The Making of an Iconoclast

El Greco — St. Luke Painting Virgin & ChildSt. Martin & the Beggar, El Greco

(Left) El Greco, “St. Luke Paints the Virgin & Child,” tempera and gold on canvas attached to board, ca. 1560-70s? (photo courtesy Painting the Soul by Robin Cormack)  (Right) El Greco, “St. Martin & the Beggar,” oil on canvas, 1597/99 (courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)

A few months ago, while researching the history of Byzantine icons for one of my own art pieces, I stumbled across a picture of El Greco’s (1541-1614) early-career icon, St. Luke Painting the Madonna and Child.  At first, the work startled me—I had not seen it before and never would have made a connection to the El Greco I knew, if the attribution hadn’t been staring me in the face. The subject of El Greco’s icon is a venerable one—the painting of the Madonna icon by  St. Luke, who, as the legendary first to paint her, was himself the first iconographer. Cleverly, El Greco’s painting is an icon within an icon.  The Madonna within conforms to the rigorous standards in pose, style and technique established within the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Charming though it was, St. Luke pitched a nasty curve ball into my neat, although broad, compartment labeled “El Greco—unorthodox, passionate, strangely-modern, Italian-trained 16th-century painter.”  Who knew that his artistic roots lay outside the Western-driven Renaissance??? Well, as it turns out, not the art-world at large until recently when a newly-uncovered restoration photograph from 1938 proved the existence of the master’s signature on an icon. As it turns out, St. Luke himself was attributed to the painter only a few years ago.

My personal “uncovery” of this piece surfaced my own questions regarding El Greco’s artistic style.  First and foremost, the flat-plane, lacking perspective, highly-symbolic world of icons could not be farther removed from the humanistic Renaissance and back-to-naturalism Baroque periods in which El Greco lived and worked.  You can see on a superficial inspection that the icon bears little likeness to examples of the artist’s more mature work. How,  if at all, had his early work as an icon maker influenced El Greco’s later style.  In short, how did the painter get from St. Luke to St. Martin?

Certainly, El Greco’s peripatetic lifestyle (Crete to Venice, Rome, Madrid and finally Toledo) with its exposure to a variety of artistic styles, assisted his transformation from the Eastern to Western artistic tradition.  A little from Titian in Venice, a little from Correggio and Raphael in Rome. All artists borrow and reformulate elements into their own original work. There is no doubt that El Greco’s stay in Italy was fruitful in that it produced a major reworking of his stylistic expression.   

And yet, the more I pondered his mature style, the more bewitched I became by St. Luke. By the time El Greco painted his icons (1560s-70s), the bloom was off the Renaissance rose, Michelangelo and Raphael were long gone, and the artistic world was moving through its Mannerist phase toward the Baroque. Against all artistic odds, El Greco latched onto the Mannerist style. It’s possible that he found the artistic isolation in Toledo, far from the orbit of Rome, to his liking. After all, it’s easy to imagine that out in the provinces the artist would not necessarily have felt pressure to keep be au courant.   To the end El Greco embraced the recognizable hallmarks of the Mannerists—e.g. compositions organized in intricate patterns; elongated figures twisted into contorted poses; style for its own clever sake.    But then again there are those most unManneristic of elements, his counterpoints— the otherworldly color palette and pathos so heavy that it almost oozes out of his figures. For me, these are precisely the attributes which elevate El Greco above the Italian Mannerists. Their use of a more conventional palette only draws attention to those silly contorted figures. There is no feeling there!  Without it what’s left is pure artifice. Style for style’s sake. 

Now for the icons. Icons (from the Greek “eikon” meaning image) were an art form borrowed by the Christians from the Romans in the first centuries AD. At first they replicated the Roman art form—commemorative portraits of the dead, often affixed to the body or coffin as a mask. Gradually,  in the centuries after his death,  they came to display specific images of Christ and the saints, as a method for conveying stories to a flock who wouldn’t have had any knowledge of them.  Fourth-century Christians would have made no distinction between the holy personage himself and the image, believing that Christ, for example, was really present with them through the icon. They believed the icon had divine and miraculous power.  The icon was literally the window to Paradise through which devotions and worship could flow.  As early as the 7th century icon making was not an arbitrary artistic endeavor, but was subject to strict rules of format and technique outlined by the Church. In the 11th century the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires irrevocably split, and Constantinople went on to become the foremost center of the icon industry.  Demand being huge for these religious pieces, production was farmed out to other locales, Crete being a primary one.  To become good enough to have his own workshop, El Greco would have had to master the strenuous the intricacies of the icon tradition, including the very specific rigid poses of the iconic figures, which were highly-symbolic in nature. He would have understood the ritualized color schemes that applied to various clothing worn by the figures. He would have excelled in flat spatial representation, which served to emphasize the subject over distracting background action.  El Greco would have had no need to learn the conventions of perspective, that most Renaissance of inventions.

El Greco was a devout Catholic. Above all, he would have had a deep belief in the mystical power of the icon as a spiritual guide, the means by which he as an Orthodox Christian came to know God. As an icon artist, continually in their presence, he must have felt intense emotion, perhaps awe.  I can imagine that those icons worked their spiritual magic on El Greco day in and day out. I can imagine how he wished to take them with him on his transformational journey. 




One Response to “The Making of an Iconoclast”

  1. Thanks, Liz, for this very interesting essay. I love El Greco’s work, and was lucky to visit his studio in Crete, which has become a museum. I think you are right that his early work was full of the skills of the iconographer, and then he took on the Renaissance in Italy, and brought both, with his spiritual sensibility to Spain. When he was in Crete, he would have been doing work primarily for Eastern Orthodox households. It would be interesting to see if other icons by him have been found.

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