“Be inspired,” exhort the posters advertising the National Gallery’s new exhibition of paintings by El Greco. “Cezanne was. Picasso was. Jackson Pollock was.” It is a misleading and unnecessary sales pitch, partly because El Greco simply does not need the boost of co-billing with the likes of Picasso, but principally because the notion that he was a modern avant la lettre is no more than a superficially attractive banality. El Greco was a great master who worked at the confluence of vividly differing traditions. The National Gallery exhibition is a once-in-a-lifetime experience because it gathers together an unprecedentedly large group of his paintings (admittedly not quite as many as were gathered for its recent showing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but in the circumstances that is the most minor of cavils); and thus charts, in an exhilarating sequence of beautifully hung galleries, the evolution – ignition might be a better way of expressing it – of his amazing, flame-like genius.
El Greco was born Domenikos Theotokopoulos on the island of Crete in 1541. He trained as a painter of gold-ground icons, a selection of which introduce the exhibition. Prominent among them is a glimmeringly delicate Dormition of the Virgin, painted in the mid-1560s, which demonstrates the extent to which the young El Greco mastered the principles of late Byzantine art. No attempt is made at precise empirical observation. The attenuated figure of the Virgin, stretched out on a bier, eyes peacefully closed, is an archetype of sanctity rather than a flesh-and-blood presence. The apostles cluster around her, their own figures elongated and stiffly two-dimensional, the highlights on their drapery serving not to define form but to create crystalline structures of pure radiance and thus suggest the illumination of the spirit. There is little sense of space in the picture and no sense of time, in the sense of time that passes. A golden sky symbolises eternity. Yet even in a picture governed as strictly as this by Byzantine convention, there are traces of the artist’s distinct personality. The chorus of grisaille angels, so finely rendered that they appear almost on the verge of dematerialisation, anticipate the shivering linear delicacy of his later painting. There is a hint, too, that even as a young man on Crete he was aware of the more dramatic and emotional emphases of the art of western Christianity – the humanising art of the Renaissance – in the figure of Christ, who bends solicitously over the Virgin with an expression of earnest compassion etched on His face.
Crete in El Greco’s time was an imperilled territory on the far fringes of the Venetian empire, under constant threat of invasion and conquest by the marauding forces of the Ottoman Turks. Candia, where he was born and brought up, was a hybrid city where adherents of both the Greek and Latin cults intermingled and worshipped in each other’s churches. The son of a tax-gatherer with shipping interests, he received some form of liberal education, reflected later in his wide reading – the inventory of his impressive library is still extant – and his habit of cultivating the friendship of scholars.
Sensing that Crete was too small a crucible for his fiery gifts, El Greco left the island in 1567, never to return. He spent three years in Venice, studying the art of Titian and Tintoretto, followed by a further period in Rome, where according to legend he alienated potential clients by disparaging Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel. By the autumn of 1576 he was in Madrid, where he unsuccessfully courted the patronage of Philip II of Spain before settling, finally, in Toledo. It was there that he created almost all of his masterpieces, working as a religious painter, as a brilliantly pitiless or compassionate (depending on his mood) portraitist; and also, albeit only on a single occasion, as a landscape painter of devastating originality. At some point, it is not clear exactly when, he converted from the Orthodox to the Catholic faith. But his artistic conversion was never complete, hence his uniqueness. It was El Greco’s singular achievement to take the language of post-Renaissance western painting, to make it his own and then, gradually but surely, to twist it back to Byzantium – to abstract it away from realism, away from naturalism, away from descriptive light and shade, away from believable space, towards the expression of a fundamentally mystical conception of man’s relationship with the world, and with God.
The second room in the National Gallery’s exhibition (there are six in all) departs from strict chronology to show El Greco’s exhilarating stylistic development compressed – almost as in the successive frames of a film – to four of his variations on the theme of The Purification of the Temple, the earliest painted in about 1570, the last some time not long before his death in 1614. El Greco’s first two versions, both painted probably when he was Rome, are heavy and derivative. The figures seem overworked, lumpen and gravity-bound, Christ at the centre wielding his whip like a drover hustling cattle. His third version of the subject, owned by the National Gallery itself, fast forwards to 1600, and suddenly El Greco is El Greco, in the sense that no one else could have painted this picture. The crowd is divided into good and evil halves. Christ’s body, elongated and sinuous, flickers between them. His gesture recalls the Last Judgement as well as the scourging of the traders, a characteristic El Greco subtlety, coloured as it is by spiritual extremism – he has a tendency to universalise every subject he paints, to push it towards the expression of what he conceives are the ultimate realities. Light and dark no longer model form but are involved in their own shadowplay, emblematic rather than realistic, dramatising the painter’s sense that truth lies not in anything that can be seen, here on earth, but in the struggle between good and evil. In the daunting last version of the painting, borrowed from the parish church of San Gines in Madrid, the traders have been greyed to the colour of the marble walls and statuary of the church that confines them, as dead to truth as stones, while Christ in red seems almost to dance in the circumambient darkness.
One of the ways in which El Greco responded to the intensely pious atmosphere of Counter-Reformation Toledo was by creating pictorial equivalents to the popular mystical writings of charismatic figures such as St John of the Cross, or St Teresa of Avila. He embodied an ascetic ideal of contemplation in the figures of gaunt contemplative saints – black-caped St Dominic in the wilderness, greybeard Jerome with his Vulgate Bible open before him, eyes smouldering – but he also seems to have absorbed the ideals of the “spiritual reform movement” into the very structures of his painting. St John of the Cross wrote of the moment when the contemplative, having passed through dark nights of the soul, was finally granted enlightenment, a mystic union with God experienced as the blinding light of “The Living Flame of Love”. In the climactic gallery of the National Gallery’s show, which contains such extraordinary masterpieces as The Opening of the Fifth Seal and the grand altarpiece of The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, El Greco seems not only to paint what might be seen at such moments of revelation – these are pictures that light the gloomy walls of the museum’s basement galleries as none have ever quite done before – but also to express the ecstasy of those in the throes of such experience. Bodies become shimmering, shivering patterns of energy, reaching, stretching and aspiring. El Greco paints what he imagines it might look like if the body were suddenly, miraculously transmuted to spirit.
Any exhibition of this type and scale inevitably invites reassessment of El Greco’s place in history. It is not quite enough to say that he took the forms and materials of western art and used them to recreate the same sense of eternal, spiritual truth that radiates from the gold surfaces and stylised forms of the art of the eastern Christianity. What he also did was demonstrate the links between the two worlds that he bridged. El Greco may, for example, have bent the art of “the West” back towards the transcendentalism of “the East”, but in doing so he was only returning the traditions of mystical “western” Christianity to its “eastern” philosophical origins, in the writings of Plato and the Neoplatonists – who after all invented the very idea of that influential dichotomy, between matter and spirit, which runs through all Christian thought and is expressed so profoundly in El Greco’s art. As David Davies argues in the exemplary catalogue to the exhibition, given the number of works in the painter’s library with links to Neoplatonism – Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, for example – El Greco himself must have been aware of such connections.
El Greco is commonly seen as something of a freak, a strange and wonderful (some have said merely eccentric) one-off. But it might be more enlightened to see the art of this hispano-Italian “Greek” master as a uniquely true reflection of the way in which different traditions and ideas and techniques have always merged and intermingled. Civilisation is no single thread, but a weave.