Neither Tell I You By What Authority I Do These Things

You must study the Masters but guard the original style that beats within your soul and put to sword those who would try to steal it.
— Doménikos Theotokópoulos, “El Greco”

January 26th, 2015

It began with four of us just before the first snowfall this winter. Some of us thought we knew what to expect—we’d anticipated the storm or knew what we were searching for or both, and expected to be through the museum in short notice.

“There’s something magical about the city in snow,” one of us had said. I smiled because I could still see the tops of buildings.

Myself, I had intentions to write about Cézanne; the Metropolitan Museum was showing a series of portraits of the artist’s wife and I expected I’d find inspiration among the painterly marks. The exhibit was composed of about four dozen works of Hortense, perhaps half of them paintings. I dutifully inspected each. I thought of my own masters, and the concepts they’d espoused, of their ideas—ideals?—of painting for its own sake. I found Cézanne to be merely illustrative. I suppose this is because I’d discovered Rilke first: “No one before Cézanne ever demonstrated so clearly the extent to which painting is something that takes place among the colors, and how one has to leave them completely alone, so that they can come to terms among themselves.”

The veracity of this is evident in the marks of Hortense’s face, particularly across the series of four portraits in a red armchair. Where I found Cézanne most clearly allowed the paint simply to be, I found them also lacking. That is to say, the paint lied in standing alone: behind these paintings were the words of myriad other artists and writers—Rilke, Merleau-Ponty—who’d helped perpetuate the ideal, who’d convinced me long before I’d even laid eyes upon these canvases that he was a painter’s painter in the most Platonic sense and thus the most worth admiring. Of course, I’ve seen many Cézannes, but with barely more thought than recognition. Having come to think, what more was there to say? Rilke left no doors open for me, except, perhaps, accounting for my disenchantment, which I suspect I’ll always feel ill-equipped to tackle, preferring as I do to allow my naïveté to manifest itself naturally. I expressed this and it was suggested to me, defeated, that we move on.

“This made me think of another triumph, which likewise descends to the tune of Wagner and I was struck by my second disillusionment: this monument to man is one of sorrow.”

Our group had been whittled down, such that half of us had disappeared. In our aimless wander I explained how the Met had always been the closest thing to a church for me: with the religious aura long stripped from the physical relics, what more to worship than the hand of their material creator? I’ve always been particularly struck by The Triumph of Marius atop the grand stairs, which reveals itself slowly upon my entrance from heaven to tumultuous earth and places me assuredly in the true temple of humanity. This made me think of another triumph, which likewise descends to the tune of Wagner and I was struck by my second disillusionment: this monument to man is one of sorrow. Jugurtha, who even remembers you now?

I felt I had to see The Triumph of Marius, which we had passed on the way in. I travelled to the second floor, through the halls of icon paintings. (Mary, no mother of mine, what hand made you?) Something stopped me: a sign for an El Greco. I was reminded that my mother had seen the show and found it lovely. She also admires Gaudí as a result of a trip to Spain my father, brother, and I had sent her on when I was young, returning weeks later with tales of magnificent speckled lizards, topless towers, and paths that wound like the backs of great luminous snakes. I’ve never been to Barcelona. Though I lived for four years in Washington, I’ve never seen Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci. I’m less ashamed to say my European travels have not exposed me to Renaissance masters either. That El Greco’s Christ Healing the Blind and others are part of the Met’s permanent collection and still I remained largely unexposed to Renaissance masterpieces excepting two Van Eycks, I can only assume is due to my being, whenever within the walls of the institution, perpetually and purposefully lost.

I had not noticed I’d been staring—had not even noticed I’d been standing before the painting before I was asked if I’d write about it.

“I don’t think so,” I said. If I had nothing to say about Cézanne, what about this? We spent some time in the El Greco room, which contained some sixteen or so artworks from the Met’s own collection and elsewhere. I learned only what the tombstone texts told me—about a Cretan, outsider in both Italy and Spain, who never quite found success in his lifetime, possibly because he’d dared to critique the recently deceased Michelangelo. From his later works, I gathered, Picasso found the kernels of Cubism. My god, a man—created this, I thought.

I eventually left, feeling I’d failed. Outside, snow was falling more heavily than before. We stopped to take some pictures. The buildings themselves were now barely visible, so the photos turned out as beautiful blank sheets of white and gray. When we separated, no sooner had we gone a dozen steps than we dissolved from each other, were turned formless by impeding sky.

Christ Healing the Blind (c. 1570), El Greco

February 1st, 2015

Christ healed many blind men, and I was resolved to discover which instance El Greco depicts. I believe that it is likely a small instance, told almost in passing, of Christ performing casual miracles shortly after discharging the moneychangers from the temple. The Gospel according to Matthew, 21:12-14:

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all of them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,
And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them.

El Greco painted the 12th and 13th verses of this chapter as well. What leads me to believe Christ Healing the Blind illustrates Matthew 21:14 is that I’ve discovered the Met’s painting to be the third in a series that spans several decades, and is accompanied by a similar series of Matthew 21:12-13, which also spans El Greco’s lifetime.

The first two iterations of Christ Healing the Blind are Venetian, with unbalanced compositions—the first feels loose, the second tight. In them, El Greco struggles under the shadows of the Italian masters. The third painting represents something of an overcoming, and the feeling I get from it is markedly different. Only the way certain fabrics fall—the man in pink to the right, the draping off Christ’s arm—are depicted naturally. If I’m to look only at this drapery, I’d be unable to tell the difference between the pre-mature El Greco and his masters. However, the Met indicates that this painting was completed away from Venice, where the artist has begun to grow into his own unique form. I discover that it was around the time of the third painting’s completion that El Greco attempted to secure patronage from King Philip II of Spain. When he failed, he left for Toledo, where his painting came into its own.

I don’t know if it’s accurate to speak of this painting’s “completion” at all. More likely, he gave up after a time: at the center of the painting is a phantasmic couple. In the first iteration the couple was depicted prominently above the dog, and then receded with the tighter composition of the second. When the stone paving shows through them like ghosts, the sense is that over time they’ve faded from the picture.

Christ Healing the Blind (c. 1570; detail), El Greco

There are other major changes in the narrative sequence. Notably, in the first painting from 1567, which is also entitled Christ Healing the Blind, a dog hides behind a sack in the foreground, one step below Christ and the attendants of the miracle. It’s as if the men are on a stage, which causes me to wonder what exactly the dog is witnessing, and whether it’s true or only play.

To the dog’s left, Christ touches the eyes of a blind man, although not one creature in attendance actually watches the act. (Who are we to presume is witness?) Instead, most of the attendants are gathered around the man in blue, who mimics Christ’s gesture with a scowl, his hands extended toward the dog as if casting a spell. In the second painting, the dog has vanished, only to reappear again in the third painting in the form of a couple—and the first woman to be depicted.

When Christ heals the blind man, his vision changes; this I do not doubt. But is he being made to see? Is it that the man finds his cataracts suddenly cleared, his retina restored, or is it the very forms around him that alter their shapes? Who is the true magician: Christ, or the man in blue?

February 2nd, 2015

Five Questions About Christ Healing the Blind:

  1. Who witnesses the miracle?
  2. The thin layering of the central couple in the third painting suggests El Greco abandoned it. Why?
  3. What elements of style are visible at this point in time?
  4. Why the softening of texture between the second and third painting?
  5. Who is the man in blue?

February 23rd, 2015

I’ve found my timeline of the three paintings to be in dispute, but haven’t been able to reconcile it entirely. For now, I’m drawn to Fernando Marías’ account of the painter’s fragmented biography. Many of the details of El Greco’s life are in dispute, owing to a lack of primary sources. Marías, however, is clear as to when he is speculating and appears to be comprehensive in his sources. I’ll trust him until he deserves otherwise.

Marías suggests the first iteration of Christ Healing the Blind was likely painted in 1571—the difference of four years is pertinent, as it places El Greco in Rome rather than Venice. In Venice, I gather, El Greco struggled to reconcile his roots as a Cretan draughtsman of devotional icons with his newfound idealism toward Italian theories of art, influenced by Michelangelo, Tintoretto, and Titian. By the time he reached Rome in 1570, El Greco had already come into his own as a master painter, but failed to secure patronage there for political reasons. I’m no longer sure if El Greco brought his third painting with him to Spain.

Marías calls the first iteration of Christ Healing the Blind a “dialectical exercise.” For a moment, this defeats me. The irony is not lost on me that the first Renaissance painting to strike me dumb would only be something of an exercise. I remember, though, that I did not find Christ Healing the Blind to be the finest painting, nor even the most interesting. My aversion toward weak metaphors has kept me from stating the obvious—that perhaps this painting is something of an eye-opening experience for me, a first real glimpse into the work of the masters—and perhaps now that it’s been said I can write past it.

What is the dialectic composed of? Presumably, El Greco’s background as a painter of icons and his study of Renaissance techniques. If so, certainly this painting and possibly El Greco’s entire body of work could occupy the grey zone between magic and rationalism. This from an outsider, no surprise!

I’m interested in several more details of Marías’ narrative. Michelangelo and Titian, he argues, provide the synthesis for El Greco’s style: from Michelangelo he draws line; from Titian, color. The latter is particularly striking to me.

As a painter of Byzantine icons, El Greco—then, of course, known by his real name, Doménikos Theotokópoulos—developed a Western style. Marías notes that, predominately,

Cretan painters continued to show little interest in the radical new ideas introduced by the Italian Renaissance. The religious and educational functions of art still outweighed its purely figurative purpose, and tradition—perhaps simply because it was tradition—was felt to be more devout, and more conducive to devotional meditation, than Italian art.

For El Greco, this “Italianate Byzantine style” was to be taken advantage of. Without any primary sources speaking to the matter, Marías is nonetheless able to infer that El Greco's interest in Italian art theory and his desire to be an artist rather than iconographer contributed to his going abroad. The aesthetic accomplishments of the Italians and northerners were becoming open to all; Christ Healing the Blind was painted during the shift into the era of art, and thus depicts the transition of magic into the era of science.

St Luke Painting the Virgin (c. 1565), El Greco

The iconographer never fully disappears from El Greco’s work, as the artist placed great importance on natural colors, perhaps as a counterweight to his fierce distortion of forms, to suggest realistic depiction. It also pays homage to the traditions of devotional paintings. In his 1570 painting, View of Mount Sinai, El Greco’s forms begin to take on their characteristic torsion, but the golden sky references the palette of icons made for wealthy clientele. Other paintings, such as his 1568 The Last Supper, contain the use of multiple perspective points common to icon painting of his era.

In his book, Blindness, Moshe Barasch wrote, pertaining to iconographic works, that Christ’s hand upon the blind man’s eye was typically the focal point of such scenes. “In representing the bodily contact between the healer and the healed… artists also created a powerful pictorial device that guides the spectator’s attention to the central point. It is both the eye of the blind and the point where the divine and the human meet.” In El Greco’s work, the healing gesture is indeed one focal point; my eye is led from the crowd on the right, down the buildings’ perspective slant, which align with Christ’s right arm and the blind man’s left arm. However, the event is decentralized, balanced evenly with the man in blue such that the healing act is not focus of the picture.

View of Mount Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine (c. 1570), El Greco

March 8th, 2015

Across 5th Avenue from the Met I found El Greco’s Christ Purifying the Temple hanging above a mantel. The light at the Frick is wonderful. Large pane windows fill the wall to the right of the painting, and it's an early Spring day. Soft light falls horizontally across the painting such that the texture is illuminated; the right sides of mounds of paint are awash. I have to duck about to see the entire painting, and can never see it in its entirety. It isn’t large, although my impression from having to navigate it is that it is vast.

The painting shares a room at the Frick collection with the artist’s masters: Titian, Tintoretto, and others. I’m hesitant to list dates anymore, but because of the style I can say with reasonable confidence that Christ Purifying the Temple is of a later date than the three healing Christs. The palette is cooler and the figures are elongated. I remember, looking at Christ Purifying the Temple, a quote of El Greco’s: “A beautiful, well-proportioned woman, seen from any point of view, however eccentric, not only does not lose her beauty but … gains in beauty and bearing.” Indeed, this applies also to the figure of Christ, as there’s an inhuman presence to his features, particularly the soft, rudimentary detailing of his face and the elongation of his torso such that he seems to be bending impossibly backward.

The Frick notes that El Greco’s paintings are difficult to date, which I’ve already discovered. It suggests that Christ Purifying the Temple was completed in 1600, and I’ve found similar compositions dating back at least three decades.

In one of these—dated around the same time as the Met’s Christ Healing the Blind—the bottom-right corner contains an oddity. Apart from the mayhem and seemingly oblivious to the scene behind them, are four men sitting as though for portraits. I wondered about these men and their relation to the scene for a better part of the afternoon before I found the answer once again from Marías. The spectators, from left to right, are Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio, and—possibly—the artist himself. El Greco’s likeness holds his hand to his chin in contemplation of his three masters. For Marías, it’s significant that Titian stands further forward than Michelangelo and Clovio, signifying his mastery over them, chosen by El Greco but ultimately subservient to the younger artist who weighs their merits.

Christ Chasing the Moneychangers from the Temple (c. 1568; detail), El Greco

April 19th, 2015

Having been away from Christ Healing the Blind for some time now has made me notice new things. For one, in this third painting, Christ has no halo. Instead, the figures are rendered by the dark outline which will become characteristic of El Greco’s style in Spain. Christ, however, is painted naturally. His features are soft, the lighting across his face even. The holiness of his presence is indicated not by a collecting of light, but rather by the absence of darkness. If, as many claim, El Greco’s forms are due to the artist’s astigmatism, then at this point he still seems to see Christ quite clearly.

“The aesthetic accomplishments of the Italians and northerners were becoming open to all; Christ Healing the Blind was painted during the shift into the era of art, and thus depicts the transition of magic into the era of science.”

I’ve learned that Christ Healing the Blind is something of a personal series for El Greco, in that the artist was attempting to work through specific Italian techniques and demonstrate his mastery over them. In this case, El Greco “sought to display his mastery of anatomy, movement, and color, of the complex interplay of natural and artificial light, of intricate space and of classical architecture.” It does not strike me as a coincidence that El Greco chose this scene of the bestowing of sight to demonstrate his own master of Renaissance perspective and form. I understand there is still debate around El Greco’s own religious life—particularly regarding whether he was Orthodox or Catholic—but Christ Healing the Blind does not appear to me a particularly religious picture. That, by St. Matthew’s telling, Christ’s sight-bestowing miracle had become so common that it was not worth telling in detail, also relegates Christ to the left-hand side of the painting, where he and his crowd are evenly balanced with the magician and his own attendants. In this way, El Greco turned Christ Healing the Blind into an agnostic parable. Christ bestowing vision upon the blind is mimicked by a magic spell that over several pictures turns animal into man. The blind man, when he opens his eyes, will first see Christ and a wizard, and is in this way introduced to this world of alterable form. The artist assumes his dominance over both Christ and the man in blue as the great form-giver by selecting Titian—who was prized for his expertise in naturalistic depiction through color—as most worthy of El Greco’s devotion.

El Greco’s judgement of Titian, Tintoretto, and Clovio shows a certain consciousness for the artist as a creator. Marías wrote that Christ Chasing the Moneychangers from the Temple “had another reading, at a time when people were already talking about the ‘Temple’ of painting. Only a chosen few… could take up places in this temple of art.”

April 26th, 2015

A final thought came to me from Barasch’s book. He argues that the Renaissance caused a shift in artistic attitudes toward blindness:

Renaissance reflections on the various arts often suggest (metaphorical) blindness as a stage in the process of creation. Since artistic creativity was imagined as the artist’s drawing from the depths of his own soul, metaphorical blindness could be taken as a sign of that inward-directed gaze.

The Renaissance, according to Barasch, gave birth to the “inspired artist who creates by introspection.” The artist’s metaphorical blindness, or “the condition of looking inward, is the sign both of the divinely inspired sage who contemplates the secrets of the gods and of the poet and the artist who are immersed in the process of creation.” However, previous perceptions of blindness, particularly those held by icon-painters and presumably El Greco, were never fully abandoned. Among these medieval beliefs was of the Antichrist as a blind, or partially blind figure. If Christ’s sight-bestowing gesture is an “image of the transition from bondage to salvation… from death to eternal life,” then the Antichrist’s blindness is symbolic of his violence, cruelty, deceptiveness, and hypocrisy; furthermore, in “using magic, he performs miracles by which he deludes and misleads believers.” While Christ heals the blind man’s body, the man in blue creates phantasms and alterations in forms. The man in blue is the artistry of Christ.