, enveloped under these watery surfaces, seems about to dematerialize; you can imagine him disappearing with a ‘poof,’ It is like a vision, an image of an almost magical spirituality; more in keeping with the medieval world than the modern.
El Greco was the only Western artist to travel, artistically, from the flat, symbolic world of the Byzantine icon through Renaissance humanism beyond to his own, largely conceptual, form of art. The result of almost incompatible influences on an idiosyncratic talent, he could have emerged in no other time than his own.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
c1600 Joos de Momper: River Landscape with Boar Hunt, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
1601 Caravaggio: Supper at Emmaus, London, National Gallery
c1603–4 Annibale Carraci: The Lamentation, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum