The Sacred Unveiled: Part 2, El Greco

August 21, 2020

By Géranne Darbouze

Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541–1614), better known as El Greco, was a Mannerist artist born in Greece and active in Spain during the later 16th and early 17th centuries. Fascinated with the depiction of religious subject matter, he worked hard to perfect his presentation of such images. Between the 1540s and the end of his life, El Greco painted no fewer than eight versions of the nativity of Jesus under the titles Adoration of the Magi and Adoration of the Shepherds. Here I’ll discuss two of them, both dating from his later years. Adoration of the Shepherds (1605–10, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) presents the Christ Child’s birth in a cave. This scene at first appears natural, but upon closer look reveals the artist’s careful planning. The figures all display eternally outstretched and oddly bent limbs, their postures suggesting that they live in constant praise of Christ. In the same vein, an unnatural light radiates from the dark composition at two different points.

El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), Adoration of the Shepherds, c. 1605–10. Oil on canvas, 56 7/8 x 39 7/8 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The first point of illumination is the body of the Christ Child. Here El Greco intentionally positions the newborn’s glowing figure in the center of the composition’s bottom half, bringing the Redeemer closer to the eyes of his kneeling worshippers.[1] Although the original patronage and home of this painting is unknown, it was most likely created for private devotion.[2] While worshippers are often urged to look upon the likeness of the Virgin Mary during celebration of the Eucharist, El Greco devised his composition to reinforce the words spoken during the elevation of the Host, the moment of transubstantiation, when Catholics believe that the unleavened bread literally becomes the body of Jesus: “Here is the true body of Christ born of the Virgin Mary”—while also including a separate and distinct experience of worship.[3] At the right, the second point of illumination does not lend itself to a similarly concise explanation. Just beyond the entrance to the cave, a mysterious, ghostly entity appears to consume everything around it, while one figure has stopped to worship it. It’s not unreasonable to assume that this light represents the Holy Spirit acknowledging the birth of Christ, which was ordained by God Himself.

El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), Adoration of the Shepherds, ca. 1612–14. Oil on canvas, 126 x 71in. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

El Greco painted his 1612–14 rendition Adoration of the Shepherds in the final years of his life to hang over his tomb in the Monastery of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo.[4] While strikingly similar to the Adoration of the Magi discussed above, it includes several additional figures. The group of angels hovering over the scene resembles the missing section of El Greco’s The Vision of St. John (The Opening of the Fifth Seal), a scene from the Book of Revelation that features St. John the Evangelist himself in the foreground, apparently swaying in awe and praise of the Holy Spirit.[5]

El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), The Vision of St. John (The Opening of the Fifth Seal), c. 1608–14. Oil on canvas, 87 1/2 x 76 in., with added strips 88 1/2 x 78 1/2 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Such lively, active, worshipping figures paint a clear picture of the artist’s own spiritual inclinations. The Vision of St. John is an apocalyptic image, one that sets the scene for Christ’s return to Earth and the return of the dead in Christ to Him. It focuses on imminent rebirth and the transformation of life and its meaning. Adoration of the Shepherds is the precursor to El Greco’s rendition from this final, apocalyptic book of the New Testament, which represents the rebirth of humankind and its values. Perhaps the artist had once experienced such a rebirth, or perhaps he was longing for the Biblical promise to be fulfilled—either way, in intending to display this composition above his final resting place, he declared his embrace of a spiritual message favoring destructive transformation for the sake of human salvation.

Although this image holds within it a dark meaning, it is the most luminous among El Greco’s many versions of the composition. The striking contrast between its lightest and darkest points creates a heightened sense of drama, one that no longer says, “Here is the true Body of Christ born of the Virgin Mary,” but rather, simply, “Here is the true Body of Christ.”[6]  In other words, this image embodies El Greco’s sense of awe and admiration in the presence of God.

 

[1] Andrew R. Casper, Art and the Religious Image in El Greco’s Italy (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2014), 130.

[2] Walter Liedtke, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 2014, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436570?searchField=All.

[3] Casper, 130–31.

[4] Maurizia Tazartes and José Álvarez Lopera, El Greco ([S.l.]: Unidad, 2005), 172.

[5] Angela Tamvaki, From El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Athens: National Gallery–Alexandros Soutzos Museum, 1992).

[6] Casper, 130–31.


Géranne Darbouze is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery who is majoring in Film and Television Production and minoring in Art History and Religious Studies. She expects to receive her BFA in January 2021.